Monday, March 3, 2008

More ranting about the artificially rigid boundary between strategy and creative execution

One of the features of the agency/marketing business that has mystified me from the beginning and which has continued to confuse me throughout my career as I slid up and down various corporate and non-corporate play-structures is the enduring barrier between so-called strategic work and so-called creative work. What drives me insane about this distinction is not that it doesn’t exist: I recognize that there are modes of work that our more analytical, or at least, rely on more information to create a product that is more like an argument vs. those that rely on less information to create a product that is more fun to look at and read and listen to (though you can see how quickly this distinction collapses at well). What I find so frustrating about the commitment to this boundary is that it’s chief function seems to be to give everyone a bunch of new excuses as to why they can’t do the job. Either the strategy isn’t focused or it's too limiting or not based on accurate information or comes too late in the process or the work is off-strategy or ignores the strategy or is held back by the strategy.

I know there are planners around the industry that complain when creatives “don’t wait” for the strategy which has always struck me as a particularly counterproductive complaint (not least because I’m all about avoiding work someone else is already doing) but also because I think it should be pretty much COST OF ENTRY for anyone who defines themselves as and makes a fair amount of money by having the world ‘creative’ in their job title to be able to come up with ideas pretty much anytime they are at work, strategically inspired or not. And that planners who need creatives to wait for anyone or anything must either not understand the pressures on the business or are unable to bring the power of their own ideas to bear on the subjects in question.

Equally annoying are creatives who complain that the they did a bunch of work and then the “strategy changed” when in fact, to me, it's seems pretty well established that great creative work often goes through many drafts and rounds and evolutions before it is completed. Doesn't the ENTIRE HISTORY OF ARTISTIC AND CREATIVE PRODUCTION support this claim, thereby excusing my need to put a stupid link here. Which is why I’m less interested in whether a creative idea is on strategy or off strategy so much as it ADVANCES THE THINKING on the brand.

So here goes: My point isn't that we do different work. I know we do, but aren't we both trying to achieve the same goal? Which is getting to a great idea as fast as possible (the fast part being a necessity of business though not a virtue in itself) which means that for me: just as a great strategy should accelerate the development of great creative work so should great creative ideas accelerate the development of great thinking on the brand which should in turn accelerate the development of more and better great creative ideas which in turn.... And isn't that supposed to be kind of fun, too?


Stephen Conley said...

Great stuff Heather...

I actually wrote a rant a while back which I haven't done much with as of yet, but I read your piece here and I was inspired to share. It's sort of a "cousin" on your rant. Here it goes:

Putting an end to the “I’m not a creative” disclaimer

I’ve heard it in many manifestations in at least a couple of different languages in an advertising career that has spanned three continents. If you’ve worked in the ad business for any length of time, chances are you’ve heard it countless times too. It usually goes something like this: “I’m not trying to play creative, but I think it would be more interesting if the baby ….” Or maybe you’ve heard this one. “Guys, I don’t want to write copy here, but I think we should say something along the lines of…” Even the client throws out the disclaimer while wielding her authority; “You’re the experts, but I think that after the woman jumps into the pool….” It can be approached with a humorous almost apologetic tone- “Hey, I know this is a really bad idea, but what would happen if the singer” - or an aggressive, stern one “I’m not going to tell you how to do your job, but the dog in this spot needs to…”

Regardless of how we say it, the reality of the situation is the same. We’re using our own sort of disclaimer. We actually want to seriously discuss an idea we had for an ad or a thought we had to improve an existing concept. Or we’re chomping at the bit to propose words or lines to better accomplish what we feel the ad should say. We think we have something to say, valuable input to give…but we’re scared. We feel we’re not worthy. We cringe at the backlash that will come from trying to “play creative” when our title is account executive or account planner. We think we may be overstepping our boundaries or that we’re going to get on the creatives’ collective “bad sides.” Deep down, we may be convinced we have a great idea, but we don’t want our creative team to think we’re infringing on their sacred territory. So we preface and pad our comments with the disclaimer. We wrap our big ideas up in harmless little bundles of suggestions often sheepishly whispered at the end of meetings. The reality of the situation though is that, by using the disclaimer, we’re making it clear that what we’re saying has no real merit creatively. What we say becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy that ultimately is not taken very seriously more often than not.

It doesn’t have to be like this though. Nobody is the owner of a great idea. Ideally, everybody in the agency should be creative and passionate about what they do for a living. Creativity shouldn’t be limited to the creative department or individuals with the title “creative.” Agencies should foster environments in which ideas flow freely and everyone feels empowered to share ideas that can make a difference (maybe I’ll write a separate piece just on this).

We live in a society that is seemingly open-minded when it comes to embracing the opinions of others- even from individuals without deep expertise in a given field. Bloggers without formal backgrounds or training are seen as authorities on any number of topics. Wrestlers, action heroes, sports figures, and mediocre actors rise to great political heights. Other celebrities become activists for rights in far off lands or opine about the pros and cons of anti-depressants. So what’s the big deal when an account guy who’s devoted the past fourteen years of his life to this business has an idea for a thirty second toothpaste spot? If we all could have an open mind, maybe it would actually be a good idea.

Creatives, come on. Most of the time, our intentions are not evil. We too work closely with the brands and the client and we’re simply trying to make the work stronger, better. Open up your minds and listen, really listen, to the rest of the team. No, I’m not proposing that everybody start writing copy or trying to art direct print ads. Nor am I underestimated the enormous talent of some of the creatives in our industry. But I am proposing a more integrated process in which people work together more as a team, not as individuals or departments.

I stopped dishing the disclaimer out a few years back and it feels great. Actually, most of the time, my participation is welcomed by my creative teams and on some occasions my ideas have be gladly reflected in executions. So give it a try. It’s very liberating. Say goodbye to the disclaimer and be proud to share your ideas.

sk said...

Thanks for the thoughtful post. Sorry it's taken me so long to respond. Sorry too that I'm not Heather. I'm a lot shorter for one thing.

In any case, I feel your pain. I think your list of disclaimers would make a great running gag for some sketch comedy for the next awards show. And of course you're right. The boundaries that were originally intended to protect creatives from client meddling have become an easy form of retreat from any critical eye. And it's certainly true that our society is more interested in the general consumer opinion than the so-called expert these, as study after study has shown. So I'm obviously all for breaking down these barriers; but maybe less because everyone is capable of a great creative idea (some people aren't) than that... creatives at the very least have to recognize that a creative choice (casting, setting, music, copy etc) can have profound strategic impact on effectiveness. They don't have to listen to my idea, but they do have to wrestle with the option as important and distinct rather than just a bad creative idea. What I've usually found is that creatives haven't thought through every aspect of the object anyway (it's hard, they are time pressed) and they see the challenge as a way to improve the work. And of course, we all want to protect any piece of work from too much collaboration, which can destroy the best idea.

In general, planners tell me that there is much more collaboration in creative shops, with some planners even helping write copy, than in bigger shops where the division of labor is more distinct and enforced. That narcissism of small differences again. But as I've said elsewhere, at its best, the creative/planning collaboration is my favorite part of the job.