Creative review – how to avoid a car crash

Car crash

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They say that in life, only two 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 creative or advertising brief. This is a key step in the advertising development process

The creative team will put their creative souls on the line, and come face to face with the client. The one who is the decision-maker. The one who will likely have questionable feedback skills. And the one who pays the bill.

Marketing agency cartoon - Two creative punky types in front of a screen with best f**king beans ever and saying what do ya mean, female grocery buyers 25 to 44 might not like it?

The Agency Creative Team

You’ll know who the creative teams as they typically fall into one of two camps

The ‘rebel’ creatives

Recognised by three things.Their hair – beards for men and dyed hair for women. They will have visible tattoos.

And they will have two choices of footwear – either f*ck-me Doc Martens or Birkenstocks. No socks.

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

But hey, they are gritty and in touch with what’s happening ‘on the street’ which let’s face it, most clients won’t be. Though which street is often up for debate.

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 have proved the rule.

It seems to be a ‘rule’ in advertising agencies that they 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-styles of the client, who will mostly fall into one of two types

Marketing agency cartoon - Two luvvie creative types in front of advert for beans, saying that being is more important than beans, and one is saying but darling, it's a work of art!

The Client Team

The ‘commercial’ client 

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

So, it’s not untypical as a client to be asking questions like “How much is this costing?” and “How much will it drive sales?”.

However, asking this during a creative review meeting is like asking your barista at the local coffee shop about the political situation in Nicaragua or Costa Rica 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)

The creative review – buckle up!

So, setting the scene for this car crash of a meeting. The client has shared the brand identity and presented the advertising brief for the campaign. 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 :-

(a) Rebel creatives and commercial clients

The ‘commercial’ client looks at the hair/tattoo/shoes. They instantly decide that 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 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 is forgotten within 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 transforms 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?’.

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.

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 within 3 months.

(c) Luvvy creatives and commercial clients

This goes one of two 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 will dazzle the commercial client with a big idea that is super stylised and impressive.

The client will lose their bearings completely and forget 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 are 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.

(d) Luvvy creatives and wannabe creative clients 

On paper a match made in heaven. Both parties understand the artistic imperative in creating great advertising.

Except, luvvy creatives 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 will then typically ignore or be secretly sarcastic about the views of the wannabe creative clients.

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

End result, a overblown mess of an advert that might win a creative award (since they are voted on by other creatives mostly) but which drives little to no sales. 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.

Three brains working together

Ways to minimise the crash

There are no hard and fast rules for what happens when you put a bunch of people with completely different backgrounds, objectives and working styles together and expect them to come up with an amazing advertising campaign.

But to minimise the damage of this car crash of a meeting, here’s three things to consider.

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 has no relation to the brief.

Have all the documentation especially the key points of the brief circulated to all attending the day before the meeting.

This works as a reminder of the meeting purpose especially for the creative team. If the creative ideas are pushing the boundaries, maybe even call the client lead to sound them out in advance. 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.


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 is 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, and no-one should be left feeling like a burnt out wreck just for that.

Read our guides on how to advertise and advertising evaluation to find out more about this process, or contact us if you’d like help to make the creative review with your agency work better. 

Photo credit

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

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