Are we doing wrong in creating “what the client likes”?

A few years back, when I was working in a 900-person ad agency, a new Copywriter entered our group. As he set up shop in the office next to me, he asked:

“So…this Creative Director. What kind of stuff does he like?”

“Excuse me?”

“You know, what kind of copy does he typically approve? What’s easier to get through and flies with him? Does he have a style he likes to see?”

I was taken aback by the question.What does it matter if it’s a smart idea and the right kind of idea for the brand? If you’re a compelling strategist and presenter, so what if you have to sell a little harder to persuade someone to choose it?

Here are some variations of things I have heard:

“Bob doesn’t like seeing images of people looking directly at him.”

“Can we make sure the copy isn’t so negative-sounding? Janet doesn’t typically approve that.”

“Sam is big on making sure we list all of our services and in bullet point.”

“Laura tends to be more of an Earth-tone color person so our layout should have that. Get rid of these bright colors.”

“I like pink. If you give me anything with pink in the ad, I’ll approve it. Pink, pink, pink.”

“I know what you’re saying, I love it and I think the audience would love it. But it’ll never fly with this client. He doesn’t do humor.”

“Gary’s always been more comfortable with traditional media. Put more of that into your strategy than the online stuff and he’ll like it.”

If you’re in Advertising long enough, you’ll learn that revisions are part of the natural order. Things don’t sail through with ease. They get analyzed. They run through a gauntlet of account and creative people taking hacks at the work. And if emerges unscathed, it goes out the door to a client that – you guessed it – takes more hacks at it. As Luke Sullivan, author of “Hey Whipple, Squeeze This!” calls it, it’s the “Death by A Thousand Tiny Cuts.”

Nature of the beast, I suppose. But that doesn’t mean you take the easy way out to avoid it at all costs. That includes writing for people who aren’t in the target audience. This is why answering the “What kind of work do they like?” question may win the battle but ultimately loses the war on several fronts.

First, it’s created with the endgame of trying to ensure the idea sees the light of day. That’s woefully short-sighted.
If your idea does get through but can’t connect with the audience because all you were concerned with was appeasing internal forces, how does that benefit the agency or client? It doesn’t. It does a disservice to them, even if they can’t automatically grasp why that idea is the right one. And that will only come back to hurt you.

Second, the end buyer is an afterthought with a question like this.
The Creative Director and client are buyers of the idea but they are not buyers of the product. If you’re not thinking about those end buyers, you’re not doing justice to the client’s brand, the agency or yourself. We don’t always reach the goal of creating the kind of amazing ideas we want to, but we always have to try and push as far as we can until then. Even if it’s the harder road to take.

Third, you lose your identity as a writer or designer.
It becomes their message. Their design. Their tone. Their style. You become a clone of them. But your Creative Director or client doesn’t need a clone. If they’re any good at their job at all and not a complete dictator, he or she needs different perspectives other than their own that produce creative surprises, not what they want and expect to see.

Yes, I know this isn’t art and can’t be an expression of whatever we want. That’s selfish because it becomes all about us rather than, again, the target audience. But there is a difference between creating and order taking.

Creating gives meaningful thought to the challenge and considers how to speak to the audience in unexpected ways that resonate with them. Order taking gives no meaningful thought and only considers what your boss or the client wants to say or design. You lose a bit of your soul the more this happens.

Think of how this applies to something else, like music. There will be only one U2. One Coldplay. One Foo Fighters. One Leonard Bernstein. One Stephen Sondheim. One Mozart.  Is it better to emulate someone who has already produced something great or is it worthwhile to create something on our own? Some people are all for the first option and get fulfillment off of that – cover bands, essentially. They can be talented in their own right but they aren’t bringing anything new to the table we didn’t expect. If you play 80’s rock, we’re going to expect 80’s rock. There’s safety in that because people can identify with your music and you may get a great turnout at the local bar.

But if you create something from scratch that you think the end audience may like? The stakes and risks are higher. They don’t know your music because it’s original. It’s new and different to their ears. The road to success is a lot harder, from sleeping in vans to playing in the worst bars imaginable for little money at first. And yet, if you have even a moderate amount of success beyond this level, you surpass any kind of fame the cover band will have. Because you’re giving people the unexpected. They then anticipate that and appreciate that. They tell others. Your fan base grows.

Playing to the immediate crowd is safe. If you’re comfortable with being a cover band in the creative world, good luck and I hope it works out. But if you can stomach the harder road by striving to deliver the unexpected rather than what you know they want, I’ll be raising a lighter high to salute you.

The Chicagoland Conversation with Marshall Creative

If you think you’ve seen Sandy Marshall somewhere before, you’re probably right. Besides running a small advertising agency, Marshall is heavily involved with Second City, has appeared in movies such as “The Dilemma” and on Comedy Central. I sat down with him to learn how improv comedy and marketing blend in perfect harmony at his agency, Marshall Creative.

