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How to evaluate creative work

(Excerpt from Stanley’s new book: The Client’s Bible)
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Giving feedback

Do not rewrite copy or redesign layouts. Do not prescribe solutions. Identify problems or errors and let the agency come back to you with solutions. Do not diagnose your own disease and prescribe a cure. Tell the doctor where it hurts and get a professional recommendation for an appropriate remedy. This approach will not only produce better advertising, it will produce a healthier and more successful relationship with your agency.

How to proceed

Start every discussion explaining what you LIKE about the work. Don’t start off looking for problems.

Now provide the creative team with an objective analysis based on the marketing objectives. Is it on target? Does it communicate the appropriate marketing messages? If so, do not be quick to reject the creative executions just because they are not what you expected. They may be better than you expected. Be open to new ways of communicating—what you have done before or what your competitors are doing may not be the best thing you can do.

If the creative work does NOT communicate the appropriate marketing messages, talk about the marketing situation, the competition, the purpose of the marketing vehicle, the specific strategic objectives of the piece, the competitive advantages of the product or service, the needs and perceptions of the audience, and other relevant issues. Then give the agency enough time to revise the work intelligently—usually one or two weeks.

When they present the revised work, start the discussion by reviewing the previous version and revisiting your comments and concerns. That will establish the target the new work is supposed to be shooting for. Again, describe what’s right with it and then carefully evaluate how well it achieves the marketing objectives. If it’s on target but still makes you a little uncomfortable, that may be a signal that it’s strong enough to be wildly effective in the marketplace.

If the work is still off-target or somehow inappropriate, repeat the discussion of the marketing situation, the competition, the purpose of the marketing vehicle, the specific strategic objectives of the piece, the competitive advantages of the product or service, the needs and perceptions of the audience, and other relevant issues. Give the Agency another week or so to revise the work. If it’s still off-target or unacceptable a second time, it may be a signal that it’s time to look for another Agency.

the true concept

(Excerpt from Stanley’s new book: The Client’s Bible)
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The strongest creative is the True Concept. The True Concept consists of a visual and headline that work together to create meaning in the viewer’s mind. A decorated headline is not a True Concept and is not as powerful.

What is a true concept?

  • Total integration of headline and visual
  • Presents a single, cohesive message
  • Neither headline nor visual tells the whole story—both are needed
  • The meaning is created in the mind of the reader/viewer by combining the headline and visual

Example of a true concept

The creative process

To the outside observer, it may seem at times that an advertising agency is a little like a bunch of folks playing with crayons, whether digital or actual. However, underneath all that free thinking and exploration, there is a very definite discipline. Here is a painfully detailed description of the process that almost every ad agency employs. To provide a thorough overview, the process described here is that of a large agency with large clients. Smaller agencies working with smaller budgets will typically employ an abbreviated version of this process.

The basic unit of production in an advertising agency is the creative team: an art director and a copywriter. Ideally, all creative work produced by the agency will result from effective collaboration between these two individuals and the account executive assigned to the client along with oversight and direction from the Creative Director(s).

In the best of all possible worlds, this is how it works:

Account team establishes with the client the need — and purpose — for a marketing communications tool (ad, brochure, video, tv spot, mobile app, blog post, etc).

Account team develops with client complete and definitive input for the creative job, including audience, media, primary message, relevant product/service attributes , call to action, compelling and differentiating benefit, and a clear statement explaining how this project fits into the client’s overall marketing strategy. This step may or may not involve the Creative Director(s) and/or the creative team. In any case, all pertinent questions must be asked and all necessary information must be acquired before the job is assigned to the creative team.

Account team meets with creative team and, if appropriate, Creative Director(s) to provide input for the job. Creative Input Forms must be provided, including all information indicated above and any other relevant information. The input meeting should provide the opportunity for the creative team and Creative Director(s) to ask questions and ensure that they fully understand the purpose of the job and all the input provided. It is the responsibility of the creative team to make sure they understand the job and the input. If significant, unanswerable questions are raised at this meeting, the account team will be responsible for following up with the client to provide the missing information. It will be up to the creative team and Creative Director(s) to decide whether work can begin on the project without this additional information. Once the creative team accepts the job and associated input, at this meeting or at a subsequent time, the responsibility shifts to the creative team to execute the job on time and on budget.

The creative team (art director and copywriter) work together to analyze the input and develop potential approaches to the communications challenge. As part of this process, they explore alternative creative concepts involving both verbal and graphic elements. Along the way, they present promising approaches to the Creative Director(s) for feedback and direction. They may also explore the most promising approaches with the account team on an informal basis to ensure that they present the message accurately and are consistent with the client’s overall marketing strategy. During this process, depending upon the agency’s relationship with the client, the creative team, Creative Director(s) or account team may contact the client for additional information and/or clarification.

When the creative team is satisfied that they have explored the communications challenge adequately (within the limitations of deadlines and budget), and have developed what they believe are appropriate and powerful creative concepts, they present the most promising of these to the Creative Director(s) for approval. (It should be noted that neither a headline nor a graphic approach is “the concept.” Only a fully integrated combination of verbal and visual content that triggers understanding in the mind of the viewer is truly an advertising concept.)

Concepts at this point are usually a headline and graphic worked out only far enough to communicate the intention of the creative team. Typically, most or all of these concepts will be refinements or derivations of work previously reviewed by the Creative Director(s) during the course of creative development. At this point, the Creative Director(s) will review the creative input and marketing objective with the creative team to ensure that all of the concepts communicate the appropriate message to the appropriate audience(s). The Creative Director(s) will then select from the short list of concepts that are on target the two or three that also meet the highest standards of creative excellence, as clearly defined in the agency’s Creative Philosophy.

