L K Gupta2018-05-29

It amazes me that almost every marketing company has its recommended format for writing out great creative briefs, but none teaches its brand managers how to evaluate their agency’s work and give feedback at the time the creative outputs are presented.

Most people do not realize that responding to creative output is as much a science and art as is the process of writing a brief or indeed the process of creative generation itself. How many agency folks have gnashed their teeth at client comments like “Erm.. it’s not there yet”, or “Yaar woh baat nahi hai…mazaa nahi aaya”? That’s because there is no structured training for marketing managers to properly evaluate the creative when the agency comes back with their output.

In the course of my last many years in marketing, I‘ve learned and developed an approach that works for me. Here is my 10-point method you might want to follow.

Refer to your brief

  1. Remember, your brief and prior discussions form the foundation for the agency to work on. When you sit down to review creatives, keep your creative brief and notes from previous meetings with you. Whatever the agency presents, evaluate it versus the basics that you specified in the brief. This achieves three things:
  2. It helps you stay true to the brand objectives, target audience, product and proposition
  3. It makes you an objective and impassionate judge, not being swayed by personal opinions and biases
  4. It gives the agency a clear signal that you are serious about your brief and they cannot but address the brief whilst being creative with the insights and execution So, for instance, if your brief specifically asks to appeal to 40+ target group, you can conscientiously shoot down a clever idea that will make only a 20 year old chuckle even if you personally like the idea.

Listen and watch first, take notes, comment later

  1. Chances are that your agency will bring you 3-5 ideas to begin with. As they are presenting each option, resist the impulse to comment immediately. Agency folks are a sensitive lot. They like to have their place in the sun as they passionately present their stuff. Allow them this full opportunity. Let all the ideas be narrated fully as you take notes on important points on each option. If possible, keep a set of parameters ready in a rough form based on which your notes should be taken down. Nod, smile and mumble your “um-hmm” as they go through the ideas…keep egging them on non-verbally to show that they’ve got your interest. This will allow you to mentally compare the different options as you go along instead of outright rejection or acceptance of ideas without listening to what else is coming up. Your note-taking also communicates to the agency that you’re seriously evaluating each idea and that you’ll not give off-the-cuff reactions.

Be sure where it’s headed

  1. You will pretty much know how the meeting is going by the time you hear the last creative idea. If it’s the first round, there’s always a 99% chance that there will be more iterations required. Before you start giving feedback, make up your mind whether you’ve found something valuable in any of the ideas or not. Your tone from here on will determine how the rest of the meeting will go and how the next round of outputs will turn out. Think through how you’re going to talk. Do not be flippant or dismissive if you haven’t found what you were looking for. Show a serious straight face if you’re disappointed, but you have to be encouraging at all times.

Comment with precision & start with intended message delivery

  1. Start commenting on one idea at a time, starting with the first and following the same order in which they were presented. Begin by saying whether overall you liked some or all the ideas or not. The most important aspects of a creative – whether TVC, print or even a POP – is the intended message delivery. Focus only on that, to begin with. Did the idea communicate the intended value proposition clearly? Was it done in a simple manner such that a consumer will get it within seconds? Believe me, everything else is secondary – funny, clever, celebrity being used well, color scheme to your liking. Everything else can be looked at after you’ve determined that the intended message is being communicated well within the constraints laid down by the brief. If the message is being communicated but needs 60 seconds while your brief asked for a 30 sec TVC, think again. If the intended message needs the consumer to do mental calculus, don’t encourage it. Tell the agency specifically what your problem with the message delivery is – that it is muddled, or that it is not to the brief, or that it is too long-winded. The guys at the other side must know clearly how the message delivery needs to change.

Shortlist early, improve later

  1. Since you would have made notes, and determined which options are successful (or have the potential) at delivering the message, you need to spend time only on the right options. If there are any ideas that are completely unacceptable, get them off the table immediately. Tell them straight, with your reasons and do not even discuss them after they’ve been put away. Focus on the ones that do have the potential to be developed into winning ads.

Reject the execution, extract the value

  1. Many times you will find that the way a creative is presented – the drawing, the words used, the colors – turns you off, and you end up rejecting the creative altogether. Well, look beyond these things. Remember, there is plenty of time for execution later; your current job is to pick out the winning idea and nurture that into a compelling audio/visual spectacle. My approach is to see how powerfully the concept can convince people into understanding and believing what the brand is trying to say. Look into the intrinsic value within an idea, and if you like it ask for the way it is presented to be changed.

Give constructive ideas

  1. When you don’t like something in the creative, don’t just reject it with “this won’t do…rework it”. Tell the agency guys what part of it you didn’t like and don’t stop there. Give suggestions for how you would like to see it done so that it has a better chance of passing your scrutiny the next time.
  2. Example: Instead of saying, “These colors are lousy. Don’t you guys understand the brand?”, I would say, “I know this is a promotion, but the loud colors in the ad are jarring and not in line with the brand personality. It would be more acceptable if you changed it to steel grey or a pastel shade. However, I like your headline because it boldly conveys the promotional idea”. Now, with this feedback, the agency knows exactly what must change, and you have a better chance of getting a 90% finished output in the next round.

Don’t hesitate to be the consumer – 

  1. Many times we’re so busy being marketers that we forget that we ourselves are consumers of all kinds of goods and services. So when you see a creative output, ask yourself as a consumer – Will I get this? Will it make me want to watch it again and again? Does it offend me in any way? Will I talk about this to others? If you’re able to answer yourself, speak in these terms to the agency as well, explaining what consumer reactions you anticipate and why some things work and some don’t.

Do not, I repeat, do not become the creative director

  1. However bad the output may be and however talented you think you are, it is unpardonable for a marketing manager to don the agency’s role. Your job is to get the work done by your agency by giving damn good briefs and spotting the best ideas when the specialized creative people come up with those ideas. If you start generating the creative, you’ll become biased and blind to other good ideas. It’s human, and it happens. Give suggestions, ask for specific changes, but do not start writing the scripts and drawing the layouts.

Set the agenda for the next round

  1. It sounds obvious but many clients tend to take it for granted that the agency will minute the meeting and that’s that. No! Before the meeting ends, the marketing manager must recap what is accepted and what is rejected. What changes have been specifically asked for in accepted options? Are there new options to be generated? If so, what is the expectation from those? How are the new options to be different from the ones already presented? And so on. Set the agenda and expectations for the next meeting now.

Well, these are my proven methods to get better work done from my creative agencies. If you have more suggestions, please do add them in the comments. And if you’re from an agency, do comment with your pet peeves about clients. It’s always entertaining to hear them!