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Creative answers

Even experienced marketers struggle to judge creative work and comment coherently on it
Ignore all the talk about ‘taking risks’ and ‘being brave’
Helen Edwards

Helen Edwards has twice been voted PPA Business Columnist of the Year. She has a PhD in marketing, an MBA from London Business School and is a partner at Passionbrand.

It is one of those rites of passage experienced by every freshman marketer: the first big creative presentation in the über-cool boardroom of the agency.

You would have perceived a mix of anticipation and tension on the way to the big day, and that continues in the rooms itself: there’s a lot at stake on both sides.

The teams will be pretty much matched in numbers: about half a dozen on either side. As the most junior member on the client benches, you’ll sit down the line from your CMO, handily placed to open the door when the refreshments arrive.

You don’t quite know what it will be like, but you guess at two hours of excitement and even enjoyment. This is their show, after all. You will soon be disabused of that fantasy in a way that you could not have anticipated at the outset.

Who’s up first? The senior suit on the agency side, dispensing bonhomie and outlining the challenges and opportunities that lie in this big moment. This is the first of several times that you will hear the words “brave” and “expected” uttered in meaningful juxtaposition.

Then it’s the turn of the planning director, a curious blend of insouciance and self-effacing humour, with flashes of intellectual virtuosity allowed to show through the studied, ‘everyman’ language.

The creative director is the star of the piece and will act like one: quiet and unnerving at first, with a controlled racking-up of the passion as the drama of unveiling proceeds.

Five things not to say to the agency

Some marketers have a knack of demotivating, confusing or simply depressing the very agency talent they want to inspire to greater heights. Here are some phrases to avoid when critiquing creative work.

1. Has it got legs?
Usually said about a laudably single-minded campaign idea by marketers worried that people will get bored with it over the years. Chance would be a fine thing – it’s the client that gets bored, long before consumers have barely registered it.

2. Couldn’t we find a way to combine those two ideas?
It’s fine to want the best of all worlds, but merging two distinct creative ideas is not the way to achieve it.

3. Can we beef it up a bit?
One of those infuriatingly vague requests that’s meant to encourage the agency to dial up the impact of an idea or piece of copy. Sorry, but you’ve got to be more specific than that, or what you’ll end up with is a turkey.

4. Great, we’ll share it with some of our stakeholders
Translation: we’ll email the presentation cold to people at various stations around the business who have not been involved in the brief, the strategy, the setting of objectives or any other part of the process, and we’ll pass their comments back to you unfiltered, in the interests of ‘openness’.

5. Can we weave two more product claims into the main message?
Yes you can, and they can both be ignored by the people who really count – consumers.

Influences and workings in the margin will be shown and commented on. ‘Wallpaper’ creative work from the category will be captured as a melange to emphasise the need to be ‘braver’ and ‘take risks’.

There will be a first, ‘safe’ route, shared and verbally shredded, to make way for the ‘big idea’ itself, which will be revealed bold and simple at first, then rendered in umpteen different ways, including a short film.

Then, some wrapping up from the suit and then, well, silence for what seems just a little too long.

Your CMO finally speaks, and you expect a masterful analysis of the work that has been revealed. But, horror – no. You become aware that all faces are looking at you: your CMO has graciously suggested that everyone else comments first, and tradition has it that the most junior person leads.

This is a dirty trick to buy the CMO a little time, and the agency knows that you will babble on and your view doesn’t really matter, but that doesn’t help right now.

So here is something that just might.

First, take a deep breath and reflect that judging creative work is the single hardest task most marketers ever have to do. Even old hands struggle to form a coherent view on the spur of the moment, and you are unlikely to be any worse than anyone else in the room.

Second, ignore all the talk about “taking risks” and “being brave”. They have been seeded to soften you up and could seriously impair your commercial judgement just when you need it most. Or, better still, inquire whether the agency will be sharing any of the risks associated with the work – by increasing the proportion of the payment-by-results element of their fee, perhaps.

Third, EFS. This stands for empathy, focus and surprise – and it will give you a ready-made framework to help you judge creative ideas, because all the myriad questions that are dancing around your brain can be subsumed under just three.

Does the work show genuine empathy for your consumer? Not just ‘understanding’, which is a haughty term as though looking in, but a sense of being on their side, wanting what they want and feeling what they feel.

Is the work focused tightly on the brief and the commercial objective, or is it a ‘big idea’ that owes its scale to the fact that necessary constraints have been conveniently ignored?

Lastly, did the work genuinely surprise you when it was unveiled? Did it give you goose bumps? Did it make you want to guard it like a jealous secret and run it, like, now, in order that competitors could not somehow sneak it in first?

Empathy, focus, surprise. Great work always embodies all three, while the mediocre, the self-serving and the wildly off-brief will invariably display just two.

Analyse commercial creativity in this structured way and you will be doing it better than 99% of marketers ever do. And in that next big presentation, it won’t be you next to the door, letting the refreshments in.