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The Case Against “Cool” — Why Brands and Agencies Need Accountable Creative

By Charles Long | 1.20.20

Be honest: As a marketer, how many times have you looked at your content out in the market and thought, “Wow, that really doesn’t reflect the initial strategy and goals we set”?


Believe me, this happens all the time.


It happens because brands and agencies are still not building a strong enough bridge between their strategy and the final creative output. It happens when brands craft their creative brief inhouse or with a partner, then hand it off to the creatives and the makers, inevitably taking a million turns through concepting, writing, and execution.


It also happens because of how brands and agencies assemble their teams and approach the campaign process. A great game of telephone occurs, where messaging, strategy, and goals become diluted, misaligned, forgotten, or ignored as stakeholders come and go. 


What’s funny is that the disconnect between strategy and creative is happening even as brands invest more in audience understanding than ever before. 


Bolstered by digital tools and a need to understand online and offline behavior, organizations pay for focus groups and surveys and craft detailed journey maps and audience personas that dissect customer mindsets. They analyze their competitors’ audience, layering in qualitative and quantitative research to create impressive reports and plans. When they circulate the work, everyone head-nods in agreement that they finally know who they’re talking to. Then they put that work on a shelf.


If we are to be sure strategy work is reflected in the execution, we need to be sure it makes it into the brief in the first place. We also need to consider the mindsets and motivations of all the teams that touch the creative process. To speak in broad strokes, creatives, strategists, and account managers think differently. A good creative will want to ensure their work is as beautiful, funny, memorable, intuitive—or whatever the adjective might be—as possible. This mindset usually jives with client expectations. 


Ask a brand manager what he or she wants and there is a knee-jerk reaction to ask for something “cool” or “flashy.” But creative isn’t good unless it resonates with a brand’s target audience. A campaign isn’t effective—no matter how “cool” the concept—unless it ties back to a nuanced strategy that reflects an audience’s needs and mindset.


If we are to glean value from our recent industry emphasis on strategy and audience research, the findings need to be infused into every step of the creative process. We need to build a bridge between the upfront research and the resulting big idea and challenge ourselves to stay on strategy as we iterate and refine our creative.


Creative accountability is particularly important in B2B marketing, as the buying cycle is complex. Advertisers have to appeal to multiple decision-makers and drive group decision-making. They need an in-depth understanding of each stakeholders’ motivations, as well as a mastery of the industry vernacular, so their content sounds authentic.


Consider: The average CISO’s tenure is 18 months to two years. When people in this position evaluate a product or service, they are thinking about quick wins, not long-term, gradual gains. This is a valuable insight for advertisers and one that would be detailed upfront in audience and strategy work. But think about how easy it would be to lose sight of this consideration. All it takes is a new stakeholder from the creative side entering the process and tweaking copy, inadvertently scrapping the urgency message.


This disconnect can occur when creating just about anything. Recently, our team was charged with helping a technology client develop an interactive experience for the showroom of an industry event. Our strategy was to create a demo that could act as a “wingman” to the brand rep. We purposefully sought to design something a prospect could not navigate alone, thereby provoking conversation and facilitating relationship-building. Throughout the process, various stakeholders weighed in, and inevitably, they would suggest changes to make the demo more user-friendly. So, we would resurface the strategy and remind people our goal was not to create an intuitive UX, but rather to create a memorable experience that promoted interaction with the brand rep.


See how easy it is to lose sight of your objective and strategy in a well-intended effort to improve the function or design of your output? To ensure accountable creative, brands and agencies need to reconsider how they assemble their teams. They need to create engagement teams in which all departments—strategy, creative, art, and accounts—work together throughout the lifecycle of the project. The percentages of each will go up and down as you move through the process. Strategy’s involvement will be heaviest in the beginning; then they will be looped back in at defined milestones to make sure things are still on target. Likewise, creative should be involved early so they have context; of course, their role will increase in the execution phase. Meanwhile, the project management and account sides’ role is to serve as the connective thread, working to keep everyone aligned.


Certainly, “good” creative doesn’t just map back to strategy—it moves the needle for the brand. So, accountable creative also means defining performance metrics upfront, then evaluating campaign performance against those metrics. 


Taste is subjective; performance is not. When you meet or exceed campaign goals, you create creative that is defensible, not just accountable. And that creative is much more likely to perform if you’ve built a bridge between strategy and creative and delivered something that reflects the nuanced audience understanding you probably invested a great deal to obtain.

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About the Author

Centerline Digital founder and CEO Charles Long is responsible for building teams and processes that deliver unique marketing solutions for some of the world’s most progressive enterprises. Long has more than 20 years of experience establishing and cultivating an environment that allows for creative exploration and strategic marketing success. He is directly responsible for the commitment of infrastructure to handle and scale client engagements, helping clients succeed consistently through years of partnership.