Essential vs. Extra Credit

More and more clients are expecting work that goes beyond what they’re asking for. If the brief calls for a new print campaign, the agency may throw in a microsite. Or an outdoor idea. Or a guy with a rickshaw. Whatever.

Problem is, while more and more clients are expecting this, and love to be surprised by additional work, these ideas rarely come to life. They get placed on the back-burner while the real (i.e., urgent, expected, and sometimes less-exciting) assignments are produced.

A few years ago, I was part of a team that helped create a giant snow globe in Times Square with live actors inside. I recently asked my old CD, Chris Hunter, how he sold that idea. (Giant snow globes are never something the client asks for in the original brief.) There’s a huge insight in his answer. Here’s what Chris told me…

I’ve found the way to move forward [beyond-the-brief work] is to link each idea to some kind of measurable engagement in order to demonstrate the value they add to a program.

In the snow globe’s case, it had to do with NY being a media city and getting PR from that. These days I don’t know if I’d recommend the Giant Snow Globe as an investment for the client because the return seems pretty low outside of Times Square. But tying online engagement / participation to a real-world installation — and then incentivizing participation — can start to demonstrate returns for a client, especially if the engagement aspect of the creative drives pass-along behavior. A snow globe that was web-cammed that would allow viewers to control what the actors did inside it, for example, would start to get at that (not a very creative example but you get what I mean).

Also, it’s best to build in engagement programs (be they online, in a real location, or both) at the start of the brief development. This turns the extra thinking into a real assignment vs. a time-wasting exercise. If the client isn’t disciplined enough to do this, then at the very least bundle your extra idea firmly to original assignment — print in this case — so that the two play off one another and are co-dependent. This starts to turn what was once a print assignment into something richer and more programmatic. And by this, I mean make it so that one cannot really exist without the other.

I guess what I’m suggesting is, eliminate the ‘lucky-strike-extra’ sensibility from your mindset and theirs. It will help make your engagement concepts seem more core and essential vs. extra credit.


(Chris Hunter helped his team win a Bronze Lion at Cannes this year, so he knows what he’s talking about.)

Revising Your Creative Concept Without Ruining It

I can’t think of any time in my career where I went into a meeting, presented work and had no revisions to make coming out. How you handle feedback and present revisions can be a make-or-break step in the process. Over-react to a off-handed client comment and you can unnecessarily water down or complicate your work. Ignore client concerns and you might come across as unresponsive and torpedo the whole project.

Here are a few things to keep in mind as you run the revision gauntlet:


1) Listen to feedback. Take notes. Some creatives like to come in, look cool, present the work, then leave. But the most important part of a client relationship is listening. And unless you have a photographic memory, take out a pen and paper. After the meeting, there will be discussions about what exactly the client said and it’s good to have your own notes.
Note all of the feedback, even from the junior clients. If there are pertinent quotes from clients, write them down (and note who said them). Nothing lets a client know you listened more than, a week or two later, being able to quote them in a meeting, or being able to say that something they said led you to a solution (this does happen).

2) Make sure you understand which feedback needs to be addressed. Depending on the client, many many people may throw out thoughts. Some of it will be overruled, some of it will be ignored by the group, some of it will be irrelevant, and some of it will be very very important. What you need to be absolutely clear on is which issues you will be addressing with your revisions. A good account person will sum up the feedback at the end of the meeting. If they don’t, you should verify what was agreed upon. “So, what I heard was…” or “Just to be clear, for next steps we’ll…”

3) Try to avoid executional feedback by understanding the issues. Good clients know that the most helpful feedback for an agency is issue-based rather than executional, but even the most seasoned client will make executional comments from time to time. For example, “I feel like the tone is too frivolous for our brand,” is an issue. “I don’t like the words “itty-bitty” is executional. “The spot feels rushed” is an issue. “Take out this shot, that shot, and that shot,” is executional. You want to get issue-based feedback because there may be several ways to solve an issue, whereas something like “take out that shot” has only one solution and may not be the best for the spot.

4) If you disagree, discuss it. (This has the major caveat of “if you are in a position to do so.” If you are a junior creative and your creative director has already agreed to a client request, you are not in a position to voice a dissenting opinion. Nor are you, if you’re a junior creative, in a position to argue with a CEO). Be clear that you’re in a different place, but avoid being too confrontational. I don’t even like saying things like “One could argue that…” That positions it as an argument. Client meetings, though they may sometimes seem like it, are not debates. You’re on the same team.
One non-confrontational phrase that can be very helpful is, “Help me understand…” to probe the client issues. Phrasing your point-of-view as a question, or simply explaining why you made the choices you did are also good ways to make a point without seeming combative.

