Keep your eyes open, be jealous and define your own insight.

[This is a special guest post from VCU Brandcenter’s Caley Cantrell. Caley is Professor of Communications Strategy.This is another in a series of guest posts from Brandcenter faculty.]

I don’t blog much. Not for lack of things to write about. But for lack of sheer discipline. So joining in on someone else’s blog seems pretty delicious! Many thanks to Greg and Jim.
If I can offer advice to folks who might want to be account planners or strategic planners or brand planners (don’t get me started on titles) it would be these three things:
1. Keep your eyes open.
2. Be jealous.
3. Define your own insight.
Keep your eyes open.The world is full of things that are important for a strategist to be aware of. So much so that large parts of my classes, if not all my classes, are somehow bound to things I find in the newspaper, hear on NPR, or past students send me. Advertising and marketing do not exist and cannot succeed in a bubble. You must know the state of the economy. You should worry about the continuing digital divide. Buy movie tickets and see the movies when everyone is chatting about them. Don’t always wait for Xfinity.
Please don’t let your eyes be focused only on “what the consumer cares about.” Back in the day, the job of the account planner was “to be the voice of the consumer.” I don’t know about you, but consumers have voice now and they are screaming. If you don’t believe me, visit Twitter, Facebook, Pinterest, blogs – you get the point. Anyway, study business. Study what models are sustainable, what models are failing and what models the jury is still out on.
Be jealous. If jealousy and envy are synonyms, that means jealousy is one of the 7 deadly sins. I hate to be recommending that anyone purposefully sin – but damn it to Hell – that’s what I’m going to do. When I go to a conference and hear a great speaker or watch a student presentation and think to myself “Whoa! They really nailed It.” or “How elegantly simple.” it’s a compliment that means I’m a little jealous. I wish I’d said that. I wish I’d done that. And in the case of a student, I’m pretty proud they did it. As a planner, being jealous of other planners makes me work harder. Tell a better story. Define a problem more clearly.
Define your insight. Someone I’m a bit jealous of is Farrah Bostic and because some say that people in planning, or advertising in general, have the magpie mind, I’m going to drag a shiny bit from Farrah to my nest and this post. Farrah has a great blog and posted about insights in a piece entitled “There are not such things asinsights.” Farrah is spot on. You don’t just “find” insights. Or as I tell Brandcenter folks, “insights are not sea shells that you collect while walking on the beach.” Googling faster and harder does not get you to insights.
I will also borrow from the good folks at The Challenger Project who talk about “fat words.” Fat words are ones we throw around and at each other so often that they become bloated with symbolic overuse and lose any real meaning. “Insight” has become such a word and I worry often about removing it from my syllabi forever.
So I’m going to take and define a new “I” word. INTEREST. What is of interest in this problem? What is interestingabout how people live their lives? Can you create a conversation between a brand and a person by revealing a common interest
This “I” stuff is probably getting a little annoying right about now. So I’ll get to the point in my agreement with Farrah. An insightful person will realize that the really interesting bit of the assignment is reframing the problem. It is interpreting the difference between what people say and what they do. Your work should be illuminating from beginning to end – not just on the page with the bold title “INSIGHTS.”

What Occupy Wall Street Could Learn From Ad Folks


I wrote a post on my other blog over the weekend about the Occupy Wall Street’s lack of clear messaging and how they might improve it by asking themselves the questions we ask ourselves each time we’re trying to sell something. Greg asked me to post it here. Here’s a link to it: The Message has an Occupy Wall Street Problem.

An Idea Isn’t Everything

This is another in a series from AKQA creative Nathan Archambault. You can follow him on Twitter @NKArch.

Concept is king. It’s all about the idea. Your goal with every brief should be to come up with an idea so big that other big ideas become jealous. Right?

Not so fast. Coming up with a big idea is just one of the many steps that it takes to produce great work. And it isn’t always the most important step to a client. Sometimes it’s not even the most important step to an agency.



The details matter

Lately I’ve been seeing student books that feel like they’re full of high-level case studies. Videos that present the idea but don’t actually explain how it comes to life. After nailing a big idea, you’ve got to figure out the minor details. Not every big idea translates to a great ad. Without thinking through the small things, you’ll never know if your big idea is anything more than a great starting point. When it comes to executing a campaign, an idea isn’t everything.
The strategy matters
Clients don’t want ideas that come out of left field, even if it’s a great idea. Your campaign needs a foundation. You need to be able to explain the insight that led to your idea. Be perfectly clear about why this idea will be an effective one for the client and the target. When it comes to thinking strategically, an idea isn’t everything.
The client matters
Don’t forget that we work in a service industry. Our clients aren’t in the business of supporting the advertising industry. They’re in the business of making profits and selling products. They’re only interested in one type of idea – the kind that grows their business. When it comes to client needs, an idea isn’t everything.
The budget matters
A client isn’t going to toss more money at a project because an idea is so freaking awesome. Doesn’t matter how much they love it. If the best idea goes over budget, the next best idea moves into the starting line-up. Or, even worse, you’re asked to rework your great idea until it’s nothing but a sad shell of its former self. When it comes to sticking to budget, an idea isn’t everything.
The presentation matters
Part of the job is getting clients pumped up for your big idea to become a big reality. That may mean some theater. It may mean bravado. It takes a different approach for every client and every presentation. Just remember, clients weren’t there during your brainstorm sessions. They may not fully understand the thought that led to your idea. You’ve got to set it up for success, making it sound revolutionary. Make it seem like anything but your big idea would be disaster. When it comes to the presentation, an idea isn’t everything.
The objective matters
Every ad has a job to do. Your great idea should lead to action, interaction, or whatever the goal may be. An idea can be cool, but it also needs a nerdy side. A side that accomplishes the very straightforward and quantifiable goal put forth by the client in the first place. When it comes to building a brand, an idea isn’t everything.
There are a lot of factors that can make or break a campaign. Do all these things well, and your big idea becomes that much bigger. It also moves that much closer to becoming a reality.

