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A few weeks ago, I had the pleasure of being a guest speaker at my alma mater, Marquette University. I was invited in to talk to students about advertising and the process that helps generate successful campaigns.
This was the first advertising class for these students. So rather than just talking about the agency process, or the role of the client, or even how you decide which medium works best for what you’re trying to sell…I thought a basic primer on just what it takes to get to those great ideas was the way to go.
My presentation was titled, "The Creative Process." A squishy, nebulous, hard-to-pin-down beast if there ever was one.
But if you think about it, The Creative Process can be summed up like this:
The Creative Process is a an organized approach that uses research, strategy, planning, talent, curiosity and hard work to come up with the right idea at the right time.
"Sure, but what does that really mean?," my audience wondered.
And if I didn’t get to the answers soon, I was going to lose the class (much like I’m going to lose you if I don’t just get to it).
1. Embrace Research, Focus Groups, Personas...Anything That Tells You What's What
Yeah yeah, as a creative guy myself, I never wanted to pore through this stuff either.
Quick aside: my stubbornness on this got me appointed as the head of research on my senior ad project at Marquette. No, I was not happy. But what I learned was you need every edge you can get when it comes to The Creative Process.
We were assigned Harley-Davidson (foreshadowing, perhaps?) and I knew nothing about them other than it was a motorcycle.
We needed research to find out more than just the age/income/rent-own stats on this audience—we needed to know what moves them (emotionally, of course…but maybe literally, too).
We learned where they shop, what they like to do, the clubs they join and more; all stuff that a bit of due diligence uncovers.
And, as I would find out years later, research can inspire an idea that you might not have thought of before.
Personas can be particularly valuable, too.
They paint a picture of what your target consumer likes, dislikes, what they read, what they watch…when focus groups aren’t available, personas can help fill the gap.
They also lead directly to the next idea.
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2. Know What Your Audience Likes, Reads, Watches
You have to do your homework, too.
Just because you have the info about what your audience is doing in their free time—like Netflix shows, for instance—you don’t really know what it’s all about unless you experience it for yourself.
Ok, so maybe "The Crown" isn’t a show for you, but maybe as you watch a few episodes you start to see why your audience gravitates to it. From there, maybe that’s an idea you can build upon in your campaign.
You’re looking for common ground here and inspiration. It’s not literal, it’s a feeling you get from “walking a mile” in the shoes of the person you’re trying to win over.
You will excel at this process if you observe what it is that drives them so you can create messages that resonate and get them to act.
Tom Kelly, Founder of IDEO says it better than I do:
“Good observation can be a powerful source of innovation. As you observe people in their natural settings, you should not only look for the nuances of human behavior but also strive to infer motivation and emotion.”
3. Demand a Great Creative Brief—and Then Ask a Lot of Questions
This is one I cannot stress enough to everyone, even if it’s your first advertising class at college.
Without a good Creative Brief...or Project Brief...or Input Brief...or whatever your agency calls it...YOU ARE DOOMED.
Trust me. Over the last 25 years, I have seen many projects go down in flames because of a poorly-constructed brief.
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Sometimes it’s missing audience information. Or maybe that one key piece of information that can make all the difference.
Your “brief” should not be brief per se: it should arm you with everything you need to know about the product/service/person you are selling, who is buying, why they should want to buy it, and how they are going to buy it from you.
If any one of those is wobbly, you will fail.
True every time? No, you can wing it a lot of the time. But next time you see a crappy TV ad…a preposterous direct mail piece…a woefully dumb website…I can almost guarantee you that the problem started at the brief stage.
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How do you know you have a solid brief?
You don’t. That’s why you need to ask a lot of questions. The Creative Process only works if everyone has given their best, and poured in the knowledge that they have.
Asking questions does more than just challenge the premise—it opens up the discussion to ideas you might not have had before. Everyone has a perspective, and everyone should weigh in.
Are there dumb questions? Absolutely. Just stop inviting those people to the brief meetings. Kidding. Sorta.
Photo by Mike Wilson on Unsplash
4. Kill Your Bad Ideas Sooner Than Not
There are a million different ways to execute creative. My presentation wasn’t about that because there is no right answer.
What is right, though, is that most of the time your first idea sucks.
It’s like going for a run. That first block or two is where you’re getting loose, shaking off the sleep.
Same with writing. Same with design. Rarely is the very first thing you put down on paper (computer) the best it can be. So kill it and come up with five more ideas. Trust me, you only get better the more you refine or restart.
The worst thing you can do? Fall in love with your idea.
Imagine you work on it for several days. Then, you bring it to the meeting…and no one loves it.
Do you take it personally? Maybe. Are they wrong? Maybe. But if you think about it, I’m sure there was a better idea in you if you just worked a bit more on it.
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5. Involve Everyone You Can—to a Point
Not much to say here, really. My point to the class that day was don’t work in isolation. Writers need designers just like designers need writers. Collaboration can result in great work.
But there’s more to this, too: great ideas can come from anyone.
Years after I worked on Harley-Davidson in college, the agency I was with won an assignment to work on Harley-Davidson. This time, though, it wasn’t for the motorcycle—it was for a Harley-Davidson credit card.
Not sexy, ok? But at the 11th hour, when we were just about out of ideas to make this a winner, our account supervisor came up with a unique way to position the card, and therefore take the campaign in an entirely new direction. So yeah, get everyone involved.
I definitely do not, however, mean everyone should always be involved.
Too often in agency-client relationships, there are waaaaaaaay too many people involved. So everyone has an idea. Everyone is a writer. And everyone is a designer.
This committee approach is responsible for all the advertising you see that you hate. Trust me.
6. Add Your Voice to the Conversation
This is a simple one. Are you ready for it?
If you are part of a team, you were included for a reason. Sitting there saying nothing adds nothing.
Bring whatever is unique about you to every project. If something doesn’t feel right, or ignores some of the big “aha” ideas that were in the brief, you owe it to your client—and yourself—to speak up.
7. Expect Greatness
Sometimes, you can't help it. Time runs out, and you just have to go with what you have.
These situations should be the exception, though. Instead, you should set out on every journey to bring your best and expect the same from everyone else.
Once you start settling for mediocrity, you produce boring, flat, cookie-cutter work. There are agencies that do that and make a ton of money. But that's not what you should be shooting for.
If you want to make a name for yourself, and truly make The Creative Process work for you, you need to expect the very best. Your clients will appreciate it. And you will, too, because you’ll know that following just a few simple steps every time is going to lead you to success after success.
That’s mostly what I told those students that day. Sure, a few fell asleep, and some others were on their phones.
But the ones that weren’t? At the very least, they heard that this “process” doesn’t have to be so daunting or mysterious. Do your homework, expect the best, and the rest all falls into place.
Except when it doesn’t. But that’s for another post.
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