Creative Diligence in an age of misguided campaigns

Companies are under a tonne of pressure to pump out campaigns at the same speed as they would send out a tweet, jumping at lightning speed on current, popular #trends. But just because the pressure is real, doesn’t mean it’s an excuse for strategic sloppiness.

Earlier this week Mumbrella published an insightful thought piece from Adam Ferrier (Consumer Psychologists) looking at what is going on in the world of advertising follow some recent advertising missteps (aka “fails”) from quite established companies, focusing on his three key thoughts around what might be causing this.

He specifically cites the recent PepsiBig Protest’, DoveBottle Shapes’, and Macca’sDead Dad’ campaigns), which sought to tap into some relevant movements / sentiments among their audience but ended up inadvertently coming across as patronising instead, and needless to say not having the desired reaction and all of which were pulled as a result.

He makes some thoughtful arguments that open up an important discussion, but is it our penchant for “really cool” ideas that’s getting us in trouble? As a believer in creativity I’d like to expand upon some of his thoughts and further uncover why creative attempts haven’t been hitting the mark lately. (If you haven’t read Adam’s original piece I recommend so, otherwise I’ve done my best to distill down his three points by pulling out one key quote, followed by my own thoughts).

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Tapping into the zeitgeist is fine, but make sure its authentic to your brand/product

POINT 1 :“More and more brands are reaching into higher-order, purpose-driven spaces, where quite frankly they shouldn’t be playing”.

Companies aligning themselves with social/political/cultural movements is not new. Marketers have always tried to align with particular values/issues relevant to their audience at the time (from women’s-liberation “Torches of Freedom” to sell women’s cigarettes in 1929, to “I’d like to buy the world a Coke” peace-loving ad to reach youths in 1971, and onward). This is in many ways the only way they can remain relevant – we know people no longer buy products that merely fulfil a practical purpose, they want products/brands that align with their values, community, lifestyle or aspirations. So sure, Pepsi won’t be starting any revolutions but you can’t blame them for the attempt at leveraging this sentiment among their audience (whether we personally approve of it or not).

These campaigns fell flat because they were opportunistic without being strategic (or at least, considered enough). It has been wisely pointed out that the “sweet spot” of ideas is where the audience is its most engaged meets where the brand is its most authentic. These campaigns tried to play in the “engaged” space, but forgot to cross-check it against the authenticity of their brand to get the fit right. There is no harm in trying to tap into the zeitgeist, but do it in a way that is credible and meaningful.

Good creativite ideas are a marathon, not a sprint 

POINT 2 : “We’re dangerously heading back into the world of the ‘Trust me I’m a creative’ territory…ideas keep popping up that have nothing to do with the brand, or sales, and more to do with the ego and careers of the creatives who created them.”

Organisations need to take care that they aren’t trying to be creative for creative’s sake, and that there is strong strategic reasoning behind their ideas. We should all by now know better than to do something just because it sounds like a cool idea, and most creatives are pretty on the ball with that, but I think the reason why we’re seeing these sort of misteps more is related to something bigger than the odd egocentric Don-Draper’s peacocking their creative prowess; these ideas are made by teams of people at a variety of levels and with a variety of agendas.

I would argue the issue is actually more about the consumer environment we’re in today. Businesses are under increasing pressure to get things done FASTER than ever before. The haste at which these campaigns are executed is a direct reflection of the current landscape and growing mentality of “I needed the next big thing yesterday.”

The process, time and patience required to pressure test concepts and give due diligence to a stage where ideas are all but bulletproof is just no longer there because nobody has the time. Companies try to pump out major campaigns at the same speed as they would send out a tweet, and jump at lightning speed on current issues and popular #trends before the conversation has passed and they’re no longer relevant. But the reality is, it isn’t possible to be speedy and considered at the same time.

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But just because the pressure is real, doesn’t mean it’s an excuse for strategic sloppiness. No self-respecting creative wants a dud campaign under their belt and no company sets out to fail, if they’re being hasty in their creative delivery it’s because they’re under a tonne of pressure to do so and the best way to prevent that is for organisations (from the top) to make “creative diligence” a priority and a VALUE within their team. Slow down, stop draining the dollars away on short lived trending topics and instead invest in something with a longer term strategic value. If anything, that will ensure you’re always relevant, not just for a month.

Don’t try to please everyone, but make sure you’re really pleasing those you’re supposed to

POINT 3 : “As culture gets more fragmented it’s getting more difficult to ‘guess’ where the next outrage will come from, or whose sensibilities will be offended next.”

This is not easy to address. The world has become a highly sensitive place, social media a ticking time bomb of outrage. Thirty years ago if someone was offended by an ad, they’d have to make all the effort to report it to the regulatory body, and it would only be addressed if it had enough complaints to warrant investigation and then be assessed for validity. Now, it takes one person to tweet that they don’t like something, for a couple more to get on the bandwagon, and then you have a PR crisis on your hands and potentially throw a million dollar campaign down the toilet.

