Sunday, March 20, 2011
BRIDGING THE COLLABORATION GAP
“What is Microsoft, which has just thrown its $1 billion media account into review, looking for in an agency partner? Less tech support and more collaboration on big ideas for starters, said marketing chief Mich Mathews.” (Advertising Age, January 4, 2011)
Communication agencies are big on collaboration with their clients—when it comes to building the communication strategies for the brand, that is. That’s a main reason why most traditional agencies employ an internal “strategic planning” function to complement and support their account management and creative development functions. You can understand the value of having a team of strategic experts on-board: no communication agency wants to leave the strategic direction that will ultimately drive the creative work solely in the hands of, well, younger and not-so-experienced assistant or associate brand managers. In fact, you may even hear the more senior agency creative heads assert, “The (strategic) brief belongs to us.”
We have never accepted that the strategic Communication Brief (sometimes called the Creative Brief) “belongs” to the communication agency. It shouldn’t belong to any one party; rather, developing it is the joint responsibility of the Brand and Communication Agency Teams. To be perfectly clear, we have always found that developing a communication brief with the greatest potential to deliver big ideas demands collaboration. So, looping back to the beginning, we think it’s a good thing that most communication agencies want to be a full, collaborative partner in setting the strategic direction for the brand’s communications. What we don’t think is such a good idea, though, is ending the Brand Team-Agency Team collaboration at the sign-off of the Communication Brief.
Unfortunately, all too often the communication agency “takes” the brief back to their shop where collaboration with their client stops: initial concepts are explored by various creative teams, rough-idea sessions occur weekly with creative directors, and eventually a few, select ideas are chosen to present to the client…but in none of these activities is the client typically collaborating. As one astute brand manager has aptly said, “There is a serious collaboration gap in the process.”
Why a gap? Here are some of more obvious reasons:
- Communication agencies don’t want to look stupid. They want to look smart, buttoned-up. If they expose their early ideas—ideas that are not yet fully developed—there is a risk that clients will (a) not get them, and (b) even worse, dump all over them (perhaps kill them). Who wants that? Better to withhold the ideas under development until such time as they are ready for exposure. As one senior creative head has told us, “Even really top-notch creative people need time to throw out their bad ideas.”
- Communication agencies believe adamantly in the notion, “That’s what you hired us for.” Said another way, no agency rightly proud of its creative output wants to have any client writing copy, drawing pictures, or producing film. If you invite the client in to view early idea-concepts, well, there will always be some of them who “take over” the actual creative material. It’s not so much that clients have a deep-down urge to become copywriters and art directors; no, more typically it’s that many clients are incapable of providing creative direction or suggestions without resorting to proscriptive comments like, “Just write the slogan this way,” or “Give us one of those MasterCard-type ideas.”
- Creative people at communication agencies simply think they know and appreciate potential Big Ideas better than most of their clients. Sad to say, this may often be the case. While really good marketers are usually really good idea people (seeking out product, packaging, promotion, merchandising, PR, and yes, communication ideas), far too many are too quick to dive into minutia—without first understanding and appreciating the value of an overall idea. Brand Team marketers are right to demand a collaborative role in the entire communication process; but they must also carry out their own responsibility to understand and appreciate ideas.
Per the opening quote from Advertising Age, it seems that even companies with the communication-success track record of a Microsoft are demanding more collaboration with their agencies on the development of Big Ideas. They are seeking to “bridge” the current collaboration gap (as noted, the one that occurs right after all the intense collaboration between client and agency on the crafting of the Communication or Creative Brief). We couldn’t agree with Microsoft more. And we have a few recommendations, steps and agreements that we have found highly productive time and again, toward building this collaboration gap bridge—as this week’s Boats & Helicopters.
BOATS & HELICOPTERS: Implementing an Effective Communication Idea “Collaboration” Process
Step 1. Enlist the Company’s senior marketing management’s (probably the Chief Marketing Officer’s) commitment toward implementing a completely collaborative communication development process. This commitment would typically take the form of a conversation with and a follow-up, written note to the most senior management at the communication agency.
Step 2. Plan a “parameters-setting” session with both client and agency teams; this should include all key levels of the client team (brand, market research, approving senior managers) and the agency team (account management, creative directors, and media management).
Step 3. At the parameters-setting session, aim to get agreement on the following, at a minimum:
- Timing and number of idea-sharing sessions for the various types of creative assignments (for example, a more protracted “equity” campaign assignment versus a shorter, tactical assignment);
- Participants from both client and agency expected to be present;
- Number of ideas to be typically shared at each idea-sharing session (ideally, there will be “no fewer than” limits for each—the more ideas the better);
- The format in which ideas will be shared (again, to make ideas as understandable as possible, we recommend that each idea be shown with 3 parts: Naked Idea, or Concept Statement; Core Dramatization—1 or 2 visuals; and Key Copy Words or Slogan);
- The “rules” of engagement: things like, “No idea can be killed during the first two idea-sharing sessions; and “Agency, when asked, must share some ideas that they already saw but held back”;
- Some basic methods for “checking out” ideas—as needed—with consumers: what research methodology, what format for the ideas.
Step 4. Establish a “post-idea-collaboration” assessment process. In other words, set a date and feedback process with which both client and agency can lay out their satisfaction with the idea-sharing…and suggested adjustments going forward.
Step 5. Most important of all, get something going soon—bridge the gap!
Richard Czerniawski & Mike Maloney
© 2003 Brand Development Network (BDN) International. All rights reserved.