The Relationship between Strategy and Creative
Whether you know it or not, good creative will always follow a strategic insight. Sometimes people will develop good creative that is effective, but they don’t know why. It was simply funny or emotional in a way that resonated with the audience. But the reason it was effective was because of a strategic insight that spoke to the target audience.
Our philosophy is that accidental effectiveness isn’t our stock-in-trade. Ours is purposeful effectiveness. We develop strategic insights specifically to drive the creative process.
Ultimately, having a strategic insight is only half the game. You still have to communicate in a way that leads to a desired action by the target. Creative must be compelling and break through the clutter of all the other messaging that your target receives by the minute.
Identifying your buyers
Clients are often asking for tactics they think they need, but don’t know what they truly need because they are only aware of the tactics to which they have already been introduced.
As an example, my trainer recently asked me what sort of advertising he should do. He only needs to add 20 new clients within a year, and he would be at capacity. He’s selling an extremely upscale product. When he says “advertising,” he is thinking of traditional mass advertising—radio, TV, print—or even targeted advertising, like digital display ads. The reality is that he just needs a really good referral program. He can brand his business through his current clients because every client knows one or two people who could be potential clients. The delta he needs is so small that advertising is not the answer.
Any sort of promotion has two sides: (1) Identify the target market and how to reach them, and then (2) Identify what will convince them. One is data-driven and easily definable. Who are these people? The other is the hard part. What motivates them? What message makes them want to take action or puts your business in the right light for them to want to do business with you? Sometimes it’s a branding exercise. Other times it’s a matter of being in front of them enough that you develop some rapport.
Typically, I like our creative people who understand and have bought into the strategic insight(s) to begin brainstorming with a blank slate. Brainstorming is almost always most effective in a group setting. However, some people like to develop thoughts on their own before they go into a group brainstorm session. But a collaborative group setting—if people trust each other and are open to hearing ideas—will generally lead to the best results.
What you don’t want during a brainstorming session is for every idea that comes out be tested against the strategy. Oftentimes that testing in the middle of the process will squelch the really good ideas. It’s the age-old adage of “there are no dumb ideas in brainstorming.” That’s not really true—there can be “dumb” ideas—but we need to get those ideas out into the open because they might trigger something that leads to a smart idea. If we squelch too early, we lose the opportunity to leverage unreasonable ideas in the development of brilliant ideas.
In a best-case scenario, strategic insights have been (at the very least) tested in a smell-test kind of way with our client. “Do these things ring true to you?” Our client may inherently understand their business, but we’ve put it into words in a way that they’ve never thought of it.
This is why the questioning process with our clients is so important. It’s the great question that a client has never heard before that leads to an answer where we draw the insight. If there’s an ability to test insights against the target audience or research that validates an insight, that’s optimal.
Most people have spent very little time truly thinking about their marketing strategy in a way that is specific and actionable. In most cases, the simplest and most straightforward insight is true. It often comes easily to us once we’ve armed ourselves with the client’s knowledge. To the client, they may say, “How did you think of that?”
During the questioning phase, a seemingly straightforward insight may surface. We will share that insight with the client in real-time, and the client has an immediate negative reaction because there is a piece of information that they have that we don’t have. They may say something like, “That’s a common mistake…here’s why that doesn’t work.” In this situation, we gain that other piece of information, where we otherwise may have not. If an insight is off, it means there is missing data or a misunderstanding of how something exists in their business. But that can be completely mitigated by asking enough of the right questions.
Testing creative is a sticky wicket. The true test of creative is hard to replicate in any sort of situation like a focus group. Gathering a focus group of people within the target market and understanding what they like and don’t like about the messaging can be valuable, but it can also be extremely misleading.
I like the way Harry Beckwith puts it in his book, Selling the Invisible:
It’s very tempting to summon focus groups. For one thing, the term “focus groups” is clever packaging. A “survey” sounds like something that only gives you the lay of the land. “Focus group,” by contrast, sounds like something that gets you zeroed in.
