I've had the pleasure of working with creatives since the Clinton administration. Today, as back then, collaborating with writers and designers has provided the most challenging and enriching experiences of my career.
My job is to formulate a strategy. Theirs' is to bring it to life in the marketplace. A lot can go wrong between those two points. The secret to successfully navigating that journey reminds me of an old poster that hung in my teenage sister's room,
"Love is like a butterfly. Hold it too tightly; it will be crushed. Hold it too loosely, and it will fly away."
In this metaphor, creative work is the butterfly. Often, I'd exert too much control over the creative team's output, resulting in stunted and clumsy work. Then, I'd overcorrect and open my grip, and the work fluttered far away from strategy.
A creative team is a valuable and often mishandled resource. My aim with this list is to help the marketer position their creative agency to do its best. Here are five tips for getting excellent creative work:
- Start With a Sound Objective
- Embrace Constraints
- Maintain Momentum
- Give 'More or Less' Feedback
- Share Results
START WITH A SOUND OBJECTIVE
At Latitude, we're fond of the principle, "what starts right ends right." Composing a thorough creative brief increases a design firm's success on a marketer's behalf. However, evidence shows that the discipline of brief writing has fallen on hard times. According to the 2021 BetterBriefs Project Global Report, 80% of marketers think they're good at writing briefs, while only 10% of creative agencies agree. That's a vast chasm.
Now, along with reciting "what starts right ends right." You'll hear us spout its companion principle, "start with the end in mind." An objective statement is the most potent piece of strategy in the creative brief. Regrettably, the same study indicates that sound objective writing is also declining. The report's authors say, "Objectives are the most critical yet most poorly defined element of every brief."
At its essence, an objective is a desired change that can be quantified or qualified. Put simply, an objective often seeks to increase or decrease something or achieve a transformation of some kind. Effective objectives are specific, actionable, and verifiable. For example, "increase paid social media click-thru rate by at least 10%."
Confusing the assignment for the objective is the most common mistake marketers make when writing a creative brief. To illustrate, in a project brief to their design firm, a consumer electronics brand defines its objective as: "Redesign POS displays and signage in big box accounts." This statement communicates an assignment and not an objective. I doubt the marketer’s end is installing a new display. Instead, they intend the display to be a means to improve sales performance in some way. But, like many marketers are prone to do, that desired result is left off the brief.
An objective is the north star by which creatives should make every design decision. For marketers, along with the rest of the brief, an objective statement equips them to evaluate creative work objectively.
A misconception exists that the fewer constraints, the more creativity can flourish. However, many experts in the psychology of creativity say just the opposite:
- Eliminating territories for creative exploration enables the creative agency to get out of the blocks more quickly.
- The scarcity of options permits creatives to use what is available in non-traditional ways, producing more original work.
- Challenges excite the best creatives. They love a good "hold my beer" moment.
I'm a fan of the cooking competition show Top Chef. Each episode displays the creative power of constraints as contestants cook up culinary creations limited by ingredients, budgets, cuisines, equipment, and time. Although some dishes fall short, the judges are routinely blown away by what the chefs can achieve considering such constraints.
Clearly articulating the limitations of time, budgets, space, materials, channels, assets, and other resources is an essential part of the creative brief. Don't be shy about communicating constraints and mandatories. Your creative agency will appreciate it even if they don't say it.
Often, marketers kick off creative assignments with great urgency. However, competing priorities, time pressures, and changing strategies unintentionally cause stoppages that can negatively affect your creative agency's work.
Prolonged creative review periods or waiting on the delivery of assets or information causes creatives to lose their rhythm. Continually refreshing themselves on the assignment drains creatives, and the inconsistency makes the project more challenging.
People and hours are a creative agency's inventory. Efficiently allocating both is essential to running a healthy business. When a project stalls, the marketer risks losing their creative personnel to other projects. This lack of continuity creates a headwind despite an agency's honest efforts to ensure a smooth transition.
To set up your creative agency for success, maintain established timelines for reviews and approvals. If something changes, proactively rework the timelines and stay true to them.
GIVE 'MORE OR LESS' FEEDBACK
For too long, I struggled to give effective feedback to creatives. My challenge lay in providing the creative team with enough detailed guidance without imposing my ideas. I was prone to drafting ad copy or sketching designs because I lacked effective language. Often, I would receive back a designed version of my doodles and verbatim headlines and copy. Unintentionally, I disempowered the people I relied upon to achieve my objective. Not a recipe for success.
It wasn't until I heard about actress Christina Ricci's response to a fussy movie director that I unlocked the key to giving constructive feedback. In response to her director's extensive notes on her performance, she cut to the quick by asking, "do you want more happy or more sad?" Providing useful creative direction is as simple as that.
Other than addressing inaccuracies, most creative feedback can be expressed as a 'more or less' statement. I often imagine it this way, copy and design elements—like look, tone, and feel—are dials that can be turned up and down. For example, "the headline needs more urgency" or "select a less contrasting color scheme for the logo."
Creatives often become disempowered and discouraged when marketers play writer or designer. Statements like these help marketers provide direction in a way that leaves room for a design team to apply their expertise and creativity—keeping them engaged and enthusiastic.
Despite what some might think, creatives aren't primarily motivated by designing something cool, new, or that millions will see. Creating something that achieves an objective is what gratifies them most. Unfortunately, many marketers don't share the results of their work with creatives. Not doing so denies design professionals the opportunity to build upon their hits and learn from their misses.
While not every kind of marketing creative is measurable or is it possible to share data, marketers can provide performance feedback on some level. Make it a point to conduct a project retrospective with your creative agency to share available performance data and anecdotal feedback. Call out what did or didn't work and why. Lastly, words of affirmation fill a creative's gas tank. Find opportunities to acknowledge their work when merited. It will rev them up for the next project.
I hope you find these tips helpful. The lessons that informed them were hard-earned. The work I am most proud of has manifested through the minds, eyes, and hands of writers, designers, animators, photographers, stylists, composers, and art directors. I owe a debt of gratitude to all the creatives I have collaborated with throughout my career. They have taught me so much.
Glenn Deering is Latitude’s Executive Director of Strategy