5) Know what’s worth fighting for. If your list is “everything,” you’re going to have a tough time. Some things aren’t worth fighting for. Then there are some that are. If you feel strongly that a change completely compromises the integrity of the creative, speak up. And as a last resort, recommend that you take the creative off the table and go try a different approach completely.

6) It’s okay to say “Let me think about it.”
It’s an easy trap to fall into to think that you need to solve an issue at the table, or that you need to decide if a suggestion will or won’t work right there on the spot. Reserve the right to walk away and take the time to think of an appropriate solution. Clients should respect this.


7) Make sure you addressed your client’s concerns. This is a no-brainer. Just double-check before the meeting. It’s not pretty when you don’t.

8) If you find a better way, STILL make sure you address your client’s concerns.
This goes for suggestions from your creative director in pre-client meetings as well. If you agree to a revision, DO NOT come to the next meeting without making it. If you get specific executional direction, you’d best follow it. If you come up with an alternative solution, bring that IN ADDITION TO (but definitely not instead of) the agreed-upon revision. Then you can have a discussion about it.

9) Let the client know you heard their concerns. Set up the work by listing what the objectives of the revisions were. What issues did you address? This is the part where your notes from the first meeting come in handy. If one client had a concern, let them know that you made a revision for them. If necessary, explain how you addressed their concerns before you go through the work.

Revisions are a part of the business, so learn how to handle them. They’re not necessarily a bad thing, but you have to know how to fend off the ducks or your brilliant idea might get pecked to death. The key is to keep bringing back great work each time. If you do that, you’ll only produce great work.

A Big Fat Lesson In Perseverance

Maybe you remember the original Jared Fogel ad from Subway. This spot didn’t win any major awards. And you probably aspire to much more creative work. But the fact that you remember Jared shows that the campaign (now, almost a decade old) was crazy successful. And there are several important lessons from the Jared campaign that are worth noting:

  • Subway’s marketing director wasn’t impressed with Jared’s story. He thought fast foods couldn’t do healthy. He wanted to do a campaign based on taste.
  • The health campaign Subway did want to run was called “7 Under 6,” which talked about the seven sandwiches they had that were under 6 grams of fat. (No matter what you think of Jared, you’ve got to admit he’s more interesting than “7 Under 6.”)
  • The Jared spot made Subway’s lawyers very nervous. They were afraid it would appear like a medical claim. In their lawyer wisdom, they advised against running it.
  • Even though the national Subway office vetoed the Jared campaign, some franchisees showed some interest in running it using regional ad money.
  • With no national funding to cover production, Hal Riney’s president, Barry Krause decided to make the spots for free. Production would come out of the agency’s pocket.
  • The original spot ran on January 1, 2000.
  • Within three days, Hal Riney had received calls from USA Today, ABC, Fox News and Oprah.
  • A few days later, Subway’s national office called, asking if the ads could be aired nationally.
  • That year, sales jumped 18%, plus another 16% after that.
  • The campaign sold a ton of sandwiches. Jared’s since become part of pop culture (He’s been featured on South Park, no less.) Arguably, this story has made Subway the brand it is today.

So what does this mean for you? I’m not saying the Jared spot is worthy of a One Show Gold. But it shows that even wildly successful campaigns meet opposition. Don’t let the road blocks rile you. Don’t hate the client or the account team or creative director or partner who says “no.” One “no” doesn’t always mean the work is dead if you’re willing to fight for the work you believe in.

(The details of the Subway story can be found in the book Made to Stick by Chip and Dan Heath.)

Avoiding Groupthink

Here’s a personal anecdote. Maybe you can learn something from it.

I once did work for a client that had very strict marketing guidelines. Most of them were very poorly thought out, in my opinion. All their print work had to include the following:

  • A key visual taken from the client library.
  • A frame on at least two sides of the key visual.
  • The frame had to be one of six pre-approved colors patterns.
  • Supporting copy in bullet points, just like these.

Very restrictive. I’m not sure if I’ve ever seen an ad with bullet pointed copy in an awards show. (If you know of one, I’d love to see how they pulled it off.)

Every time we went to the client, we’d bring in ads that adhered to their guidelines, and some better ones that didn’t.

They’d usually appreciate the more creative ones. But they’d always fall back on their guidelines, because they were, after all, guidelines. (Emerson has some words about this.)