If no concepts meet this standard, the Creative Director(s) will explore potential modifications and/or alternative approaches with the creative team and assign a deadline for a follow-up review. This process will be repeated as necessary until excellent, on-target concepts are developed. (The creative team will inform the appropriate Project Manager of progress and changes at every stage of the job so that scheduling and potential deadline conflicts can be avoided.)

Once concepts have been approved by the Creative Director(s), the creative team will clean them up as necessary so that they communicate the idea clearly and quickly and present them to the account team. The account team will review the concepts primarily for content and appropriateness for the market. The major question to be answered is: “Does this concept communicate the right message to the right audience(s)”? The account team will often have useful suggestions about the creative execution as well. The creative team should consider these suggestions with an open mind. However, questions of style and creative execution will ultimately be referred to the Creative Director(s) for resolution.

If the account team identifies legitimate problems with any or all of the concepts presented by the creative team, the account team should meet with the creative team and the Creative Director(s) to explain the problem. If appropriate, the creative team may be directed to develop alternative concepts that avoid the problem identified by the account team. This may require rescheduling of the entire job. If so, the account team will be responsible for advising the Project Manager and the client. Usually, however, the account team will have identified major problems along the way as the creative team informally discusses various approaches with them and only minor modifications will be necessary at this point.

Once final concepts are approved internally, they are prepared by the creative team for presentation to the client. If the work is a continuation of an existing campaign, it may be presented to the client by the one or more members of the account team. If the work represents a departure from previous work or is the beginning of a new campaign, one or more members of the creative team and/or one or more of the Creative Directors may present the work to the client along with one or more members of the account team.

Clients will often have comments or suggestions about the creative execution. These are to be aggregated and clarified by the account team and presented to the creative team as client feedback and not as a client directive. Client comments are not “changes,” they are requests for modification. It is the responsibility of the creative team to determine what specific changes or new concepts best accomplish the objectives identified in the client feedback. The Creative Director(s) will have the final responsibility for determining whether creative changes meet client needs.

After client approval of concepts, the creative team will continue to work together to develop the copy and layout. The art director will take primary responsibility for the layout, and the copywriter will take primary responsibility for the copy. However, they should work together as a team to ensure that the final layout, graphic elements, copy, subheads, captions, charts, etc. work together perfectly. Again, the account team may present copy and layout to the client or some combination of creative and account team members may present.

Clients will often have comments or suggestions about copy and/or layout. Once again, these are to be aggregated and clarified by the account team and presented to the creative team as client feedback and not as a client directive. Here also, client comments are not “changes,” they are requests for modification. Once again, it is the responsibility of the creative team to determine what specific changes best accomplish the objectives identified in the client feedback. The Creative Director(s) will have the final responsibility for determining whether creative changes meet client needs.

Print Production: Once the copy and layout have been approved by the client, it is the responsibility of the art director to work with Production to produce the piece. It is the responsibility of the copywriter to review the work at appropriate times (as determined by the Project Manager) and to clearly identify any problems with accuracy, legibility, copy fitting, or any other aspect of the work that seems less than the best the agency can produce.

Video, Broadcast, Digital Production: Once the copy and layout have been approved by the client, either the copywriter or art director will typically produce the final project. On larger projects, both may co-produce. It is the responsibility of the lead producer to work with internal and external resources to produce the project on time and on budget. It is expected that both members of the original creative team will be involved in providing input and helping to shape the look and feel of the final product. But it is usually the clear and consistent vision of a single producer that inspires the best work.

great creative defined

Carl Sandburg once read one of his poems for a university literature class. After he had finished, one of the students asked him to explain what the poem meant. Mr. Sandburg looked at the student for a moment, then looked down at his notes and without comment read the poem again.

Creative work is like that.  There is a certain something about great work that defies definition. A certain fire that fills it with meaning and power beyond the simplistic dissection of its discrete elements. Nonetheless, there are certain characteristics that tend to be associated with great creative work in advertising. Here are some of the most important.

  1. Single strong concept
  2. Relevant message related to a compelling benefit
  3. Short headline with a strong hook
  4. Simple, arresting graphic
  5. Complete integration of headline and graphic so that neither is dispensable
  6. Entire piece revolves around the single central idea

There is an old saying that, “He who chases two rabbits catches none.” The same is true of advertising. If you try to make more than one point in an ad, you will fail to make any point at all. The simple rule of thumb is: One ad, one point. If you can stick with this discipline, your CFO will thank you for it.

How advertising works

The reality of advertising was well described by one writer:

  • The first time a man looks at an ad, he doesn’t see it.
  • The second time, he doesn’t notice it.
  • The third time, he is conscious of its existence.
  • The fourth time, he faintly remembers having seen it.
  • The fifth time, he reads the ad.
  • The sixth time, he turns up his nose at it.
  • The seventh time, he reads it through and says, “Oh, brother!” 
  • The eighth time, he says, “Here’s that confounded thing again!”
  • The ninth time, he wonders whether it amounts to anything.
  • The tenth time, he will ask his neighbor if he has tried it.
  • The eleventh time, he wonders how the advertiser makes it pay.
  • The twelfth time, he thinks it must be a good thing.
  • The thirteenth time, he thinks it might be worth something.
  • The fourteenth time, he remembers that he wanted such a thing for a long time.
  • The fifteenth time, he is tantalized because he cannot afford to buy it.
  • The sixteenth time, he thinks he will buy it some day.
  • The seventeenth time, he makes a memorandum of it.
  • The eighteenth time, he swears at his poverty.
  • The nineteenth time, he counts his money carefully.
  • The twentieth time he sees the ad, he buys the article or instructs his wife to do so.

To demonstrate how little advertising realities have changed over the years, it is worth noting that this description was written in London by Thomas Smith in 1885.