Open the doors to the creative process

3 Jul

Having kicked around the ad industry for nearly 1/40th of a millennium, I’ve seen my share of good and bad agency practices. While we’re always looking for ways to be more creative and forward thinking, I think we tend to lose sight of the forest for the trees.

Something that really gunks up an agency, slows it down and makes it inflexible, is the traditional protective attitude creatives have towards their creative process.

They take the brief and disappear, reappearing several days or weeks later with a big ta-da moment within the agency: the Internal Presentation. What follows are peer reviews, sobering account directorial guidance, art direction by committee or, more often than not, outright acquiescence to the ideas out of respect or fear or apathy. Let’s call this Step 1.

Step 2 is revisions or re-concepting or self-congratulatory drinking. I know because I’ve been there (copywriter here).

Step 3 is the Client Presentation. This is the other big ta-da moment and will play out like Step 1. The stakes are higher of course. Agencies and clients often engage in power-struggles at this stage and even if the agency wins, the client usually has a chain of command they have to sell the work up. How vested do you think they are in ideas they really didn’t agree with anyway?

What we’re doing at Copeland is breaking down as many barriers to creative success as we can.

First, we have eliminated the Internal Presentation. We’ve managed this by bringing the suits into the creative brainstorming. Shane or Theresa will sit with us and work through the ideas. This has simply always worked well. It has the added benefit of making the agency function better as a team by respecting the ideas of everyone. Smart people are smart people. And we only hire smart people.

Second, we are working towards eliminating the Client Presentation. How? By asking the client – when it’s feasible – to also join us during the creative process. Ridiculous right? It will kill creativity, blunt objectivity and take all the fun out of it.

But here’s the thing: it hasn’t. Whether it’s Jodie at Island Hearing, or Jackee and Rachel at BC Ferries or Gary at Ellice Recycle, we find that letting the client in when we’re storming the brains leads to some great insights (they know their business better than we do), efficient use of everyone’s time and valuable bonding between the agency and the client. We emerge with ideas we can all own, which builds advocacy. It sure helps the ads get sold up the chain.

A beautiful side-effect of this process is how fast we can get to market, without feeling rushed.

So far, the ideas have been solid; our clients seem to enjoy it too.

You creative people will think we’re nuts. But doesn’t everyone think they’re a copywriter or an art director anyway?


16 Responses to “Open the doors to the creative process”

  1. Anonymous July 3, 2010 at 10:11 am #


  2. dougbrowncreative July 3, 2010 at 10:12 am #

    I’ll take a “Sacrament!” over a “Sacre Bleu!” anyday.

  3. JP Holecka July 3, 2010 at 11:03 am #

    That is funny that you should talk about the Ta-da moment. I have eliminated the same old and out dated model at our agency. In fact I specifically tell clients that there is no ta-da’s in our agency process. The world has changed and so have the budgets for the most part. The problem with squirreling the creative’s away for weeks on end working on the big idea is they burn through your budget in no time. Then when the revisions come they burn through even more. Now it’s do or die by the time you have to present to the client. Now you have to sell it though because the budget is so heavily invested in the concept[s]. If the client hates the idea your account team have to fight and convince the client that it’s the right way to go. Even, heaven forbid they are right and the agency is off the mark.

    We are an interactive agency and are used to building things in an interactive manner. The whole beta thing for web 2.0 has prepared people for works in progress, or working sketches for that matter. We prepare our clients for the fact that they are going to see things that are rough and not 100%. This gives us the room to respond quickly and cost effectively if it’s not on the mark. The arrogant “agency knows best mad men” model that has reigned supreme for so long is no longer the way. Early buy in from the clients creates a much more collaborative process where both teams are just as eager to see the campaign succeed. I find that you get much more support from the client when it comes to selling the idea up internally on the client.

    Gone are the combative days of “us vs. them” with this new model and since the introduction of the new creative process we have had nothing but positive feedback from the clients. Oh and our creative? Yeah that’s much better too.

  4. dougbrowncreative July 3, 2010 at 11:32 am #

    Well JP my friend, you and I are singing off the same song sheet. We tend to do some initial thinking and generate a bunch of ideas and then sit down with our clients and work through the best ones. It’s a more efficient use of their time. Bringing our clients in to the process is putting our money you-know-where. True, it won’t be the raucus free-for-all it once was, but it brings you closer to the nature of real partnership then any of those great ta-da moments ever could. Good on ya for embracing it. I love what you said about early collaboration increasing your chance of success.

    The explosion of consumer-generated content – which you know all about – means impactful ideas are coming from all sorts of unexpected places. So the door’s now open anyway. Let’s invite the people in who might otherwise decide to head off to more welcoming parties. They’re paying for the fun anyway.