It became apparent that no matter how brilliant the idea, we weren’t going to do any award-winning print for them. Realizing this was pretty crushing. And I spent the better part of a morning researching other agencies I might work for.

But then I realized that their guidelines only applied to print. No one had written guidelines for ambient media. Or webisodes. Or PR stunts. Or bus wraps. Or a ton of other media they probably hadn’t considered and might benefit from.

Sometimes even the best clients and the most creative creatives get trapped in their own Groupthink. Where everything is done a certain way because it just is.

And sometimes coming up with a big idea is figuring out a better way to come up with a big idea.

Agency Tenacity

This is an ad some friends of mine made at Y&R Chicago:

Here’s the story of the ad as I remember it:

  • The team working on Craftsman came up with this idea independent of a brief.
  • It was presented to the client who loved it. But they had too many looming deadlines and too many fires to put out for this to be a priority, no matter how cool. It was “put on the backburner” (i.e., ignored).
  • In the meantime, the team created two other posters (muscles and major organs).
  • The agency continued to remind the client that they should run this poster, to which the client kept saying, “Yes, yes. We love it. We’ll get around to it.”
  • Finally, the creative directors said, “The client liking the work isn’t enough. We’ve got to make it irresistible.”
  • The agency printed these as huge posters (something like 3′ x 8′) and with October a couple months away, the brand manager suggested repositioning them as a Halloween promotion.
  • They were presented to the clients again. This time, they bought them. In fact, they liked them so much, they approved production of a TV spot and hundreds of skeleton/tool t-shirts that were so popular the client charged their own employees for them and they still sold out. (In my opinion, the TV and t-shirts aren’t as cool as the original print. But they were still great opportunities, and the agency got paid to produce them.)

What was the difference? It might have been timing. It might have been the moods of the client. But there are three things the agency did right that they didn’t have to do:

  1. They were tenacious. They recognized great work and pursued it. Not every agency and not every creative director will do this. You need to gravitate towards the ones that do.
  2. They invested in making the next presentation irresistible. They printed these out as huge posters, not unmounted 11x17s, or even mounted poster-sized posters. They showed the client exactly what they would look like, and didn’t leave it up to their imaginations.
  3. They made it relevant to the client. These weren’t concepted as Halloween posters. In fact, that almost makes it cheesy. But it was enough to get the work produced. And that’s what matters.
There’s an alternate ending to this story:
  • The Craftsman team came up with this idea.
  • The client loved it, but sat on it since it wasn’t a priority.
  • It never got produced and exists only as spec work in the AD’s and CW’s book.
As Sally Hogshead says, “Brilliant ideas are fragile. They won’t get produced unless everyone in the agency is dedicated to helping them through.”

* * * * * * *

New addition: In early 2010, Sears began offering tool chests and storage lockers with the Craftsman image. So put down product design on the list of media affected by this off-the-brief and never-asked-for idea.

Credits for the original print campaign:

CW: Tohru Oyasu, AD: Rainer Schmidt, CDs: Dave Loew and Jon Wyville, ECD: Mark Figliulo

John Turturro on Creative Freedom

Last week, Greg posted Jelly Helm’s Five Rules from W+K. A buddy of mine just sent me this clip of John Turturro talking about creating the Jesus character in the Big Lebowski, and it struck me that what John is talking about is very similar to what Jelly is talking about. Particularly Act Stupid, Always Say Yes, and Be Fearless.

Turturro’s talking about working with the Coen brothers and the amount of trust they have in him. They realize he’s an acting genius, so they give him the freedom to do his thing. To let it all hang out and fail spectacularly if need be. And Turturro responds to this freedom by by throwing everything into his performance and embarrassing himself, then trusting his directors to make the right decisions.

This is also a description of the ideal creative/creative director relationship. It could be be said to be the ideal client/agency relationship or agency/director relationship too. Hire the right people, then trust them to do their thing.

If you haven’t seen The Big Lebowski, shame on you. So strong is my opinion of this movie that I have named my two English bulldogs Dude and Walter. Below is the scene Turturro is talking about.

How to Disagree

If you try to go through your entire advertising career agreeing with everyone, you’ll probably have a short career that ends in a padded room. You just can’t do it. And you shouldn’t. Everyone likes a nice guy, but you can’t put nice in your book. Some of the best creative is the product of tension and disagreement. Shouting matches between client and agency, angry phone calls, directors threatening to storm off set, assassination attempts.

