How To be More Creative AND Profitable As An Agency!

I’m always fascinated by the fact that the world of marketing and advertising has changed so much over the last 20 to 30 years and yet, the fundamental processes used by agencies to come up with strategies and creative ideas are still fundamentally the same than they were 40 or 50 years ago. In the meantime, the pressure on agency fees has significantly increased. The typical solution for an agency then is to use younger and less experienced, spelled C-H-E-A-P-E-R, talent to go through the process at the expenses usually of the quality of the creative output.

So here are 6 process changes any agency can make to increase both margins and the quality of its creative output. I’ve implemented these little changes in the various agencies I’ve worked with and I’ve used them to win new business pitches and help “save” clients about to walk away from the agency. They work. Here they are:

  1. Work out the strategy with your client in a workshop, not on your own

Let’s face it, as an agency you will never understand your clients business as well and thoroughly as he or she does. And you will not out-strategize them. And frankly, that’s not why they come to you. Clients regularly tell me that their agency just spent 4 weeks on a strategic analysis that basically regurgitated what the client already knew or, worse, already told the agency. Clients usually want fresh perspectives and insights from their agency (“Tell me something new about my brand”). Trying to re-invent the strategic wheel wastes time and costs a lot of money without adding any real value to the process.

Instead the agency should focus its energy on 1. Helping the client narrow down and focus the assignment priorities (something that is often difficult to do for them) and 2. Try to identify a unique perspective and way to creatively solve the business problem based on its understanding of the consumers and the way they engage with brands and communication.

Doing so doesn’t require 4 weeks of analysis done by the agency’s planner. Rather, the best format in my experience to get there is to do a half day or even better a full day strategy workshop with the client. The outcome, when organized properly, will give the agency all the input and direction it needs to start working. Approaching a strategic assignment like this takes a week max rather than the typical 2 to 4 weeks planners usually require. The agency saves a lot of money and by working more closely with the client get a better sense of the task at hand and the problem to be solved. And it still provides plenty of time for creative insight research upfront.

There was a time when clients used to outsource their marketing function to their agencies. Wrigley for example started out like that, with BBDO Chicago (now EnergyBBDO) basically being the company’s outsourced marketing department. But that was literally last century. And yet many agencies -and agency planners- still act as if they were THE marketing department of their clients. They are not.

2. Focus on the problem not the solution

This point is so obvious that it is painful to write. And yet in practice this is only done in the rarest of the cases. Agencies tend to be solution focused, as they probably should, but jumping to the solution before having analyzed, understood and agreed on the problem is just irresponsible.

Typical example are all the agencies out there touting that the solution to every business problem is a purpose driven creative idea before even having defined the client’s unique business problem. It’s like a doctor systematically recommending an Aspirin to his patients without bothering doing a diagnostic first.

Focusing on defining the problem in the context of a strategy workshop with the client will also lead to the strategic focus required to come up with great creative solutions. And it will help determine where and how the brand needs to tackle its problem.

This workshop can then be summarized by the agency in a brief to the creatives. The strategist in this case is not the keeper and “owner” of the creative brief, rather he is the “cat-herder” or coach. Many strategists are unfortunately not able to do this, usually because of their lack of experience and sometimes because of their egos.

3. Brief as many creative teams as you can

This idea seems counterintuitive at first, especially in terms of saving resources and manpower, but the key to creativity, as any creativity expert will tell you, is quantity over quality. At least in this first stage. And in order to get as many different ideas as possibles you need different teams with different perspectives, experiences and skill sets. It’s really that simple. The teams by the way should not only include the creative teams but also the social media teams, the media and tech folks, etc., etc. Agencies are quick at touting that “ideas can come from anywhere” but the reality is that in most, if not all, agencies creativity and idea generation is still perceived as a monopoly of the creative department (ego, ego, ego).

The word has it that the German advertising agency Kastner & Partners presented over 120 concepts to Dietrich Mateschitz, the founder of Red Bull, before settling on the “Red Bull Gives You Wings” campaign idea. Yes, over 120 concepts paved the way to this global success and I would say it was worth the while and the wait.

4. Give the creative teams one or 2 days to come up with initial ideas not 4 or 6 weeks

The previous point only makes sense as an agency if you significantly reduce the amount of time spent on ideas generation. One or two days are plenty for 4 or 5 teams to come up with a wide variety of potential ideas. In my experience, 4 or 5 “teams” will be able to come up with anywhere between 50 and 80 ideas during that time frame.

Obviously, these ideas will not be fully fleshed out, but they don’t need to be at this stage. These 50 to 80 “ideas” (many will be tactics) can then be organized by themes or types of solutions and will provide the landscape of potential options available to solve this specific business challenge. This in turn is a way better starting point that the typical 2 or 3 ideas agencies like to come up with and share with their clients.

5. Let young folks come up with the idea but let senior folks select them

The selection and “bucketing” should be done by a senior creative in my experience, typically the ECD or CCO, together with the lead strategist and lead client service person. Yes, the teams should be involved and have a chance to defend their ideas but the senior team should ultimately make the decision. Coming up with an amazing creative solution to a business problem is not a democratic process.

In fact, young creatives usually 1. Do not have the maturity and experience to recognize the best ideas, 2. Are too ego-driven to recognize, select and move forward with an idea that is not theirs, 3. DO not dare speak up to defend an idea, and 4. Focus more on their own creative portfolio and therefore the executional solution rather than on the idea best suited to solve the client’s problem.

I’ve seen young creative teams in charge of a client brief, kill every single idea (more than 30) that they didn’t come up with, which obviously defeats the purpose of changing the process. I’ve also seen young creative teams try to solve every single business problem, including increasing point-of-sale conversion, with an online video (because that’s what they wanted in their books).

6. Show the client first ideas, 3 days after the creatives have been briefed and let them help shape the creative direction

Showing your client the landscape of potential solutions (the 7 or 8 buckets) 3 days after the briefing is a great way to involve them in the discussion and get a sense for their creative appetite and affinity.  It’s also a great way to walk your client through your thinking process, strengthen the relationship with them, but also create an early sense of ownership of the ideas with the clients. I often hear that involving the client in the creative process waters down the creative idea but my experience is the opposite. Involving the client early into the process leads to better stronger and often bolder ideas.

Obviously, those ideas shared with the client will not be fleshed out and fully executed. Rather they would be shared in the context of a “tissue-session”. This obviously also requires that the decision makers on client side are present. But in my experience clients, especially senior clients, love to be involved in this process and welcome being invited in the “sausage making” part of the process.

Once a couple of territories and ideas have been discussed and selected together,  have the teams who came up with them bring them to life and execute them. I remember reading about a piece of research from the Kellogg University that showed that teams are better at coming up with creative solutions to a problem, while individuals are then better to fine-tune and bring to life those ideas.  This is what this process change helps doing.

These little process changes are not rocket science. And yet, they can have such a powerful impact on the quality of the creative output as well as significantly reduce the costs of running an agency. But I’ve also learned that if these process changes do not have an internal sponsor and champion, the agency and the people working on the client teams will fall back onto their old, comfortable and inefficient behaviors and patterns.  Culture and egos are in fact hard to change if not persistently implemented by the senior leadership of the agency.

FTT helps agencies be more creative, win new business and strengthen client-agency relationships. 

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