Sometimes You Get What You Ask For

One key to getting the most from your partnership with a creative Agency is to be extremely clear up front on your expectations for every project you ask them to do. Unfortunately, too often Organizations hire Agencies hoping they will simply “work their magic” and deliver results with minimal supervision or engagement. After all, if you need to invest a significant amount of time telling an Agency what you want done, you may as well do it yourself. Right?

For a lot of things I see Agencies asked to do, the right answer is that you should have done it yourself. You don’t really need a Creative Agency. You need more staff capacity. Employing a Creative Agency to act like a Temp Service is a waste of money and is morally depressing to Agency personnel.

On the other hand, if you genuinely want your messaging translated into heart and mind opening communication, then hiring and directing a Creative Agency to meet your need is a smart decision. It is taking full advantage of the Agency’s minds as well as hands, and leveraging a unique knowledge/skill set you do not have (nor would be expected to have) on staff. Net, it is a smart business decision with a reasonable expectation for a positive ROI. However, even in these situations you have a management responsibility to direct and protect the Agency so the odds of project success are enhanced.

To illustrate the point, consider what you would do if you had a leaky toilet. The first thing would be to assess your personal skill set to determine if you could replace the seal yourself. If you are like me, you’d quickly conclude that contracting a plumber with the right expertise and tools would make far more sense and likely be less expensive in the long run. You’d find a reputable plumber you trust and then you’d explain the problem you’d like addressed. You wouldn’t simply say – “I know nothing about plumbing and would like you to ensure the plumbing in my house is working.” You wouldn’t leave it open ended, you’d explain the situation and direct the plumber to fix the specific toilet that is leaking. Why? Because you know that an open-ended description of the problem is an invitation for the plumber to recommend gutting and replacing your entire plumbing system when the only thing you really need and are willing to pay for is getting the leaky toilet fixed. You’d direct the plumber to fix the toilet.

You need to be just as clear with any Creative Agency you contract. You need to tell them what the problem is you are asking them to solve, how much you are willing to pay, how long you are willing to wait for the solution, and how you will judge if they delivered a quality result.

Here is a tool I have found extremely helpful to capture the key project information a Creative Agency needs to do a good job. Be disciplined in the use of this tool and you will get better value and results from your Agency partner. The tool is called a Communication Brief (aka Creative Brief ).

Communication Brief Outline

Promise – It is important the Agency is clear on what your community promise is. This is the compelling reason a capital investor should consider your location versus other options. It is the relevant, competitive and authentic way you differentiate your community. State your promise simply so it is unambiguous. Avoid clever copy. Your promise should not be open to interpretation. The task of the Agency is to translate your community promise into advertising language that has stopping power and is memorable. But, they need to first be crystal clear on what your promise is in order to translate it faithfully.

Target Audience – Defining WHO you are trying to communicate your promise to matters. The Agency copy needs to explain the benefits of investing in your community and the reasons why they should be confident those benefits can be realized. Your community’s promise will deliver different benefits to different targets. The Agency will describe your promise one way to CEOs and another to Site Selection Consultants. If your target is trailing spouses and/or families, then the benefits of your promise will be expressed very differently.

Insights – The best campaigns are built around a unique insight about your target audience. Insights inform the Agency WHY your target makes the decisions they do. Knowing WHY somebody behaves in a particular way helps the Agency state your promise in a way that resonates with your target audience. If at all possible, insights should be supported by market research and not simple be somebody’s opinion.

Material to be Produced – You need to be clear with the Agency on what you are expecting them to deliver. If you leave this too open-ended, you will fall into the trap of playing the “bring me a rock” game. That is when the Agency presents you with a series of tactical ideas that are either off strategy or unaffordable. You send the Agency back to the drawing board and they come back again with a different box of rocks for you to look at and reject. “Bring me a rock” is non-productive and disempowering.

Mandatory Executional Elements – Consistency in your communication is important. If you have a logo or tagline that you want used in all communication vehicles, then this is where you tell the Agency. Often, these mandatory elements are described in a comprehensive set of brand guidelines. You’ll want to note that on this section and be certain the Agency has a copy to refer to.