Part of your success in this business depends on how well you can disagree. How well you can sell your point of view. I’m not talking about being a great debater here, though there’s probably some overlap. I’m talking about settling difference without destroying relationships.

People are passionate in this business, which means that it doesn’t take much for disagreements to escalate into arguments, then fights, then worse. So whether you’re at odds with a partner, a client, a creative director, a director, or an account person, here’s a list of ten things I try to remember in hopes of keeping a disagreement from becoming a crime scene.

1) Don’t bullshit them. Be honest with yourself, and honest with whom you’re disagreeing. This one probably comes into play mostly with clients. They’re not stupid. They can tell when you’re making shit up, and it doesn’t help the relationship. If you don’t believe what you’re spewing, don’t spew it.

2) Pick your battles. Of all the thing you disagree over, some are more important than others. Don’t get in the mindset that everything has to be your way. You’ll have to give a little from time to time. Do it for the things that are less important to you. You hear a lot of talk about people falling on their sword for things, but the whole idea of that analogy is that you only get to do it once.

3) Look at it from their perspective. This is a good rule of thumb in any disagreement. Understand what they want out of it. Speak to the issue in their language. If you’re talking to a junior client who’s worried what the VP will say, show some concern for that. Don’t just dismiss it because you don’t care what the VP says. And if you’re arguing with a client, arguing that something is cooler, really weird, or sure to win a bunch of awards probably won’t get you very far.

4) Recognize when it’s subjective. A lot of this business is. If an argument’s getting heated, it can sometimes diffuse it to acknowledge that what you’re arguing over is a matter of taste. Both viewpoints are valid (though one may still be better).

5) Recognize who has the expertise. When I disagree with my art director on a visual decision, I will usually say my piece and then go with his decision. If it’s a copy decision, I expect the same. I rely on the expertise of my directors, editors, designers and musicians. When I disagree with them, but it’s in their area of expertise, I usually give them the benefit of the doubt.

6) Be respectful. Everyone is not equally good at everything, every opinion is not as equally valid, and it will become painfully obvious that everyone’s time is not of equal value. That said, everyone deserves respect. I don’t care if you’re the president of an agency talking to the person who delivers the plant food, treat everyone with respect and you will earn respect.

7) Recognize who has the final say. When I disagree with students about ads in their book, I usually caveat it with, “This is your book, so it’s your decision.” Then they can take my advice or disregard it. On the job, the creative director has the first final say. Then the client has the final final say. And when this person, the person with “The D,” as we refer to it sometimes (meaning “the decision”), has made up their mind, you might state once that you understand their point of view, but respectfully disagree. And then shut up about it.

8) When it’s over, let it go. Don’t brood over an argument that happened months ago. Be goldfish-like in your ability to move on. And if you turn out to be right, have the humility to not say “I told you so.”

9) You might be wrong. I think the most important thing to remember, and something that will hopefully give you perspective, is that there is a chance, albeit slim, that you’re wrong. It’s happened to me before. When you’re wrong, don’t make excuses. Just have the humility to admit it.

10) Do not burn bridges. I can think of very few issues that are worth ruining relationships over. Storming out of rooms, cussing people out, etc. may feel good for about 37 seconds. After that, it can do nothing but hurt your career. I know people who have quit agencies in spectacular tantrums, calling in an airstrike on the bridge as they crossed it, only to regret it two months later. If you do have a nasty argument, one that leads to the end of a job or partnership, try to leave it on good terms. No matter how big of an ass someone has been to me, if they apologize afterward, I’m willing to shake and bury the hatchet. I can’t stress enough how small this business is.

It really comes down to relationships. If you put in the groundwork, if you earn the trust and respect of those you work with, if you trust and respect them, and if you form a bond where you are genuinely concerned with their interests as well as your own, then disagreements shouldn’t be a big deal. They can actually make a relationship, and the work, stronger in the end.

And if you disagree with anything I’ve said, you can piss off.

Why I Am Strong

As has been written before, it’s a lie that the client is the enemy. Most clients are smart, thoughtful, and want great work because they want their brand to be great.

That said, as a holiday treat, here are a few of my favorite client quotes I’ve collected over the years.

  • I would not aim for solving the problems we have to solve.
  • It’s one thing to show a towel. It’s another thing to celebrate its essence.
  • I don’t want to use the word “improved” because it will make our new product look better than our old product.
  • We don’t have time to tell stories.
  • I hate it. I think it’s crap.
  • Oh, I wish I had the guts to run that.
  • You know I’m not a lesbian, don’t you?