I haven’t seen truly great work get killed in one meeting, by one single thing said/done by client.
In my experience great ideas start getting killed on the outer edges – not in a frontal attack. That’s why it’s so hard to guard against this insipid threat. The all-too-common result is not the instant death of a great idea, but the slow, almost imperceptible degradation of “great” into “good”, or “ok”, or even “meh”. And then, months later, you and your client find yourselves asking “what the hell happened?”
Below are 6 quotes that clients (and account managers who channel clients!) should stay away from, if they’re serious about aspiring to greatness in creativity. Wherever these words are spoken, great ideas are in danger.
1. “This is how we’ve always done it before” – Being afraid to be different is a killer, because almost all great creative work is different in at least some way. For every appeal to “not re-invent the wheel” and “leverage best practices” I can show you 10 car ads that look and feel exactly the same. What this gets you is work that your marketing VP will approve and feel comfortable with…and work that a consumer will completely ignore. Getting noticed is step zero. Repeating a formula (even a good formula) without adding any new wrinkle or innovative touch will eventually turn your great idea into something that nobody notices.
2. “Our consumers are not that savvy, they won’t get it…this is not them” – Underestimating your consumer is so 1960’s. (Yet even back then David Ogilvy was saying “The consumer is not a moron, she is your wife.”) Knowing consumers well is crucial, but underestimating them is all-too-common and can be deadly. It’s not just about reflecting reality, about giving them exactly what they ask for. It’s about having them ask for what you give them. Greatness comes from leading, from pointing the way forward that nobody even knew was there. Who in a 1999 focus group ever said they needed an iPod? Nobody did. A personal lack of bravery as a marketer is deadly to greatness (albeit completely understandable: everyone has a mortgage, a family to feed, etc.) But let’s not be so ready to blame consumers for it.
3. “I need to bring some key stakeholders into this” – Greatness rarely (if ever) happens by committee. Each layer of review and adjustment is a layer of likely degradation, and extremely unlikely improvement. Get the stakeholders aligned before, have clarity on the “hard data” (marketing objective, claims, etc.), let the creative process happen, and then set up a review process that is driven by one person with clear authority and vision. Anything else is politics – politics in your company may be a reality, but don’t fool yourself into thinking that it can lead to great work.
4. “Now, I’m not a creative, but let me throw some ideas on the table” – Next time, stop after the 5th word. Just stop. That phrase is exactly like saying “no offense, but…” and then saying something offensive. Dear client: Your role is to focus on the outcome, the agency’s role is to deliver the very best way to get to that outcome. If you’re not feeling good about the work, say so – but always talk about what you need to achieve, not how you need for it to be achieved. The first part is your domain, after all you do marketing for a living. The second is the domain of creative professionals, who after all do creativity for a living. Of course, this all assumes you trust your creative team. If you don’t trust your creative team, the problem is either with you or with them, but it’s a problem that needs to be worked out before you can aspire to great work. And, to be fair, there are clients that, through instinct or training, have acquired a finely tuned eye for creativity and the creative process. You’ll know you’re this type when the senior-most creative in the agency speaks to you as a peer, and you’ll see the respect in their eyes. Until then, you aren’t.
5. “Sally why don’t you start, and then we’ll go around the table” – The practice of having the junior-most person start with their critique of the work and then onwards up the hierarchical ladder accomplishes the wrong thing. It might help as a training tool for young marketers to learn to speak up and have an opinion (I stress “might”… most likely it just trains them in the art of anticipating the boss’ thinking instead of their own, and in the notion of humility as their comments are invariably ignored once the attention finally moves to the big boss’ comments). What it will do almost for sure is kill or maim great work through an overabundance of “builds”, lack of clarity on what needs to be addressed, and lack of focus on the criteria for evaluating the work. It becomes an ego-pleasing theater that has little to do with protecting and strengthening the idea, and more to do with escaping the meeting with the idea as intact as possible. If one wants to do creative evaluation training, the agency will be delighted to help, and they’ll do it for free. But don’t use real (potentially great) work as a training material.
6. “This is not about creativity, this is about driving the business” – Oh boy. Meeting over. Except it shouldn’t be. The link between superior creativity and strong business results has been proven quantitatively. We’ve always felt this in our gut, but there’s a whole book by James Hurman called “The Case for Creativity” which I urge you and your client to read together because it systematically proves the case that the two are completely intertwined (click here for the slideshare). My favorite quote in the book comes from BBH and says “Our objective is effectiveness. Our strategy is creativity.” Yes sir! Until your client understands this and believes in it, you will only arrive at truly great ideas by accident. Because client and you will both, in your hearts, be going after different things, and the ensuing struggle will tear the greatness to shreds. Only by understanding that we are after the same thing can we let go a bit, and give great ideas a chance.
Have any quotes to contribute? Let me know in the comments section!
Coming soon: Six quotes spoken inside of agencies which are a death sentence for great creativity.
Photo credit atop the page: A 2013 ad for the Eagle Print Awards, by King James, Capetown, South Africa.