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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