It has been said that a good strategy can make up for poor creative, but that good creative can never make up for poor strategy. A very true sentiment to be sure, but if there’s one thing I’ve learned in my 15 years in the marketing biz is that you can talk about strategy as much as you want, but it is the creative that truly sells a strategy to the client and the client to the customer. It’s amazing to see the reaction on a client’s face when they are able to tie in all the countless meetings and strategy sessions with a visible, tangible product. Good or bad, nothing engages and instills a sense of investment in a marketing campaign like the creative.
Strategy is a pretty straight forward process: You gather facts and distill information until you come up with a collection of facts that you use to determine who your audience is, how old they are, how much they make, where they live, how they spend their money, etc. From these factors you can determine where you should place your marketing and what the messaging should be. But once all the black and white details are determined, how do you add color to the canvas and present your message in such a way that it will appeal to your customer?
Creative is also the most difficult component to any marketing campaign because, unlike strategy, which relies of facts and figures, creative is far more subjective and open to interpretation. The creative development process is very much an exercise in interpretation and abstract thinking – a diametric and opposite approach to the strategic process, yet one that is critically important to the successful implementation of the marketing plan. Creative has been the point of contentious client meetings, the source of endless hours of internal debate, the cause of hurt feelings, a reason for clients to pursue other marketing agencies, and the pendulum on which the success or failure of advertising swings.
One of the biggest complaints I’ve heard from customers with regards to creative is that the results they get from the designer are typically not what they expect – either the quality is sub-par or the concept doesn’t convey the desired message or represent the company in a manner with which they are comfortable. Another is that the designers are often defensive or outright combative with regards to any criticism. All of these complaints are not only true and valid observations, but ones that can be easily avoided and result in a more positive creative development experience for the client, the agency, and ultimately the customer.
As a client, you play a critical role in the creative development process and there are several key areas to which you can contribute to ensure that the creative result you desire is the one you receive. In the grand scheme, you are just as responsible for the creative results as the designer or agency producing the project. With that in mind, here are seven steps to help you play an active and beneficial role in the creative process.
#1) Choose your designer carefully.
When you first interview a graphic designer or an advertising agency, ask to see samples of their creative. This will give you a good sense of a variety of variables, including the following:
- Style – Look at how the visual elements play out in the samples. Are they modern? Edgy? Classic? Humorous? Technical? Are the samples diverse, meaning do they cover a wide array of styles or do they rely one or two styles? It doesn’t make sense to choose a designer or agency whose creative style does not represent the image or standards you have for your business.
- Quality – Gauge the overall reproduction of the samples. Are the graphics crisp and sharp, or are they pixilated? Are the samples smudged or worn? Look for typographical errors? Do the pieces have a flow – are they easy to follow and read from start to finish, or does your eye jump around from point to point? Is there good production value (i.e. good reproduction, high attention to detail)?
- Communication – Examine the pieces and ask yourself what message the project was trying to convey. Is the message clear? Are you confused? Do the images used support the overall image or are they contradictory or unsupportive? Can you follow the project from start to finish and gain a clear understanding of what is expected of you as a reader?
When interviewing the designer or agency, it is also important to get a sense of the personality of the individuals you will be working with. Do you get a sense that they will be reliable? Do they present themselves in a polished and respectful manner? Do they seem like they know what they’re talking about? Are they engaging and consulting; eager to learn about you and your needs, or are they more interested in talking about themselves?
If you are not totally comfortable with the situation, walk away and look for someone else. Remember, you are essentially hiring an employee, and you don’t want anyone working for you who is not up to or is incapable of satisfying the requirements you have for your marketing.
#2) Know your endgame.
An error many clients make is that they start marketing because it’s something they feel they should do; not something they must do. They enter into the marketing process with no clear cut objectives or idea for how they want to communicate to their customers. It’s all about mindset. I can preach until I’m blue in the face about just how important it is to market, but unless you are sitting across from me 100% convinced that you need to market, any marketing campaign is doomed to failure. The same is true of creative. It’s not critical – or even necessary — that you know exactly what you want the finished project will look like, but you should know where that creative will ultimately take you. You need to know what is and is not acceptable, and what you like and don’t like. Knowing this provides you a litmus test to evaluate any creative solutions presented to you.
#3) Be specific.
A designer only knows what you tell him. A frustration of many graphic designers is that clients are inherently vague about what they want. It is very important during the initial creative development period to have as much information as possible about the intended outcome of the project. If there are certain elements or concepts that you know must be conveyed, make sure that you provide that information in as clear and concise a manner possible. There’s nothing that frustrated a designer more than finding out mid-development or worse, after the project is completed, that there was a critical messaging element that wasn’t communicated.
The same considerations are also important when providing revisions to the designers. Too often phrases like “I don’t like it” or “I don’t get it” are thrown around. These are abstract statements and provide no valuable feedback with regards to improving the creative. Be specific in your critique; say what you don’t like – is it a font, a color, an image? Explain what it is that you don’t understand about the concept. It’s okay not to understand an idea. Sometimes clients will be shy about expressing confusion because of how they may appear to the designer. Trust me if you don’t get a concept, odds are that some of your customers won’t either.