Bring the Brief

This might seem like a small point to post about, but I think it’s important. When you go to a meeting to present creative, bring the strategic brief along. Ideally, you should set up your work using the brief, but at least have it with you.

Inevitably, the creative director, or account person or the CLIENT will ask to be reminded what the net takeaway on the brief is. It’s okay to whip the brief out and read it (usually, an account person or planner will be all over this). What doesn’t look so good (and believe me, I’ve seen this happen) is if all the creatives just look at each other, hoping that someone remembers the main thing their work is supposed to communicate. This puts a bullet in the work before it’s even been presented. It says that there’s a good chance your work will be off strategy, because you don’t even know what the damn strategy is.

I tend to lose things easily, so I started making a 3/4-sized photocopy of the brief and pasting it in my sketchbook. That way I always know where I can find it quickly. Just in case.

A Few Observations on Framing and Language

One of the important things you’ll have to do many times in your advertising career is craft language to frame a topic a certain way. This simply means that you control how someone looks at an idea. What perspective are they viewing it from and how are they judging it?

You obviously can’t always control how someone perceives your idea, but with the right language and the right tone, you certainly can influence it. Here are some examples:

1) Setting up your work for a client. I like to let the client know, as I set up the work we’re showing, how I judged the work and what I think it has going for it. This doesn’t always mean they’ll agree, but it lets them understand where I’m coming from before they form their own opinion. Or I’ll ask them to put their 12-year-old boy hat on (or whatever the target is) for a moment as they listen to the script.

2) Is there a completely different strategic approach? When my agency did a campaign for Brita Water Filters, which had always been about super-clean water without impurities, someone had the smart idea to re-frame the issue to be about conservation. Because a good deal of the plastic water bottles that people use end up in landfills or circling the Great Pacific Garbage Patch.

Here’s another example, the likes of which you’ve probably seen in hotel bathrooms.

The cynic in me sees those signs and thinks, “Yeah, right. The hotel’s just trying to save money on laundry.” Which may be true, but it is helping the environment too, and in the end I reuse my towels.

3. Word choice for the little things. Consider these possible call-to-actions in a banner ad:
Click here to visit blah.com.
Discover more at blah.com.
Start the journey at blah.com.
They’re all asking me to do basically the same thing, but each sets my expectations for blah.com. Is there a better way to say what you want?

Here’s another example that always strikes me when I see it. Rather than the typical SELL BY DATE, some drinks have the much more promising ENJOY BY date.

Framing is not about tricking anyone. It’s about asking someone to consider something from a different viewpoint. And if you have any questions as to whether it’s important, I invite you to listen to this episode of one of my favorite podcasts, Radiolab. In it, they discuss the potential effect of Obama’s election on the academic performance of African-American students, as well as how the simple act of framing a test (i.e. the language used to say what the test measures) can have a huge impact on test scores.

Strategy in your book

Q: Should strategy statements accompany the ads in your book?

A former student recently asked my opinion on this. Let me share it with you:

As creatives, we should be in the habit of eliminating any element that’s not contributing to the ad. I think this includes strategy statements in your book. No, they’re not part of the ad. But in the book, they are part of the presentation. And like a poorly art directed tagline, it’s one more thing drawing the viewer’s attention away from your work.

The argument for including a strategy statement might be to better familiarize the viewer with the brand. But you don’t see strategy statements in the One Show or CA annuals, which feature tons of great ads for brands I’ve never heard of.

Yes, there will be some exceptions. Ambient media sometimes warrants an explanation (different than a strategy statement). And on rare occasions, they might emphasize very big, incredibly insightful ideas. Use your best judgement.

But generally speaking, if the person looking at your book isn’t familiar with the brand, your ad should be enough of an introduction. If it’s not, maybe you haven’t done your job.

Strategy as a Starting Point

The summer between my first and second years of portfolio school, I interned at GSD&M. (I don’t think GSD&M has hosted interns from my school since. Make of that what you will.)

We knew the agency was involved in a high-profile pitch, so we asked if we could help out. We were given the same brief as the other four or five teams, and went to work.

At the initial internal presentation, we went first. (Whether we were over eager or being picked on, I don’t recall.) About halfway through our stack of paper the group creative director asked us to stop. He’d seen enough. We were a little off strategy.

That was more than a little crushing. But the real insult was when he went next and presented an ad that was simply the strategy statement as a headline with a relevant photo. Not everyone oohed and aahed. But a few did.

We brought in a ream of envelope-pushing ideas, and you just art direct the brief?! Geez, I’ll be a GCD if that’s all you have to do.

I learned two things from this experience:

  1. Anything art directed is going to have more impact than something drawn with a Sharpie. In group presentations, quality is going to beat quantity. (That said, don’t waste your time laying out concepts when you should be thinking.)
  2. The strategy as a headline is actually a great place to start. And in retrospect, I think that was what the GCD was trying to do. It keeps you from veering off course. And when you’re able to root the execution in strategic thinking, it becomes substantially more sellable internally, to the client, and to the public. (That said, don’t use the strategy statement as a headline as anything but a jumping off point.)