You Can Do Creative Like the Big Shots

by John Pellegrini

As a production person in radio for many years, I always wondered what the exact difference was between what I did versus what the creatives at an advertising agency did. How is it that I could write successful advertising campaigns, yet get paid so little compared to the creatives who write successful advertising campaigns at the big agencies

We also used to use that old line that said, “well the big agencies can come up with incredible ideas because they have weeks and months to do it.” Not necessarily true. In fact, the average turnaround time on a concept in an advertising agency is about a week. Sometimes less. Truthfully, when I look back on my own experience, that was about the turnaround I usually had on a new commercial. Oh sure, there were the last minute ones that “never happen in advertising agencies,” but they didn’t happen as often as I claimed they did, and I suspect I’m not alone in being able to admit this.

So how is it that an advertising agency gets more creative respect than many of us do? How does an advertising agency actually go about creating those amazing commercials that we secretly are envious of and try to imitate? And why are clients so willing to give agencies far more money to make their commercials than they are to radio stations? There are three main differences between advertising agencies and the traditional radio station setup that allow for these things to occur.

First off, at an advertising agency the Account Executive usually handles only one client. Sometimes in a smaller shop the exec may handle two or three, but never more than that. Now, this is impossible to duplicate in radio, so we won’t focus much on it. But, as you can immediately understand, the benefits of this kind of situation are immense. The A/E focuses on only one or two clients, so there’s never any doubt as to which client wants what done. The A/E has the luxury of being able to build an incredible amount of trust and goodwill with the client that a radio A/E would never have time to accomplish. Also, the agency A/E doesn’t make his or her money exclusively from the schedule the client buys, unlike radio A/Es, so the focus is just as strong on the creative for the agency A/E as the strength of the time placements.

The second difference is also kind of hard to duplicate in radio, but not as hard as some would claim. Each client, in addition to an Account Executive, has someone called an “Account Planner.” Now in some smaller agencies the A/E and the Account Planner are the same person, but in the bigger ones the A/P is a separate individual. What the “Account Planner” does is act as a liaison between the client, the creative department, and the consumer. The Planner is actually a business consultant to the client. It’s their responsibility to guard and guide the client’s advertising campaigns so that all the goals for the year and beyond are met. They also spend a lot of time with research, and many of them come from an agency’s research department. The Account Planner is also the person responsible for the third difference.

And what is that third difference? This is the one that can be adapted by radio right now. It has many names, depending on the agency: Creative Brief, Focus Document, Work Plan, Project Assignment, Strategy Brief, etc. For the purposes of this article we’re going to call it a Creative Brief, and this is the heart and soul of how advertising agencies make their commercial campaigns. The Creative Brief is the bible of every campaign and no one involved in the creative may deviate from what it says.

The Creative Brief is usually written by the Account Planner after consultation with the client, the research department, and the A/E. The purpose of the Creative Brief is to give the creative team a realistic view of what the creative should do. It also provides a clear understanding of the people that the advertising must address. And it gives clear direction on the messages to which the target audience seems most likely to respond.

These briefs are usually very brief (hence the name). They consist entirely of the focus objectives for the client. Mostly they consist of 7 questions and the answers to those questions. All of the information that is given in the answers section is also deliberately brief and to the point so that there is no room for speculation. Here are the typical seven questions you’ll find on a typical brief, though they may be worded differently depending on the agency involved. I’ll follow up with specifics.

Why are we advertising at all?
What is the advertising trying to achieve?
Who are we talking to?
What do we know about the target?
What’s the main idea we need to communicate?
What’s the best way of planting this idea (strategy)?
How do we know we’re right?

Why are we advertising at all? Here will be a succinct description of the business situation and the problems that the advertising needs to overcome along with a clear sense that the advertising can help. Nobody advertises without a reason. There is always a specific problem that every business has which the advertising must answer. Even if it’s just to keep customers coming in the door (which is now called “branding”).

What is the advertising trying to achieve? What are the objectives? It is extremely important that these objectives are REALISTIC. Develop only objectives that the advertising can realistically achieve. It is vital to be clear on the desired effect. And if there are to be multiple effects, then they must be prioritized. The priority doesn’t have to be for importance, but should definitely be for sequence. Never more than three effects per advertising campaign, either. Otherwise there are too many messages, which causes a loss of focus.

Who are we talking to? Here is where the demographics must be set in stone. Who specifically is the focus of the advertising?

What do we know about the target? Who are these people? What makes them tick? What do they like? What do they dislike? Why do they use our client’s product or service? This is where the research people get pulled in. Be qualitative, descriptive, emotional, creative. How do they feel about us (meaning the client’s product or service)? Do they care about us? How do we fit into their lives? How do they FEEL about us? Is it easy or difficult for them to talk about us? What language do they use? Personal experiences or anecdotes help describe complex situations, and played back in advertising can make the same point very powerful.

What’s the main idea we need to communicate? This is the positioning statement. Sometimes called the Concept or the Brand Identity, it’s the proposition that is to be communicated to the target audience. Sometimes it’s only one word. Sometimes it’s a few words. Sometimes it’s a sentence, but never more than a sentence. This is the message that the client wants the audience to know. This is what the audience should take away from the advertising. This is what the audience should remember about the client every time the audience thinks about the client. One single idea expressed in one sentence or less.