Or so you would think.
But you are selling individuals, not groups. Focus groups tell more about group dynamics than about market dynamics. Control types take over focus group sessions and try to persuade others. The wise but shy types sit quietly, waiting for the hour to end. People’s views get changed and distorted by other people’s views.
You’re selling individuals. Talk to individuals.
Good agencies are constantly paying attention to the subtle ways in which humans behave. They store that data so that they can create meaningful messaging that takes advantage of the way in which consumers make decisions.
We may try to make it seem super complicated because that supports our value proposition in our own minds. But the reality is that a good client just knows that smart marketers will develop smart marketing. We don’t have to attach a bunch of data and testing in order for it to be effective.
I’m a big believer in data-informed decisions. People are individuals. If you know individuals tend to think a certain way, then use data to set your thinking. But you still must let the creative mind move people.
There’s no good data that says what makes a good song, a good song. But you know it when you hear it. A smart record producer knows a good hook when they hear it. If there was a magic formula—syncopated drum beat, etc.—then we’d just have computers writing music.
There is an art to what we do. The art is born out of the fact that people who get into marketing are curious by nature and love to think about how humans behave.
Avoiding common mistakes
One mistake I commonly see is underestimating an audience. When you underestimate, you over-explain the funny concept or emotional concept and end up hitting the audience over the head with it, losing their interest. Trust that the audience will appreciate subtlety and the ability to form concept closure in their own minds.
Another mistake is when people confuse creativity with comedy. Ads don’t necessarily have to be funny or emotional in any way to be creative. Creativity to me is defined by the fact that ads are memorable and create an impression that is then left on the client’s brand.
The smile test
A real, genuine smile is involuntary. It’s uncontrollable. It usually comes on quickly, but tends to fade slowly. Sometimes it comes with laughter. Sometimes it can come with tears. It’s that emotional ad that makes you smile. Good brand ads almost always cause a smile, and great brand ads leave an imprint of that smile on the brand.
Learning from experience
The biggest lesson I’ve learned is that creative thinkers need time. It’s similar if you ask someone who owns a pizza shop. They will tell you, “Same-day dough sucks.” SDDS. The dough needs at least 24 hours for the yeast to create the flavors, and biology cannot be rushed. There is no substitute for time.
Creative thinking is similar. Every brain has its own process, which is usually poorly understood by the person that owns the brain. Ideas don’t come for a while, and all of the sudden they do come. We need to allow for that in our process. Allow for time spent not beating our heads, but allowing the idea to slowly develop from within our psyche. Put simply—nobody writes well with a gun to their head.
Having said that, we can all do things to give ourselves the best possible chance for good outcomes. Novelists will tell you to write a page every day, no matter what. They’ve learned to keep that part of the brain active and working. It doesn’t mean that writing exactly one page every day means 600 days = a 600-page book. There will be a day when you can barely do it. But then there will be a day when you intend to write one page, and you don’t stop until you’ve written 150 because your brain finally got to the place where the story came out.
As creatives, one of the methods we believe in is using the collaborative brainstorm session to allow our brains to get to the right place.
Sometimes when we do it wrong, we expect to walk in and walk out with an idea good to go. The best ideas come when you walk out, don’t make any conclusions, and then revisit the next day with another brainstorm session. Their subconscious mind will continue to work on the idea. But we have to place those ingredients in the bowl if we want dough the next day.
Creativity is all about efficiency. That’s one of the mistakes agencies make. They start to think creativity is about them and their value versus what it’s going to do for the client.
Part of what we do as good marketers is to help the client understand their objectives based on what they’re trying to accomplish. Are they looking for brand awareness? Or are they wanting to develop brand essence? We help set the strategy to achieve the objectives, and then we develop the insight that allows us to achieve them in the most efficient way possible.
At the end of the day, that’s the whole purpose of creativity. It allows you to do more with less money. If money were no object, you’d pay everyone to use your products. The point of marketing is to accomplish as much as you can within the budget given.