Budget – Agencies love open-ended budgets so they can deliver you the “best” solution. Unfortunately, “best” can also be a budget buster and impractical. It is important to be up-front with the Agency and clear in the amount of money they have to work with. Getting the best solution within your budget constraints is often the preferred approach because you can afford to actually execute it. If you want to see an option that is not budget constrained, ask for it as well. That way you’ll have a sense for what you may be leaving on the table. But, be sure to set the Agency’s expectation right, otherwise they will focus on the budget buster and short change the affordable approach.

Timing – The best communication efforts are the ones that get executed. Be very clear on when you need the work done. Establish milestones to keep an eye on progress. Be as clear on the timing as you can, and hold your Agency accountable.

Decision Process – Many communication programs get derailed because there is no clear decision process. Agencies are sent down blind alleys and often have to do rework because proper alignment among the decision makers was not delivered in advance. There are a number of decision making models you can consider. No one is necessarily better than another. The most important thing is to have a process defined and in place. This will give the Agency confidence they will not need to throw away great work or be derailed at the last minute.


Taking the time to give your Agency clear direction will pay dividends in the long run. It will reduce frustration and rework. Ultimately it will deliver better communication of your community’s promise. It is critically important, but not easy work. Do this task well and you might be pleasantly surprised that you’ll actually get what you asked for.

What Are Your Thoughts?

Have you ever been frustrated with your Agency partner not delivering what you want? What were the implications? In retrospect, would a Creative Brief been helpful? What are the hurdles to you using the Creative Brief tool?

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11 Comments so far

  1. Jen

    September 26, 2011

    I’ve spent a lot of time working at different Agencies in account management, and agree all these steps and thought on the front-end are quite important — we always say “garbage in, garbage out”. But I think you left off the most critical keys to success:

    1) Don’t fence them in. Give input, but don’t put so many restrictions and “do nots” in your brief that there’s nowhere to go. If you knew where you wanted to be, you wouldn’t be here! Agencies need to be free to explore.
    2) Be prepared to be uncomfortable. There’s usually enough risk in great creative ideas to make good clients sweat a little. Be ready.
    3) Keep an open mind. You’ll probably see at least one idea and think “no way.” When you think this, take a deep breath, circle back and look again.
    4) Listen. Your agency didn’t just fall off the communication truck yesterday. They have reasons for showing you these ideas. Hear them out. You might surprise yourself.

    Clients who do these things are loved, fought over, and inspire the very best work an agency can possibly provide.

  2. Romylos Politopoulos

    September 26, 2011

    2 good practices to get more from your creative agency
    i) take the time (could be a hard first year or months) to explain you do the strategy they do creative work
    ii) communicate the strategy ( i.e. the brief) in less than 3/4 of a page

  3. Dana Jackson

    September 26, 2011

    I’ve been on both sides of this fence, and this article is right on! If you are on the agency side, and the client gives you little direction, it can be very frustrating. It’s up to the agency to explain their capabilities, to set expectations, to create timelines if there aren’t any, and to be up-front about costs. But it’s also up to the client to be open with their business needs – and open-minded about the solution! Too often the client keeps their cards close to the chest, which keeps the agency from creating an effective solution. Or the client gets defensive about the solution. Sign a Non-Disclosure Agreement and remember that you hired this agency to help you solve a problem, in a way that is different than how you might have solved it.

  4. Lynn A. Knight

    September 26, 2011

    I had my own full-service agency for 14 years serving a wide variety of clients (both sophisticated and not so…). Then I was VP of a diverse corporation that built in-house capability and partnered with an overseas production office based in Manila. I’ve also been a newspaper publisher and am now an economic developer that occasionally uses agencies for branding work. So basically, I’ve seen it from all sides. What I can tell you is this:
    1) Find an agency that is the right size for your needs. Do not go for a big name when you have a small budget. You want to be an important client to the agency, but not be a “gorilla” for them — i.e. just the right size.
    2) Talk to a number of firms and look at their portfolios. Do you like / love the style of their work?
    3) Spend some time with the agency’s team and see if you have a good gut feeling that you can communicate well with the person who will be your account manager, as well as with one or more of the principals.
    4) Define their assignment well and be up front about your budget.
    5) Take the time to be a good client and keep communicating so you can build a relationship.
    6) Give them honest feedback throughout the process, but don’t micro-manage. Give them room to be creative and add value.

