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We Have a Hell of a Tail Wind. Now, if We Only Knew Where We Are Going

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Summary: Management is generally too busy to read creative strategies with the same degree of effort or time as the brand man. Management reacts to the commercial execution, and not to the strategy that underlies the commercial.

At lunch I learned of a new course being given to brand managers on how to evaluate creativity. My hat's off to the people who decided that it would be a worthwhile training endeavor to teach brand managers how to evaluate good and bad commercials.

Being the maverick that I am, however, I think the course starts at the wrong end of the horse. If someone were to ask me, I’d suggest teaching advertisers how to provide direction to creative people so that the output came out the way the "client” wanted it in the first place.

Is Corporate Management Sold on the Creative Strategy?

When you stop to think about it, imprecise creative direction is probably the primary cause of lousy ads as well as being the source of a great deal of frustration in brand management. How often do brand managers participate with Agency writers in developing the creative strategy for their brand? Rarely, since more often than not the “creative strategy” is submitted by the agency along with new copy. (The strategy is, in fact, written to accommodate the copy idea.) Or, chances are the account exec writes the creative strategy annually and submits it to the brand man. He reads it alone; comments on it; sends it back to the A.E. and then, after his revisions, it is published as part of the marketing plan.

Honestly, does corporate management read the proposed creative strategy with the same degree of thoroughness the brand man did? If you answered yes, you're in the minority. Management is generally too busy to read creative strategies with the same degree of effort or time as the brand man. So, what happens? You guessed it. Management reacts to the commercial execution, and not to the strategy that underlies the commercial. If management is turned on by the execution, the commercial succeeds. If not, it's back to the storyboards.

Get Management In on the Act Before Copy Chief Starts to Write

A few paragraphs back, I asked how many brand managers developed the creative strategies with (that is, in the presence of) the copywriter. Here's a more difficult question: How many brand managers develop creative strategies in the presence of their own top management? My guess is that fewer than 10% can answer “yes” to that one! How does one get the vp of marketing to sit down with the brand manager, with the account exec, with the top creative people at the agency, and work out a creative strategy that everyone can collectively live with? Not easy! In fact it's well nigh impossible.

But the fact is, at one company I know this is precisely what happened. At the time this was done, advertising on most products was not effective, according to the brand men. And ASI scores were below industry norms. The product managers were frustrated because they didn't know how to communicate the creative strategies they were thinking about to the writers. And company management was reacting to executions, not core ideas.

And then, as if by a miracle, management decided it ought to get into the act. Top management, brand management, top agency supervision, the account exec and the creative directors met together. It took one full day to write the strategy for the first brand; a half day on most other brands. At first there was a feeling of estrangement. Each side (the agency and the client) saw the other as taking something, some prerogative, away from the other. There was, in the beginning, a feeling of battle lines being drawn. But it didn't last long.

Work Out Basic Strategy

At the Agency's suggestion, the Agency and Marketing people wrote a product strategy first. What was being sold? How did it fit into the category? What was it’s uniqueness? What was the spectrum of the marketplace that it sought to capture?

Basic questions. But difficult to set down in a single paragraph for all time. And it was agreed that the product strategy would not change unless there was a basic change in competitive climate, manufacturing process or product technology. Following the product strategy, the agency and marketing group jointly wrote the creative objectives and strategy. It was agreed not to change the creative strategy unless the product was changed. All agreed that competitive conditions might dictate changes in the way the strategy was executed but also agreed that the selling points should not change.

I'd like to report to you that this work session solved all this company's problems. It did focus management’s thinking along with the brand manager and account exec and writer on what all agreed as basic thoughts to communicate. Nonetheless, it was no panacea. There were different tactical approaches to execute the agreed upon strategy.

Session Also Opened Channels

Subsequent to the meeting, there were changes in writers and, of necessity, reeducation as to the meaning of the creative strategy, as it was written. But as time passed, the differences of interpretation were far less significant than they had been prior to the joint creative strategy session. And, most important, management no longer reacted emotionally to executions that were "great" but totally off strategy. Management had developed the strategy with the brand group and agency, and was committed to it.

In closing, one further benefit should be mentioned: The brand group, agency account group and creative group got to know one another better. Following that meeting, the brand manager could tell the account exec that he had an executional idea that he thought the writer might want to consider.

And, in passing it along, the account exec wasn’t prepared to write the usual "We considered it and rejected it” note. After all, the agency writers participated in the setting of product strategy without the brand managers worrying about their jobs. Why shouldn't the brand manager forward an executional idea? It might not be the exact one that the writers wanted, but it might help to crystallize the tactical thinking of one member of a very cohesive brand/account/- creative group.

And so, while I believe a course on creative evaluation is nice, if you're looking for a place to start, why not suggest to your top management that they work with brand management, account management and the creative group in developing the creative strategy from which creative executions will emanate.
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