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Firstly, forget trying to please everyone and concentrate on really trying to please your audience. It’s not possible to never offend any single person, and it’s no longer reasonable to pretend we live in a business environment where we can ‘control’ the message – even if it’s an ad you scripted by your own hand, you can’t control how it will be interpreted. It’s not worth dumping millions of dollars just because someone who may not even be your audience doesn’t approve.

Your reaction to any backlash can ultimately define you, your sweat glands might be telling you to immediately pull a campaign and hide in the shadows, but first consider where the‘outrage’ is coming from, why it is, and from how many people? They may have little to no direct impact on your audience or business. Take the time to understand this fully before defeating yourself. But prevention is better than cure, and that comes from simply seeking to know your audience well, and understand the perceptions of your stakeholders beyond mere data – which might give you an aerial view but misses the critical detail that can make or break your campaign.

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Don’t assume you know your audience and know how they will react (In the words of Mark Twain – “It ain’t what you don’t know that gets you into trouble. It’s what you know for sure that just ain’t so”). Test. Test again. Try an idea before you buy it. Does it really resonate? Are there any subtle underlying sensitivities your team is not aware of? Sounds obvious but like I said, teams are under pressure and often skip this step. And just because you think an ideas is great, and it very well may be great, it might just not necessarily be the idea that your audience WANTS or NEEDS at this particular point in time.

So, is it time to give up trying to come up with cool, “out of the box” ideas and different ways to engage our audiences? That would be both regrettable and unwise. The issue is not creativity itself, it’s our approach and attitude towards it. Creative thinking, contrary to popular belief, is not about doing things fast, or using creative angles as a band-aid to hide lack of research or strategic consideration. If some teams do think this it is sadly probably an indication that creativity ways of thinking and approaching problem solving still don’t have the standing or respect that logic or analytical processes do. But creative ideas require as much due diligence as finances, and if put into practice more would probably help prevent misguided ideas.

Do you think organisations are getting too carried away with quirky concepts or do they need to be more diligent about getting creative ideas right?

Originally published (with some minor differences) on LinkedIn as Creative Diligence – a remedy for misguided campaigns? (some thoughts on Adam Ferrier’s ‘What’s going wrong in the world of advertising’, Mumbrella) on May 18, 2017

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Four things Creative Leaders never say (and what to say instead)

Building a creative team culture requires bravery in decision making from the top down. These are four common beliefs (or excuses) that could be holding you back – and four alternatives to “flip” old thinking habits.

It’s often been said that attitude is everything. This extends to leaders trying to build a more creative or innovative culture within their team. It’s also often said that old habits die hard. Particularly if creative leadership doesn’t come naturally at first, it can be easy to let old beliefs become excuses that hold us (and our teams) back from new, exciting possibilities.

Creative leaders are characterised by their ability to take risks, think big, and project self-assurance (and if there’s no assurance to be had, by embracing ambiguity). Cultivating a creative team culture can only happen from the top down, so the attitude leaders project requires a certain amount of bravery in decision making and a letting go of old hang-ups that could be stalling progress.

If your goal is to cultivate creative leadership or teamwork, these are four common ‘excuses’ against creative ideas that you should avoid – and four alternative ways to “flip” your thinking:

#1. “Well, in my experience [x approach] usually works, so let’s stick with what we know”

Experience is an invaluable asset, but it can sometimes be used as a shield to hide behind when faced with something different or unfamiliar. If you have little to no experience with a suggested approach, irelinquishing control to an unknown can make you uneasy. Some people even feel threatened by the prospect – what’s the point of decades of hard work if things have changed so much it’s now all for nothing? But this is frankly a matter of perspective.

Creative leaders value experience, but also know that at no point can you afford to stop learning and growing. You can no longer aim for feeling comfortable, because “comfortable” often signals your business is plateauing – the first step toward falling off a cliff.

It can be a challenging prospect for those who were raised on the premise that you work hard, gain experience, and concentrate on imparting your wisdom to others. And while this is not untrue, it’s no longer the whole truth. Business, media, society, the world, have drastically changed in the last 20 years and that change will only continue to accelerate.

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Creative leaders know the only way to remain competitive and ahead of the curb is to keep learning and adapting; and the clever ones, instead of clinging to conventional wisdoms, think about how to best utilise their employees to tap into areas they’re personally unfamiliar with, by asking:

FLIP #1: “Who in this team has the experience, or knows someone who does, who can lead the way on this? (And, how can I help?)”

The role of a leader is not to know everything – that’s why you hire employees who have diverse skills and knowledge. Your role is to use the business sense and know-how you’ve accumulated to guide and oversee the work of your team. So rather than view a new/different idea it as a threat to your experience, try approaching it with curiosity and interest – and ask how you can best use the skills and experience you have to guide and bring the best out on your team to make it happen.