What is the best way of planting this idea (strategy)? This is the “how” part of the message, versus the “what” part of the main idea. Something significant to remember is the positioning statement doesn’t always need to be stated specifically in the advertising.

How do we know we’re right? Where’s the evidence? What’s the support for the points expressed? The reasons-to-believe in the advertising? This is how you know if the commercial is on target or not. And the way you measure this is by using the research in question four, and the idea in question five as your yardstick.

Advertising agencies always consider themselves to be the client’s partner, which is why all those questions in number four use the word “us” when they’re actually talking about the client. The agency always considers themselves as representatives of their clients. This is also what separates agencies from radio stations. Radio stations traditionally side with their listeners, and try to adapt the client’s messages to the listeners. But in order for a radio station to create advertising as effectively as an advertising agency does, then you have to make the client an equal partner in the mix.

After the Creative Brief is written and discussed, the creative teams that are assigned to the project take the brief and post it right on the top of everything they do for the campaign. Every single piece of copy that’s written, every graphic or illustration that’s considered, every potential advertisement that they come up with must have the single idea of the positioning statement present within. Again, as I mentioned, the positioning statement doesn’t necessarily need to be included verbatim in the ad, but you must be able to decipher it easily. Anything that is produced that doesn’t have that idea included, or cannot be immediately understood, is rejected no matter how creative or innovative. One ad agency copywriter told me that he always takes the positioning statement and writes it in big letters across the top of every sheet of his notepaper, so he never forgets or deviates from that concept.

The most interesting aspect of this is that the advertising agency truly forces their clients to get involved in the process, or at least approve of the methods in the process. Ad agencies (at least the good ones) never let the client get away with saying, “just come up with something and amaze me.” You’ll never hear an agency A/E say, “the client wants something new this week, so come up with a funny spot.” Nor do they allow the client to be passive on any decision that needs to be made. The client must be as committed to the process and the creative as the agency is, or it doesn’t run. Similarly, the client always approves the Creative Brief before the creative begins so that the client can’t back out or change his or her mind or claim that the goals weren’t met. The Creative Brief protects the agency as much as it protects the client.

This may sound like a lot of work, but that’s the main difference between an agency that bills hundreds of thousands or millions of dollars in creative versus radio stations that don’t charge for creative at all. I know many people reading this article won’t like to hear this but it’s true… the client gets what the client pays for. With so many radio stations now mulling over the idea that they can act as an advertising agency for their clients, then this would be the least you can do for those clients. If you want to be an advertising agency then you’ve got to act like an advertising agency, and to do that you have to understand how an advertising agency works.

Of course, implementing the usage of a Creative Brief like the one above will be a challenge that might prove impossible for many in the prod world. Why? Because most of the sales reps at your station will resist using it. They will argue passionately against it as being too involved, too much work, and largely unnecessary. The true underlying reason behind these arguments is that the sales reps don’t want to do anything that requires them to spend more time on the accounts they have than necessary. Understandably so, because they only get paid by how much business they bring in, not how well they service their clients. That’s why so many salespeople never get the information correct from their clients for the advertising schedule. They’re in too much of a hurry to get to their next appointment or call to be bothered with details.

If your station managers decide that an in house agency is the way to go and they like the idea of this Creative Brief, then they must ensure to have a couple of staff members who will act like the Account Planners. These people should have the sole assignment of calling on or calling up the clients and getting all the information from them that’s necessary in the Creative Brief. Continuity people and sales assistants are a good place to start the search for people who will fill this role, but they must be schooled well in the Creative Brief and how it works. Somebody must do the necessary research with the clients to ensure that the Creative Brief is as exact and truthful as possible. Absolutely no whitewashing or fictionalizing of the business situation can be allowed. This is another reason why the Creative Brief may be harder to use than you think. The client cannot be allowed to exaggerate or lie about anything, or the campaign you create will be useless. Honesty in advertising is hard to come by, but it’s the only way one business’s campaign will succeed against others.

From personal experience I know now that the stuff that I used to think was highly creative was, for the most part, not effective advertising. That’s because I didn’t use the approach that is shown above in the Creative Brief. Instead, I would just think of what the client had to offer, and think of something funny or different about it. Also, I used to think that a campaign was just a series of spots done for a client. I didn’t realize that a campaign is in fact a series that focuses on a single theme… the positioning statement. Sometimes the creative thing I came up with would work and sometimes it wouldn’t. I used to chalk it up to a fickle public. Not any more. Now I realize that the stuff that worked was primarily due to dumb luck (plus repeating past successes), and the stuff that didn’t work was due to my not paying attention to the real needs and issues facing the consumers of the products and services of the station’s clients. The funniest spot in the world doesn’t always sell, and the reason why is lack of the kind of focus a creative brief can achieve.

It is a different world these ad agency folk operate within, and if the powers that be in the radio industry truly desire to get ahead, then radio should start paying attention to that world. There is far more money to be made in advertising, and as I’ve said before, radio is shooting itself in the foot with the nose it just bit off its face for not even considering the possibility of getting in on the action. Print (magazines, newspapers, etc.) and TV generate more than half their overall income on production fees. Outdoor and website developers also make tons of revenue from production fees. Radio makes virtually nothing. Only an idiot would think this makes sense.

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