  5. Mayra I. Pollock

    September 28, 2011

    In addition to Romylos tips: (1) Focus on strategic revisions/input early in the creative process. As it moves along, focus on nailing the executional details. (2) Set aside some “inspirational funds” to invest in developing Cannes-worthy ideas or projects, ideally for media you’ll like to either explore of the first time or to push the envelope with your target message-wise. (3) Give feedback often and personally: nothing beats the feeling of listening to compliments or complaints from the horse’s mouth!

  6. Carlos M. Cojulun

    September 29, 2011

    How to get best results from a Creative Agency? I don’t have much experience with the “provide-no-direction-and-hope-the-agency-works-their-magic”style, I have actually seen the other end of the spectrum where Marketers provide so many parameters and directives in a creative brief that there is no room for creativity, yet the Brand team encourages the agency to “think outside the box”?! A better strategy in those cases would be to pull way back on the creative brief guardrails, go back to just the core brand strategy, and in essence “blow up the box” altogether.

    Great creative requires willingness for companies and marketers to be open-minded, and in our ever increasing metric/ROI-driven, one-mistake-and-you-are-‘off-track’ Marketing cultures, that ability to appreciate creativity is getting lost. Marketing is a subtle science, and an exact art – not the other way around. If an agency really understand your brand strategy and objectives, give them the chance to blend art with science. isn’t that why we hire them?

  7. Karim

    October 2, 2011

    As an agency our experience with clients has been mixed but for the majority we have found a lack of understanding and training on how to deal with an agency. It’s a shame b/c you end up losing a great deal of creativity along the way and this lack of understanding results in frustration for both parties. So what we do is we probe, probe and probe some more until we reach a stage where we have all the info we need to move forward. If we are to rely on our clients ability to communicate what they want I can assure you that we would’ve been in real trouble by now. It’s important to have face to face meetings, to ask open ended questions that will allow the client to talk and it’s your job as an agency to capture the essence of what’s being said. This may not be ideal especially if your busy but trust me putting in that bit of extra time even if its via conference call will save you a great deal of time and money down the road as you work on that brief.

  8. Dr. Myrna Araneta

    October 2, 2011

    I agree with all the comments before me. In addition, when you offer some suggestions–show them what your take of “creative insights” might be like. If we can’t “model” that in your conversations with the agency and input suggestions on what they are recommending—I believe it’s “tough” to expect from them—their take of what “creative juices” might look like.
    Yes…doing one’s homework is critical if we’re making a choice and a decision.

  9. Robert Loggins

    October 3, 2011

    Creativity does not have to be complex. It can be, but doesn’t have to be. Also, understand that your target should not move, once you lock in…its your aim that may change a bit. Last, always have an end game so when you get lost you can work yourself back from the end back to where you are–but hopefully not back to the beginning.

  10. Namrata

    October 4, 2011

    Well it is also dependent on how u understand your brand. the more clear you are about your brand there better will you be able to brief them…If possible make your ad agency meet some of your customers or end users which help them understand you product and brand in a better way … if the base is gud they will give you gud returns…

  11. Dominique Touchaud

    October 17, 2011

    I was recently running a training for junior marketers and they asked me for one key piece of advice. I realized the one thing managers owe their agency is full engagement and respect. i have never seen any decent manager flip through the document to get to the conclusions during a financial presentation whilst the person in charge of the project is exposing the thinking that led to the conclusions. Still, this happens in every advertising meeting.
    My comment to them was that every creative process should make room for a phase of listening and a phase of talking or rather entering a dialogue. Then comes the phase for sharing a decision. If you do not like or trust your partner agency , look for a new one that you will entrust with complete engagement. And if you use a structured thinking process and a creative brief, all the better.

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