In short, the more specific you can be about what you expect from the creative process, the more likely you’ll get exactly what you’re looking for.
#4) Be honest.
Similar to being specific, honesty is also critically important to achieving good creative. Any designer worth his salt is devoted to one thing: putting out the best possible project for his client. To accomplish this, he needs open and honest feedback. Say what you like and what you don’t like. Explain in your words how the creative makes you feel or what impressions you get. Don’t withhold comments for the fear of hurting the designer’s feelings. Doing so only reduces the chance of you getting the creative you ultimately want.
#5) Be respectful.
Just as you need to be honest with your feedback, being respectful in your communication is also very important. Tone and presentation of critiques is very important. Artists and creative people tend to be very sensitive individuals. And it’s important to understand that sensitivity is one of an array of sources an artist draws upon when developing any creative project. I’ve long believed that being a creative professional is one of the hardest jobs there is because it requires an individual to give so much of his inner-self; his being; his soul into the project and then subject his creation to open judgment and ridicule. The very thing that makes us sensitive is also the very thing that makes us good at tapping into the emotional and creative ideas so important to effective communication.
I’ve had bosses and clients who treated their designers as if they were indentured servants, or even cattle. Their comments were pointed, harsh and cruel. They were given without any regard to the designer’s personal feelings. Now, I know what you’re saying … “A designer should be professional and not take comments personally.” And I would agree that a designer should be professional and take comments with a grain of salt, but as I mentioned before, so much of what a designer is required to give of his self in order to be creative does make us more sensitive to criticism. But they way you phrase your comments can go a long way to getting the type of changes you want made. Comments like “It sucks!” or “What were you thinking?” or “I hate it.” can be particularly damaging to a designer’s psyche and cause him to second-guess himself when he goes back to the drawing board. A designer needs confidence to perform at a high level – even in the face of adversity. It’s okay to not like a project, but be sympathetic in how you provide your critique. It will benefit you in the future.
#6) Understand creative thinking.
If you’re familiar with the term left- and right-brained, then you know that analytical thinking happens of the left side of the brain and creative or abstract thinking happens on the right side of the brain. For a designer to be creative, he must heavily access the right-side of the brain. It is very difficult to rapidly switch from left-brained thought processes to right-brained. This can cause a great deal of stress to the designer and as a result, the creative side suffers as he is not able to maintain a creative rhythm. Frequent stops and starts often mean that any progress achieved on the creative process is stunted.
The creative process takes time and it’s important to give your designer the time he needs to properly access his creativity and produce the work. It’s not as if creativity were a light switch and can be turned on and off at a moment’s notice. Creativity is more of an exercise in inertia; it starts off slowly and builds momentum over time. Creative individuals need time to let ideas percolate and explore any number of concepts before the design process even begins. There is a lot of brainstorming and trial and error involved in taking facts and figures and morphing them into some sort of creative representation. Every designer is different and has different methods for accessing his creative mojo, but if there’s one constant factor it’s time.
It is often difficult for people who are not creatively inclined to understand this concept, nor the frustration displayed by ‘artistic types’ whenever their thought processes are interrupted. Rest assured if you want the creative ideas to be top-notch, it is best if you keep the interruptions to a minimum.
#7) Provide the necessary resources.
Resources can take many forms, and make no mistake that a designer does require certain resources to provide any measurably level of quality creative. Some common resources may include:
- Money – It’s one thing to work within a budget, it’s another thing to be stingy. It costs money to produce any creative project whether it is for print, television, radio or Internet. Any money you spend is an investment back into your own interests, so if you are looking for good creative output – something that will reflect well upon you and your business – make sure you are realistic with your designer and yourself about what it will cost to do the job right.
- Time – It takes time to be innovative and in addition to the actual time it takes to physically produce a project, the demands of time required to be creative and inventive are also substantial. If you want your creative to of high quality and stand out from your competition, it’s important to give as much lead time to your designer or agency as possible to develop your project. Creativity is not a conveyor-belt process and cannot be treated as such. As your designer how much time is needed to produce a project – and then let him have it.
- Materials – One are which is a common sticking point is in the quality of materials provided to a designer. Typically it takes the form of low quality or small photography, images pulled off the Internet or scanned out of magazine. The end quality of any project is the sum total of all its parts, and if those parts are of inferior quality the end product will also be of inferior quality. At the start of any project, be sure to ask the designer what materials he will need from you. Ask about file formats and resolution. You may be unfamiliar with some of the terminology – that’s okay – the important thing is to ask. The designer should be able to help you find what you need or at least point you in the proper direction.
It’s important to understand just how important a role you play in the creative process. You may not be artistically inclined or a creative thinker, but your participation and ability to provide support for those charged with developing creative solutions cannot be underestimated. It requires a lot of thought and planning on your part and a willingness to play a supportive role at a time where you are typically used to leading the charge. Remember that it’s the creative that sells your message to your customer. If you’re serious about the way your creative presents your business to the customer and tired of not getting the results you expect, consider the above steps as ways you can directly influence the process and get the creative you desire.
Matt Schroeder at the Allegra Marketing Blog