#2. “I know the client, they won’t like it / it’s not for them”

This second excuse for avoiding creativity is common with long-standing clients or bosses – you’re so familiar with their style and sensitibilities that you “just know” what ideas they will and won’t go for. It can be tempting to not want to challenge the status quo you’ve established with them, for fear of getting them offside or scaring them away – but as a creative leader you will find a way to make it work.

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You’re not trying to convince your client to become creative, you’re showing your client that YOUR company is creative and this is the sort of thinking and work YOU provide, and it sets you apart from the competition. You’re not seeking to change their status quo, you’re establishing your own status quo.

Knowing your client like the back of your hand is an fact a fantastic asset if you’re wanting to experiment with a more creative direction. Instead of using your knowledge, insights and experience with the client to justify what you think they won’t like about the idea, try using that knowledge to show them how your ideas work in their favour:

FLIP #2: “Let’s use our knowledge of what we know about this client – what they like, what makes them tick, their challenges – to sell them the benefits of this creative idea.”

If you and your team truly believes in the idea, and believes it will meet the objectives, then stick to your guns and frame/focus your pitch around how your idea serves to achieve this, and never apologise for good ideas.

#3. “It’s too much of a gamble for this project, we’ll try it next time”

As with cultivating any new habit, the start is always the hardest. The first creative project you undertake might come at a higher risk because it’s less familiar. The trurh is that mistakes may be made, and things may take longer because of the necessary learning curve.

In fact, many conservative leaders often write off creative endevours because they’ve been “burned” in the past by a bad experience. But it more than likely went pair shaped due to poor planning or under-estimating the time/investment it would take to ‘break into’ the project.

So it can be tempting to “delay” to wait for a project where you feel there is more scope or safety to take creative risks. You know, “once we have…secured the business/established trust/got more experience on smaller projects/get a bit more budget/etc…”

But it’s a bit like someone trying to start a new diet or quit smoking, we all know that procrastination until the “ideal” time to start, usually means it ain’t gonna happen. The time to start instilling creative values and exhibiting creative leadership is today, on this project, right now. That doesn’t mean going nuts and biting off more than you can chew – it just means applying creative principles to your work (even if it’s baby steps to start with) and not delaying for the ‘perfect’ moment.

Besides, the idea that a project is “too important” to take creative risks is counterintuitive – what you should start saying instead is:

FLIP #3: “This is an important project – so let’s throw all our best, most innovative thinking at it.”

When you decide to commit to creative values in your team, it’s not something you can do selectively – if you choose to take this path you need to apply to it to your entire business and be prepared for the time/financial investment (and growing pain) it can take in the initial stages – all in the knowledge that it will eventually reap much bigger rewards than if you stay stagnant.

If you’ve prepared for what’s to come and know how much of a resource investment you can make today (even if it grows gradually over time), and project confident creative leadership with your team throughout the process, you’ll be in a better position for success. And with one creative endeavour under your belt, the others will begin to fall into place with more and more ease.

#4. We don’t have the time, money, people, experience [insert other excuse here]

It’s a common experience – you come up with an amazing idea, one you know will have impact, but you’re told there’s nothing enough money, time, people or some other resource, to make it work. The idea is then often altered beyond recognition or is dumped entirely for a much safer bet, when in most cases the idea could have been salvaged with just some simple tweaking and rethinking.

The fear of “not having” is a powerful one that can be diffcult to shake, especially if you’ve been in a position before where you’ve gone over-budget or your team had to do a lot unnecessary overtime.

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But creative leaders don’t think about what they don’t have going for them, they think about what they do have going for them. That doesn’t mean not meeting your obligations, it means there is always a way to make a creative idea work within your available resources, by simple saying:

FLIP #4: “Let’s assess all our resources and come up with the best creative solution working with what we have.”

A great way to pre-empt this dilemma and avoid disappointment among the team, is to assess resources BEFORE getting to the brainstorm stage. Depending on the project, there will likely be some inflexible costs – admin, management, traditional tactics that might be ‘required’ in the brief. Estimate these costs up-front and see what is remaining for other ideas. Knowing your deadline and how long everything will take your team, make a rough estimate of how much time you have to bring everything together.

That way, when you get to brainstorming, you can confidently say that you only have “x budget” or “x time”, and your team will be able to contain their concepts within this scope without sacrificing their creativity – and you won’t be in a position to lose your great ideas for fear of not having enough resources.

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As you can see, there are few reasons to not be creative in your thinking and approach – creative leaders find a way to make great ideas happen, and it’s often just an easy matter of perspective and letting go of old beliefs.

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Have you ever avoided or turned down a great creative idea because of any of these reasons, or because it felt just ‘all too hard’? If so, what you would do differently if you had a second shot at it?