The apple of my eyes” by Travis Isaacs, used under CC by 2.0 / may be cropped from original.

Agencies: Stop Trying to Creative Your Way Out of Things

The “Creative Agency” has a venerated heritage of using big ideas to persuade. It takes a lot more than that now, and the very nature of marketing strategy may need an overhaul.

“But will it work?”

That’s the question you never want to hear at the end of a creative presentation. It used to signal that perhaps not enough heartstrings were pulled in the creative, the jokes weren’t funny or, somehow, the creative just didn’t land with the client. Any of these would give a client pause, as it could mean it might not be effective.

But these days, it signals something more nefarious. It indicates that while the creative might be perfect in every way — hilarious, motivating, beautiful, and behavior-changing — it’s no guarantee that it will work.

As it turns out, expectations for agencies have changed significantly. Now, campaigns that work means it has the potential to get quantifiable results quickly. Changing hearts and minds or merely forging an emotional bond with an audience — both relatively common defenses for creative — aren’t enough anymore.

For a host of reasons, brand mangers and CMOs alike are in positions where they must measure success in the short term, and frequently in attributable sales. IRI data, conversion rates, lead generation, shelf velocity and the like all haunt them at night.

While long-term brand objectives like awareness, preference and even equity are still important and on marketers’ minds, the pressures of “making numbers” and other short-term thinking frequently lead to brand marketing efforts being reprioritized as quarterly reporting season looms nearer.

I can hear the objections of creatives and planners now: “but investment in equity sustains current sales, generates long-term demand and makes future sales cheaper!” Well, maybe not in those words, but I hear you. And, yes, strong brands are at the heart of healthy financial performance, generating loyalty and perceived value; the value of a strong brand can’t be underestimated. But in a world where short-term thinking drives the ever-shrinking tenure of CMOs and as their roles get assumed by CROs (Chief Revenue Officers), driving results quarterly and even monthly is job one.

This is alarming for agencies and has even created a competitive disadvantage. It has lead to the strategic quagmire most marketers find themselves in, and agencies have no real way to help them. Unfortunately the “strategy” in most agencies has evolved to be really just brand planning, and most strategists want to find themselves in the brand whisperer seat. There’s nothing wrong with planning and it is still critical. But it is one of many kinds of strategy needed in modern marketing, and it isn’t the silver bullet it was in the golden age of TV advertising.

The result? Fueled by the pursuit of “big ideas” driven by “insights,” most agencies just try to creative their way out of the business problem at the heart of their clients’ briefs.

And so we get, “but will it work?”

The bigger consequence for agencies is that media agencies, consultancies and adtech vendors have stepped in, trying to help clients untangle the marketing mess. Of course, the strategies these players have are focused on only defining how their product or offering will be deployed, while holistic solutions remain elusive. This is a key driver of why creative agencies are seeing an increase in project-based work as their retainers shrink. Brand stewardship has moved in-house, and some companies see creative agencies more like temp firms — they’ll reach out for the crazy idea from their favorite team of creatives when they need it.

What can be done?

It doesn’t have to be like this. In fact, creative agencies can, do and should have a valuable point of view on how a holistic campaign should be structured to get results. Although maximizing that POV may require a complete redefinition of the advertising strategy practice as we know it, there are things agencies can do today to help. Marketers, you can get better work from your agencies using these ideas too. Here are just a few examples.

  • Put KPIs (Key Performance Indicators) in the creative brief. Not in the project brief or SOW. In the creative brief. The solution to the problem has to be quantifiable and measurable, and agencies and clients have to agree on it. Then the team needs back the numbers out of the KPI. If it is sales we’re after, how much? If it is equity or awareness, how will we measure the performance in both the short and long terms? How will the CMO discuss this success with the CEO, CFO and the Board, in terms they care about and that link directly to the board’s most pressing priorities (EBITDA? Sales? Market Penetration?). Granted, every brief may not have this business gravity. But a brand manager, and, in turn, a CMO, should always have a simple, one-sentence phrase that can immediately communicate the value or return of a spend (fee OR working dollars) up the chain.
  • Define the marketing strategy up front. Part of the creative briefing should be the strategy briefing. Again, not the insight briefing, but the strategy — how are we going to move the needle for the client. This could come from the client. It might come from the media agency. But it needs to exist. The methods, tools, channels, technologies and platforms available for brands to execute against — especially in digital — are far too numerous, heterogeneous and hard to plan against to make assumptions. Some of the best campaigns out there are multi-lever campaigns that work together to drive tangible goals. If our KPI is sales, what triggers such sales? From whom? How will we create those triggers, and how many of them do we need? What marketing levers will we pull? Where?
  • Integrate the media planning and creative processes. It is shocking that this divide, created really by holding companies that wanted to create scale by combining their media divisions, drives the campaign process and much of the outcome. It’s almost impossible to improve the situation for the client without tight integration and parallel development.
  • Operationalize it. Sadly “delivery” and “trafficking” no longer define the end of a creative agency’s responsibilities, particularly when earned media, experiential, social media and/or ecommerce are involved. These types of efforts require ongoing operational models with response plans, optimization plans and rollout schemes that not only maximize results but optimize resources. I used to call this an “engine” — a process and people solution that would drive measurable campaign results. Agencies need to get great at this, as clients don’t have the resources or expertise to do this.
  • Don’t dumb it down for the creative team — or the client. Creatives understand math and numbers. In fact, the great ones in the digital economy geek out over the mechanics of their brand’s businesses and want to discuss this with clients. I’ve never met a creative worth their salt that hasn’t understood business imperatives when well defined, so let’s stop babying the idea people. This knowledge will fuel their ideation, not limit it as the conventional wisdom purports.

Some of this might sound like direct marketing. It’s not — but it might borrow from it. Great creative is an effectiveness multiplier. If a proper strategy maps out the campaign success, great creative on top of it will scale it and deliver efficiency, and maybe even build the brand. That efficiency can fund that next great idea the client couldn’t afford last time. Or at least it will help the client look even better internally.

There is a great opportunity for agencies to help clients in a climate marked by confusion, a lack of transparency, fraud, distrust and cost-cutting. But if agencies don’t help them, someone else will. When you read about some of the great agency names consolidating, downsizing or even ceasing to exist, this could be why — they tried to creative their way out of their problems. And it didn’t work.

Managing Partner at Rebellion Design Co. In New York. Marketing leader, husband, dad, and person.

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