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Creative review – how to avoid a car crash

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Why read this? : The creative review meeting is where agencies present their ideas to the client. We share the different types of people who attend and why they have such different views. Learn why that meeting often ends up as a car crash and how to avoid that happening. Read this for ways to make the creative review meeting work better. 

In life, they say only 2 things are certain. Death. And taxes. Well, in the marketing world, there’s a third certainty. That’s the inevitable car crash of the ‘creative review‘ meeting between marketing agency and client.

You can’t really call yourself a marketer until you’ve survived a bad creative review meeting. Which most of them are.

This is the meeting where the creative teams at the agency show their first response to the brief

Car crash

This meeting is a key step in the advertising development process.

For the client, it’s part of their creative approval process. They need to manage agency expectations and those of internal approvers. 

For the creative team, it’s about putting their creative souls on the line in front of the client. The marketing decision maker. Or more likely decision makers, plural.  Decision makers with varying levels of creative feedback skills. And one eye on how much it’s all costing. 

The Agency Creative Team

You’ll recognise the creative teams as they typically work in one of these 2 ways :-

The 'rebel' creatives

There’s 3 things which give these types away. 

Their hair. Beards for men and dyed hair for women. Their visible tattoos. And their choice of footwear. F*ck-me Doc Martens or Birkenstocks.

Oh, and no socks. (Seriously, what’s with that?)

Image of two scruffily dressed creative types in front of a screen showing a tin of beans, and a headline that says "Best F**kng beans ever". One creative is saying - whaddya mean, female 25 to 44 grocery buyers might not like it?

And within 5 minutes of meeting them, also recognised by their complete disregard for how businesses actually work. 

But hey, they’re gritty and in touch with what’s happening ‘on the street’. Which let’s face it, most clients won’t be. Though who really wants to be on the street at all is a question for another day.

The 'luvvy' creatives

Inspired by a combination of Ru Paul, Patsy from Absolutely Fabulous and Niles Crane from Frasier.

These fashionista-types flounce flamboyantly around the agency, capable of both dazzling you with their energetic radiance and managing to drown you in meaningless thrown-together bullshit at the same time.

Now, while we have worked with some creatives who don’t fit these admittedly broad stereotypes, they are the exceptions that prove the rule.

Image of two smartly dressed creative type in front of a screen showing a tin of beans, the word beans changed to being, and the text more important than beans, dialogue says "but darling it's a work of art"

It seems to be a rule in agencies that the more alternative the creative team, the more impressed the client will be. And generally the problem in these meetings isn’t necessarily the creative teams themselves, it’s how these creative teams styles rub up against the rather more business-led styles of the client. These also fall into 2 types.

The Client Team

The 'commercial' client

Let’s be clear, most marketers have personal objectives set on driving growth in their business. And not on how good their advertising looks. That’s what drives them.

So, it’s not unusual as a client to be asking questions like “How much will it drive sales?” and “what’s the advertising impact on profits?”

The numbers matter more than the creativity to commercially minded clients. 

Person holding 6 hundred dollar bills in front of them which have been set alight

For them, the review meeting often feels like an exercise in burning money. 

What they’re really thinking is who are all these people? Do we really need them? Am I paying for all these people? How much is this costing me?

However, asking cost questions during a creative review meeting is like asking your barista at the local coffee shop about the political situation in Nicaragua (or wherever your beans come from).

Not necessarily bad questions, just being asked to totally the wrong audience in totally the wrong context.

The 'wannabe creative' client 

In most businesses, marketers secretly (or not so secretly) like to think of themselves as the ‘coolest’ function in the business.

Rather than looking at spreadsheets and invoices all day (yes, you, finance) or spending their time talking about warehouses, trucks and boxes (hello, supply chain), marketers get to go on photo and film shoots. They read and comment on scripts and look at casting reels and make decisions on music for their advertising.

That’s cool, right?

Except, what happens is that many marketers get into their head that they are the next Steven Spielberg, but actually have the creative judgement of a David Brent / Michael Scott (i.e. none whatsoever).

(And in actual fact, as we share in our guide to how to be a better marketer, explaining marketing to non-marketers is actually a hugely important part of being a marketer). 

The creative review - buckle up!

So, setting the scene for this car crash of a meeting. We’re at the proposal stage of the advertising development process

The client has shared the objectives, the budget, the brand identity and the brief. This will have all those pesky cost and sales answers for the ‘money’ client by the way.

The creative teams have worked probably 2 weeks solid of late nights scouring Google, sorry, being ‘creative’ (!). They’re ready to roll with a raft of images, artwork and scripts to bring the creative idea to life. But here’s typically what happens next :-

The advertising development process - a guide on how to advertise successfully

(a) Rebel creatives and commercial clients

The ‘commercial’ client looks at the hair/tattoo/shoes. They instantly decide the creative team were dragged out of a back alley skip behind some dodgy inner city pub earlier that morning.

The bold and brash creative ideas of the rebel team draw out dubious looks from the client. The client says they don’t believes the ideas will appeal to the ‘heartland’ of the target audience.

Rebel creative team leave vowing to piss in the client’s drink before the next creative review in a “Stick it to the man” homage to Fight Club.

The advert is produced in a huffy and half-hearted way. ‘Lets just get the damn thing out the door’ say the agency account team. The ad generates low to medium sales, but wins no awards.