  5. margriet aasman July 5, 2010 at 9:39 am #

    This concept is not new to us. We actually tried to incorporate it as a core value – everyone who had a interest in the outcome had to be at the table. We thought this would work particularly well with clients who had ‘communications departments’ and thought they could come to us with their solutions already in hand. A few attempts at including clients at the brainstorm session for creative concepts were actually fun. Clients loved it. Why did we stop? I am not sure. So glad to read this entry Doug, and the other comments. Besides being an engaging read, and feeling a little embarrassed that we may fit the bad agency model of your description (ta da and all) it makes me think we need to give it another go.

  6. dougbrowncreative July 5, 2010 at 10:13 am #

    I don’t think of it as an all-or-nothing proposition Margriet. Do it occasionally with selected clients and ramp it up if both sides seem to be enjoying and profiting by it. At least you know that it can work, so trying it again should be straight-forward. Good luck and let us know how you make out. Thanks for the comment!

  7. manu July 6, 2010 at 11:29 am #

    Hi Doug,

    Why not do the opposite as well and involve Creative in formulating the brief? Let’s break down ALL walls, then.

  8. dougbrowncreative July 6, 2010 at 12:22 pm #

    Good thought Manu. We started doing that a year ago! Speeds things up a lot.

  9. Maurice Rinaldi July 7, 2010 at 9:28 am #

    This is a great step by step explanation however the truth of the matter is that clients want something to fall on and evaluate the work you do. Whether it be in hours or creative. Involving the suits in the creative process does help however involving the client is another issue for us. We have tried this several times and it they seem to find an excuse to never be present for the moment.
    All in all, i admire you for trying to come up with innovative ways to engage the client. Sometimes its liking pulling teeth. We are transparent with our clients and involve them as much as possible throug emails and ftp sites to download the ads and have them comment.

  10. Mario Parise July 7, 2010 at 10:26 am #

    I’m a little late to this discussion, but I’d like to throw in one thought.

    In principle, I love what you discuss in your post. The collaborative creative process is to be admired.

    However, not everyone works well in groups. I speak from personal experience.

    I have ADD. Hardcore ADD. (Yeah yeah, everyone has ADD these days. It’s not the same thing. I’ll introduce you to my wife so she can tell you how annoying it is.)

    So my mind wanders. If I’m in a room with more than 1 person, I struggle to keep track of what’s going on.

    Which means in group creative sessions, I suddenly have no ideas. My mind goes blank. I spend so much mental energy trying to keep track of what’s going on in the room that there’s no room for my own thoughts.

    My point? The risk behind collaborative approaches is that other people – people who for various reasons do good work when left alone for a bit – will fail to bring their best. And the you risk assuming they simply have no ideas.

    It’s akin to how schools teach all kids the same way, even though we know we all learn different ways. Some of us work well in engaged group discussions. Others work better with hands on work. Still others work best when left alone with a text book and a notepad.

    To get the best out of your team, then, I think it’s important to try and find how everyone works best and respect that. For example, if you’re going to do a group brainstorm, maybe give everyone a few days to work on their own so that people like me have time to put some ideas together before walking into the lion’s den.

    (Note: I’m not a creative director, and I don’t assume to know better than anyone on how to get the best creative out of people. All I know is that brainstorms don’t work for me as an individual. Anywho, those are my 2 cents. Hope it’s of value in some way!)

  11. dougbrowncreative July 7, 2010 at 10:36 am #

    > Mario, your point of view is always welcome and it’s never too late.

    I take your point about respecting everyone’s working methods in the process. We tend to put our heads together here before inviting the client in, so we have some good thinking done. What I’ve noticed since we introduced the direct-to-creative stream is that the art directors are pretty confident holding their own these days. They do a lot of great independent thinking, and then they’re amazingly respectful of others in the creative process.

    This approach will not work for everyone. But when it does work, it makes for a pretty solid relationship.

    > Maurice, maybe it’s in the nature of smaller markets, but we have so far found our clients open to the idea. They’re busy, we get that. And they may prefer us to just get on with it, which we will. But many of our clients are literally around the corner, so popping over for discussions isn’t a big deal. I would like to do more of it, actually: we are blessed with great clients. Thanks for the comment.

  12. manu July 7, 2010 at 10:48 am #

    True Doug, there’s no guarantees this will work because there’s a myriad of individuals involved and we’re all so, well, individual. But you’ve triggered a healthy debate. What you don’t know is that it’s set off this flurry of emails within my department. We’re going to give this thing a shot and let you know how it goes.

  13. dougbrowncreative July 7, 2010 at 11:06 am #

    WOW. Manu that is just great to read. Let us know how it works for you.

  14. Linda Denis July 20, 2010 at 1:46 pm #

    Collaboration – what a novel thought. Like your thinking

  15. manu July 20, 2010 at 1:50 pm #

    Yes, this is definitely an experiment worth a try. When do we begin?

  16. dougbrowncreative July 20, 2010 at 2:35 pm #

    Linda, its a far cry from the Telus days when your agencies all did the big TA-DA, but it seems to be a step in the right direction. Keeping people in the dark is a 50-50! Thanks for the comment.

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