Sandy Marshall, CEO of Marshall Creative – and the guy who might be behind that Second City production you’re about to see.

Dan Gershenson:
Sandy, you’re an actor, a director at Second City, a TV writer…then on top of it all, you decide in 2006 that you need even more to do and found Marshall Creative. Why?

Sandy Marshall: 
I was working as a freelance writer and was doing some copywriting and someone was asking if I do websites. I said, “Sure, I do websites!” I went and opened a bank account and started doing some small little jobs.

So I founded Marshall Creative sort by accident. Our biz has been almost 100% referral.

Since then, we’ve grown what was a very small freelance operation to where we’re at now, with an office that has 6 employees and a number of different contractors.

Our cardinal rule was that we didn’t get anything unless we absolutely needed it. Including business cards. We were careful to move at exactly the right pace. I didn’t set out to plunge into agency life. We had the great fortune to work with clients who were seeing a huge change in the multimedia landscape, so because of our experience in the creative world, we were able to blend talents and provide a lot of services other agencies did in about a third of the time. Being a small, flexible agency, we can divide and conquer better on certain things.

DG: What I notice that’s different about MC is that while there are many talented people in writing, design and web programming, almost all of them have a background in theatre. You direct at Second City, your Chief Technology Officer is also a sound designer for theatres, your Chief Brand Officer is also an actor and director. Did you intentionally seek to bring theatre-minded folks into the fold here?

SM: Absolutely. It was very intentional. It’s very important to me that people here have an artistic passion outside the office – not just people who want to work at an agency. I’m more interested in the kind of person who is in Chicago because they want to do comedic acting but also want experience as a Copywriter. Which tends to yield better work.

We’ve found ways to “under-complicate” projects and cut out a lot of office drama because we have a lot of other outside passions. It’s a very creative-minded group that arrives at decisions a lot quicker and collaborates more effectively as an ensemble. Creative ensembles in theater are used to building on small budgets and constructing beauty in a small amount of time. We’re able to do the same for our clients quickly and it’s much more fun.

It’s crucial that the vibe be right in an office. Putting together an ensemble like this is very similar to casting a show. Every personality has to be the right fit for what they’re doing.”

– Sandy Marshall, CEO of Marshall Creative


DG: How does improv training come in handy in the marketing world?

SM: With improvisation, every idea is a good idea. If someone has an idea, a lot of times they’re not sure why they had the idea. It’s our job to build upon that idea and turn the idea into gold. We try and build on any idea that the seed of that idea suggested. Improv is built on collaboration, listening and taking one idea and building upon it as quickly as possible.

DG: Speaking of as quickly as possible, you have a concept at Marshall Creative called “The 4-Day Website.” How does that process work exactly?

SM: It was in response to websites that we were building that were, at the time, taking forever. The thing that usually takes the longest is the “About” page. So we decided to cut down on that by having the client come into the office, book out 4 full days with the entire agency and begin building the site from ground zero on Day 1. We get a designer and copywriter in here, we talk about needs and ideas and we build mockups and wireframes based on that. The client signs off on crucial phases every step of the way.

It all happens very organically in the office. The advantage to the client is that they can be in our office as much as they want. It becomes a living, working office for them for 4 days. Which is great for clients who really want to get a site up and running very quickly. Once we launch the site within 4 days, we train them on how to use it – so they tweak, change and update it on their own.

DG: Who are some clients that you’ve worked with recently?

SM: We’re very excited to be working with Second City Communications, who hired us to manage the redesign a website of theirs that sells short videos to corporations. These videos are called Real Biz Shorts, short films designed to lead off training for sales reps around the country. In addition to their site, we’re working on earned media campaigns, paid media campaigns and more. It’s a great gig because it combines a lot of institutional knowledge of what Second City is, it’s nice for me personally since I’m a Director at Second City and it’s nice because it’s just the right amount of “business meets creative” to allow us to flex a lot of muscles. We were hired to deliver the right vibe – which is awesome. It’s a very exciting project.

DG: As you’ve had an agency for a little over 5 years, what’s your goal for the next 5 years at Marshall Creative?

SM: Our 1-year goal is to sustain and grow at the right rate. We’re continuing to see new business come through the door, which is exciting. We have the right people for the right positions. We’re in a good spot and we’re looking to add even more stability. In 5 years, our goals are a number of product-based initiatives we’d like to sell that will come to fruition in the next 18-24 months. For now, we’re having fun applying what we’ve learned for clients to our own brand, including our own website.

The “pie in the sky” is we would like to do all of the marketing for whatever becomes the biggest privatized space company in the next 5 years. So Virgin Galactic would be a dream client. Because we would all like to get paid to go into outer space to make sure the job goes well.