“Creatives” – The Rules of Engagement

If you’re an advertising client or even an account manager – and you would like to get the best possible creative work from your agency – here are a few handy suggestions.

Put your drawings away. I understand how much fun it is to have creative ideas and see them brought to life. However, it is apparently a great deal of fun, as well, to have bad creative ideas.

Ask yourself a question: “What is my job?” If your job is to write and design terrific creative executions, i.e., you put food on your plate with the strength of your creative concepts, then run to me with your drawings. If not, don’t.

Please.

I know. I know. This sounds terrifically undemocratic and all. But it has been my direct experience for over 15 years that 90 percent of the time the best creative ideas come from those designated as “creatives.” Not from those who dream to be. Yes, an idea can come from anywhere and anyone. But I prefer to play the percentages.

Pitch me. As a client, you should demand some unmediated time with those creatives who will be working on your account. Think of this as a kind of pitch. Connect your name and face with the projects at hand, or you will soon become a caricature or stick-figured abstraction within the agency. But go even further. Use this pitch as a way of re-connecting yourself to the passions you bring to your own work. Creatives understand and appreciate passions.

I mean it – put your drawings away. Have you hired an agency to serve as a mere extension of your ego? If so, expect nothing but mediocrity. Have you gone into the project with preconceived notions as to the result? Do you secretly envy those who are called “creative” and just know that you can do better? I suggest a slender volume by Dutch theologian Adrian Van Kaam: Envy and Originality. It’s good reading.

I am not an engineer. It’s doubtful that any copywriter or designer will ever know as much about your products or services as you do. This, to some clients, is highly off-putting. But, remember, except in rare cases, even your own prospects don’t know very much about your products or services, either. (In truth, they are actively fleeing your messages.) Nor do they particularly care. Suggestion: When the topic is very dense, provide your agency with a working draft of the copy. Then encourage them to spice it up (gentle humor, turns of phrase) and break it down (simplification, use of analogies). It is in the spiced-up and broken-down that your prospects will find a reason to care. And a way to connect.

Praise is power. If you like what you see, don’t be quiet about it. If a banner ad results in sales or an interstitial pulls like a big dog, let the “creative factory” know. A handful of top creatives are motivated by money. The rest are motivated by praise and the sense of a job well done.

Help us pick our battles. Every once in a while, a client is self-aware enough to be able to help their creative team prioritize. Be forthright. If you think the project calls for an 80 percent solution, set expectations accordingly. This will spare the creatives and you a great deal of frustration. Oh, and by the way, sometimes an 80 percent solution is just fine.

Honor the courage of a new idea. If an agency is pitching you an absolutely outrageous -even controversial idea – think before you react. The best creatives can tie their choices – no matter how alien they may initially appear – to solid marketing ideas. There is, more times than not, a method to the madness. Take it as a sincere compliment when an agency brings “aggressive concepts” to the table. This is a sign that you have created a place of mutual trust and comfort. In this atmosphere, the best ideas will emerge every time.

If you don’t have a gut feeling, trust someone else’s. Among the best creatives, there is a kind of uncanny knowledge. It is the knowledge of what I call “fit.” Some big ideas just fit. They resonate with a key marketing message and seem to have always been there between the lines of the assignment. When such an idea enters into a brainstorming session, a curious thing happens: Everybody at the table gets it. There may be other ideas. But this is the one that fits.

Many years ago, I was working for a Houston seafood restaurant client when the words, “Eat A Fish, Save A Cow” came to me. The client could have resisted on several grounds. I mean, technically speaking, you’d be saving a steer, not a cow. (I have had ideas killed by such literalness.)

But the restaurant owner didn’t resist. In fact, he embraced the idea enthusiastically. He sent out memos requesting that his wait staff wear “Eat A Fish, Save A Cow” buttons and T-shirts. He fully invested in the idea by purchasing adequate radio time for the campaign. And it was a smash success. Now ask yourself, would you have bought that idea? Would it have seemed too strange? Would you have sat on the fence, fearing the reaction of a superior? Have you been pitched “Eat A Fish, Save A Cow” equivalents and wondered, “Why did they come up with that?” Stuff worth pondering.

Some good pitchers are made great by their catchers. My mother came from a musical family. But, she, to her chagrin, couldn’t carry a tune. A junior high school teacher consoled her, “Yvonne, your family needs you. They need someone who loves to hear their singing.”

I offer this little anecdote to remind you that creativity is a relationship and a social act. You may not come up with the idea. But you can hear it and appreciate it better than anyone else. You can even detect nuances. Or suggest enhancements that make a dramatic difference in the success of the project.

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