It’s forgotten in a month.

(b) Rebel creatives and wannabe creative clients

The ‘wannabe creative’ client likes the hair/tattoos/shoes but feels decidedly uncool by comparison. They have regular haircuts/business suits/sensible shoes.

Everyone gets excited at the rebel creatives pushing the boundaries of what’s acceptable. The meeting descends into a brainstorm of creative thinking with post-it notes.

‘Hey, do you think (insert A-list film star) would be interested?’ and ‘wouldn’t (A-list rap star) be a great music choice for this?’.

Yellow post it with illustration of a lightbulb pinned to a wooden pin board

A few days later, back in the relative calm of the office, the client realises the budget will only cover about 10% of the ideas list. The board would likely also fire them for risking the reputation of the company. There’s zero chance of the idea making it though approvals

The client sends a bullet-point follow-up email of what’s acceptable back to the agency account manager. This ignores 95% of the ideas from the creative review. The ad eventually comes out with the original core idea relatively still intact.

But the idea is totally watered down to make sure it doesn’t rock the boat. It might end up being nominated and getting a Bronze or Commended award at some regional marketing awards ceremony that nobody really cares about anyway.

The ad is forgotten in 3 months.

(c) Luvvy creatives and commercial clients

This goes one of 2 ways. Luvvy creatives are capable of being highly charming. If the timing of the moon and sun and their you know, biorhythms, is just right, they dazzle the commercial client with a big idea that’s super stylised and impressive.

The client loses their bearings completely and forgets to ask all the normal business questions they normally ask. The ad goes on to drive record sales and wins multiple awards.

That maybe happens 2% of times.

The other 98% of times, the commercial client starts getting more and more irate. Why aren’t you answering our questions? How much will that cost? What impact will it have on sales?

Eventually they blow up like a volcano asking for the creative team to be replaced by someone who knows what they’re doing. There are threats to re-pitch the whole business.

Nobody wins in this creative review scenario.

Often rebel creatives are brought in at this point, because at least they’ll get something done.

Man in a red T-shirt looking frustrated and angry

(d) Luvvy creatives and wannabe creative clients

On paper a match made in heaven. Both parties understand the artistic imperative in creating great advertising. But it soon runs into a problem. Because luvvy creatives often take one look at the wannabe creative clients and think how can this uncultured oik have any idea of what makes my art so great?

Luvvy creatives then ignore or are secretly sarcastic about the views of the wannabe creative clients.

The client is so caught up in the creative process, they don’t spot the idea disappearing up its own backside.

End result, a overblown mess of an advert that might win a creative award (as they’re voted on by other creatives mostly), but which drives little to no sales because they forgot to add a clear call to action. Nobody except the luvvie creative speaks of the campaign ever again.

We may, just may, have exaggerated some of these scenarios for effect.

But really, not too much.

Ways to minimise the crash

So, if you know all this, how do you stop it happening? Short answer is you can’t. All you can do is minimise the impact of the crash when it happens. 

There’s just no hard and fast rules. You’re trying to control a bunch of people with completely different backgrounds, objectives and working styles. That’s a hard challenge to manage to deliver an amazing advertising campaign.

But to minimise the damage of this car crash of a meeting, here’s 3 things that can help.

Prepare the route in advance

Nothing creates a car crash faster in these creative review meetings than the client being surprised. Or getting an idea that ignores what was in the the brief.

Re-send all the key documents (especially the brief) to the relevant people the day before the meeting.

This acts as a reminder of the meeting purpose. It reminds the client their role at this stage is to pull together great creative feedback. And it reminds the creatives what the client is expecting. If they plan to present something unexpected, they should at least give the client fair warning. This can save major disasters.  

Creative teams seem to love the ‘big reveal’ in these meetings. One agency we worked with would literally put ideas up on wall behind a curtain and whip it back dramatically to show the ideas off.

Urgh.

Most of the marketing team hated this. Overdramatic nonsense. And it really puts clients on the spot and leaves them no time to think.

Decide who's got the wheel and make sure no-one else touches it

It should be obvious to all who’s the running the process in the room. That person has a key role to play in managing the business side and the creative impact.

This doesn’t always need to be the person with the most important job title (in fact, it’s usually a mess when it is). Having a process leader (or even one client and one agency lead operating together) can really help when the meeting heads towards the inevitable brick wall.

They can steer the meeting back in the right direction hopefully or …

When you see the crash coming, brake and get out

If all else fails, and you can see one of the above scenarios panning out, just stop. Take a breath, time works wonders. If you let people mentally process what’s happened, you can reconvene again at a later time.

It’s only a fricking advert after all. No-one should be left feeling like a burnt out wreck just for that.

Read our articles on agency evaluation  and advertising evaluation to find out more about this process. Or contact us if you need help to make the creative review with your agency work better. 

Triangular warning sticker with large exclamation mark on a wall. Sticker has many rips and tears in it.

Photo credit

Money on fire : Photo by Jp Valery on Unsplash

Idea – Bulb on Post it : Photo by AbsolutVision on Unsplash

Frustrated Man : Photo by Usman Yousaf on Unsplash

Three people pointing at laptop : Photo by John Schnobrich on Unsplash

Attention sign : Photo by Markus Spiske on Unsplash

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