Twenty years is a long time. It’s two decades. 175,316 hours. 10,512,000 minutes. That is approximately how long I have been leading creative. Time doesn’t necessarily make you an expert, but experience sure does. Warren Buffett once said, “It takes 20 years to build a reputation and five minutes to ruin it. If you think about that, you’ll do things differently.” It has taken me about 20 years to fully appreciate that. In that time, I have learned a few things, and unlearned tons more. Habits and default approaches can set in quickly. It takes real resolve, passion and determination to point yourself in the right direction. When it comes to the creative process, I have been down many a road. Confidently, I believe I have finally reached the point where I can share these 5 key steps to producing great work that is worthy of our craft.
I can’t begin to stress this enough. I truly don’t believe that being handed a brief is enough. Working closely with your strategy team will bear incredible fruit. It will give you an intimacy and understanding of the challenge, sentiment and target that you will not get from reading a piece of paper. Be insistent on this. Whatever process and platform you follow, it needs to be modified such that your creative team is immersed in the strategy component. I have our lead creatives attend the study or focus groups, shadow the strategic process and even help to define a brand’s purpose or position. When you get that close to the process, you develop an inherent empathy for the challenge. It becomes your cause and you inevitably find yourself a champion of it.
This is a big one. Understanding the basic economics of where the brand, product or service you are peddling sits within the economic landscape will be very telling on how you should approach the market. We have been charged with promoting brands that are category leaders just as many times as championing challenger brands. The approach can be very different based on a few parameters. Market position is the first.
When a brand manager presents you with market-share reports, don’t glaze over. This is critical stuff. Let’s say, for instance, that the brand you represent owns but a fraction of the market share as compared to the category leader. In this case, it would be to your ultimate benefit that you erode share. Take up more of the pie. Immediately, this informs your tactic and approach. So many times, I have seen companies successfully promote the need for their offering to the point where, because they are not the category lead, they are not the prime beneficiary of their efforts.
Let’s use Hyundai as an example. With the introduction of the Genesis and Equus models, the company thrust itself into the luxury category where there is a host of worthy adversaries as competition. What are they doing? Well, the right thing, for starters. They have chosen to tell their story in a way that makes people question the very notion of luxury, within the context of value, features and even drive. They are chipping away at the pedestal that other luxury brands sit on. It appears to be working. Now let’s imagine for a second that they chose instead to extoll the joys of owning a luxury vehicle – and because theirs is a luxury vehicle this technically makes sense. But a consumer who buys into that notion would not likely have Hyundai in their immediate consideration set. So now you have sold the sentiment but the resulting purchase is misdirected to the entry-level model of The Ultimate Driving Machine.
Transversely, if you are the category lead, it generally doesn’t pay to erode share. Instead, you need to grow the category and attempt to attract a wider audience. Now this gets quite grey in the arena of luxury automotive as the top three brands are split with an approximate 17% share each. That’s trickier. But let’s say that you are charged with communications for a brand that has a rampant share. We see this with our Philips client in the electric grooming category. For them it really doesn’t pay to chase competing electric brands. When a consumer is interested in the electric category, the likelihood is that they will choose Philips – by virtue of their presence, reviews, value, technology and performance. So instead, our recommended approach for Philips is to erode share of a competing market. The manual blade category. It’s an 18 billion dollar market as compared to electric’s 2 billion. Get consumers starting with or switching to electric – that is where the golden goose lives.
Another element to consider is budget. Sounds like a logical thing but again, I have all-to-often seen the misuse of these valuable funds. The basic strategy I employ, as it pertains to creative, is that you have to consider share-of-voice versus share-of-mind. If your budget is astronomical, you can rely on outspending and out-voicing your competition. That massive amount of reach and frequency will prevail. Think of brands like Tide. Tide undisputedly owns “clean”. So much so that they can set their own price. I mean it. Have a look in the grocery aisle and you will see as much as a $10 premium from others on the shelf. There may be other brands that promise clean, but they can’t outspend the enormous presence of the P&G budget. It’s not necessarily a formula that I love, but it works (and I wouldn’t sneeze at the budget, either).
When you don’t have oodles of cash to deal with, you simply cannot go in with the same message as the ones who do. You will very quickly get lost. That is why you hear the term “disruption” over-and-over again in our field. It’s just a different way of saying “share-of-mind”. Think about it, if you have 20 people saying generally the same thing at about equal amounts of media spend, you have 1/20th the voice. Rather, if you create a unique and ownable message and territory, and tell a creative and compelling story, you pull yourself out of that group. Even if you have to spend less, you will stand out more. You now occupy 50% of the share-of-mind. Nice.
I love this analogy. Unlike Step 2, it is really quite simple and I use it a lot to get clients focused on the message. It goes like this, “If I were to randomly throw ten tennis balls in your direction, how many do you realistically think you can catch?” Overwhelmingly, the answer is “one”. And there you have it.
In the awareness phase of advertising, where there are tons of balls being thrown from every direction, offer only one message. The most meaningful, hardest-hitting, undeniable tennis ball you can throw. Clouding the execution with other messages, features and benefits will make it difficult to appreciate and digest. There are plenty of opportunities to address that granularity as a consumer works through their buying journey. Web sites, blogs, reviews, catalogues, on-pack, and a variety of other venues are where you can throw them another few balls. When they are really concentrating. As a common example, think about what Apple did with the introduction of the iPod. You all know the campaign. They chose to focus and align with how music makes you feel. They owned music! Pretty simple, but so powerful. While all of the other brands concentrated on gigabytes, colour screens and all the other tech mumbo-jumbo, Apple’s tennis ball was right on target.
This is where a lot of really great creative comes from. It, too, is rather fundamental, but not considered often enough. I once read somewhere that if it is accepted that a horse can jump over a hedge, then it is plausible to the human mind that the same horse can leap over the Grand Canyon. Because horses jump.
That’s pretty powerful stuff.
Our basic understanding and acceptance of a perception is the root of how well an idea, even those that seem exaggerated, will be received. That’s why, historically, ads showcasing a gorilla playing the drums and weird stuff at the end of the rainbow, while extremely “weird”, are acknowledged as standout. We recently created a spot for First Choice Haircutters where a reflection comes to life in Peter Pan shadow fashion and leads our hero to a salon. Amazingly, none of this is really a stretch for the human mind. We see ourselves animated in a mirror all the time so it is not a foreign concept. The result is creative that is more engaging, entertaining and worthy of attention. It shouldn’t be limited to video either. Some of the greatest print and digital pieces use this fundamental approach as the foundation for great design and interactivity. The short of it is that the safe route is anything but safe, as it will have your message drowning in a sea of sameness. Remember that share-of-mind bit?
Speaking of safe, stop doing it. If you truly want to make a difference and ensure that your work has a direct and positive impact on your client’s brand, you need to present only your best. That doesn’t mean going in with only one concept. It means that you should strive for all of the ideas to compete at the same level. Why not present three concepts that are inspired and that you truly believe in? Why do there have to be “levels”? You know: “safe”, “a little out-there”, and “completely wow, love it but the client will never go for it”. I used to do that. Now I know better. Truth is, it is the inspired idea that usually makes the cut and makes its way through, even if it is dumbed down a little along the way. You giving it your best and putting on your biggest brain is what should be expected. We are probably jaded from this approach because we used to create for creating’s sake, but now that your work is rooted in the smarts of a comprehensive and compelling strategy, it’s okay for you to flex those muscles again.
So that’s it. While there is no formula to consistently churning out brilliant ideas, this should provide the basic necessities for the framework of your mastery. I’ve learned all of this by putting in the time. All you have to do now is put in the desire.
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