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Home | How To Coach - When The Work Is Not So Good




(Note:  As we prepare to conduct our annual “Open” Brand Positioning & Marketing Communications College in Chicago, from May 13th through May 15th, we will again focus this week’s (and upcoming) DISPATCHES ™ on those critical skills that we aim to build upon and improve during the College.  If you are interested in information about attending, please visit our website ( or call our Admin Office at 1-800-255-9831.)


In last week’s DISPATCHES ™, we looked at the negative side of coaching—some of the more common ways that clients sometimes exhibit how not to coach.  We thought that, for this week, we would take a look at another kind of negative—or at least, undesired-- situation…namely, when an agency presents work that is off the mark.  Such a situation presents tough challenges for the client, particularly for the client who desires to build and sustain a positive, team-oriented approach to developing creative material. 


In this kind of environment (as opposed to an environment where the client-agency relationship has been deteriorating for a long time and will likely end up in a “divorce”), there are really only three ways for the creative work to be off the mark:  (1) it is off strategy; (2) is it pedestrian or commonplace; or (3) it offers too few options.  What each of these possibilities shares in common is that the client, and not simply the agency alone, is also partly accountable for the work’s shortcomings.


If the work is truly off strategy, nine times out of ten it reflects two fundamental problems with the Creative Brief—it’s either an unclear or “muddled” brief, or it is an overly complex brief (as in trying to capture too many benefits in the Campaign Ideas).  As one of the co-authors of the Creative Brief, the client bears a shared responsibility for the clarity of the brief’s intent as well as for the strategic decisions about which and how many brand benefits to communicate.


If the work is truly pedestrian, as in lacking ideas or “seen it many times before,” there is always the possibility (although usually quite remote) that the creative teams lack talent.  Much more likely is the reality that, consciously or not, over time the client has set tacit rules about the kinds of communication approaches they will accept—and these approaches are generally regarded by the client’s management as “safe” and (though rarely admitted) “predictable.”  You know that old ad agency line “clients get the creative they deserve?”  Well, there’s a reason why it has stood the test of time.


Finally, if the work offers too few options for the client to assess and consider, most clients typically assume it’s due to an agency’s stubborn insistence:  We will only present to the client what we believe is our best work, what will be best for the brand.  But, actually, more times than not, the reason why clients see so few options—especially at the raw Idea stage—is that, by their behaviors in the past, they have shown themselves to be “quick on the draw” when less-than-finished creative material is presented.  By that we mean that clients love to kill things, often in their infancy!  What agency creative person wants to see their newborn ideas suffer that fate?

So, you see, a legitimate case can be made that--in a healthy, positive agency-client relationship when the work isn’t so good—the client first and foremost should look to himself or herself to understand why.  For this week’s Boats & Helicopters here are 5 practices that we have found help a lot when confronting creative work that is poor.




  1. Do the forthright and honest thing as you start to respond to the work:  own up to a shared accountability—particularly if the work is off strategy.  This not only reinforces the whole team-orientation approach, but it demonstrates an admirable leadership style that admits, “We can all do better than this—us included.”


  1. Be openly willing to re-visit the Creative Brief—even though that often means going back to senior management later with reductions and refinements to secure their approval to the brief once again.  More than anything else, be grateful that you and the team have caught the impracticality (if not the impossibility) of successfully communicating 3 or more benefits in the creative ideas so early in the process (and before investing so many man-hours and so much money)!    


  1. Call a “time-out” after giving your overview that either the Creative Brief and/or the creative ideas need a new beginning.  This literally means taking a break and collapsing down to a smaller group, say, including only the senior account and creative members who are present.  Even better, if timing allows, take the break out of the bigger meeting room and at a local spot to grab some food and talk things over during the meal.  Then re-group with the entire team to share joint conclusions and agreed to next steps.


  1. Prior to presenting any further work, set up a “shared values” or “We wish” session.  This is simply a casual get-together with the client and agency (account & creative) team to show and tell some favorite Ideas.  These Ideas can be from the world of advertising, promotion, packaging, product design, you name it.  But the purpose is to use favorite Ideas as stimulus for a dialogue about the kinds of things both parties value most.  It’s a great way for clients to break some old barriers, to get away from “we’ve always done it this way.”


  1. Implement the Campaign Idea “mini-process.”  Rather than waiting for the one meeting in which the agency will present their recommended Idea, agree to a couple of early-on “raw Idea” sessions at the agency, when they will share (not “present” or “sell”) their initial Ideas.  At this session nothing can be killed!  Some Ideas can be favored over others, of course, but no one can eliminate anything at this point…the Idea behind the Idea session is for the client to add (as in add value), not subtract.


Give these a try and see if you don’t agree they help a lot.  And, in the meantime, for some inspiration should you face a time when the work isn’t so good, here’s an mpeg of our colleague, Dave Roche, role-playing just such a situation.


Richard Czerniawski

430 Abbotsford Road

Kenilworth, Illinois 60043

tel 847.256.8820 fax 847.256.8847

reply to Richard: or



Mike Maloney

1506 West 13th

Austin, Texas 78703

tel 512.236.0971 fax 512.236.0972

reply to Mike: or

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