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Sunday, July 31, 2011



 Suck (suk) verb. Be very bad


This is the fourth DISPATCHES’ article, in a series of five, to address the subject, “Why our communications suck.” It was prompted by a participant to one of our Leadership Communications workshops who jutted his chin and threw out a challenge, which he disguised in the form of this question, “Can you tell me why my communications don’t work?” I responded, “Yes, of course. Your marketing communications suck.”


In this series we have covered: The Essential Creative Brief, which provides the appropriate strategic direction for messaging; the Campaign Idea, which is used to dramatize the strategic messaging (identified in the Essential Creative Brief), in compelling customer language; and “execution,” which is used to showcase the Campaign Idea, cut through the clutter, engage the target-customer and create strong brand linkage. This issue, Part 4, covers coaching, which consists of assessing the creative work and directing (commenting to) the creative resource team.


Coach, noun, a vehicle for transporting people to a place

they could not easily reach by themselves


Our job, as client marketing communicators is to get our creative resource team to develop leadership communications. Leadership communications are those that enable us to stimulate a specified target-customer behavior to achieve “stretch” business objectives, and build brand equity. When we talk about “stretch” business objectives we are referring to communications that do not merely contribute to sales growth (although that would be a nice start) but turbo-charge it. So, for example, if the brand has been growing at 8%, the communications would triple the growth rate to 24%. Brand equity is the value the customer bestows upon our brand offering. It is the result of connecting with the target-customer on an emotional level to forge a special relationship with the brand. The effect is to command loyalty, despite attempted competitive inroads via pricing, new product, improvements, etc.


It takes skillful coaching to help get the creative resource team to reach beyond their normative, good work to develop great work. “Good” is the enemy of “great.” Coaching is not about settling. “Good” is settling. That, itself, sucks. Coaching is about bringing out everyone’s best. Nor is coaching about evaluating, which is pointing out what is wrong with the work. Instead, coaching is about add-valuating the work, which consists of properly assessing and then commenting on the needed direction to make the work more productive to achieve, at minimum, the Communication Behavior Objective (established in The Essential Creative Brief) or, better yet, stretch objectives.


A great coach can make the difference between: a championship and also-ran season; or even a winning and losing season. When we think of great coaches the names Vince Lombardi and Phil Jackson spring to mind. Vince Lombardi is old school coaching at its best. His football teams were winning, if not championship, teams. The Super Bowl trophy, for the best team in football, is named for him. Vince Lombardi got the best out of every one of his players, on every play. He demanded it. He drilled for excellence. More recently, Phil Jackson, is the winningest coach in the history of professional basketball. He got his players to play together, as a team, not a collection of super stars. (Hmmm, reminds us of this year’s NBA championship between the Miami Heat and the Dallas Mavericks, where a team effort beat a collection of super-duper stars.) These coaches were students of the game. They could both soberly assess performance and knew how to direct their players to achieve levels of performance that they could not easily reach without their coaching.


In order to be an effective coach, to achieve leadership communications, one needs to be able to skillfully assess, and provide relevant direction in an appropriate way to, the proposed creative product produced by the creative resource team.


Assessing the Creative Work

You cannot comment effectively (i.e., provide relevant direction in an appropriate way) unless you know what you think about the work. Think first. Speak second. The think part is where your assessment is critical. What we encounter in our experience with client marketers is that, generally speaking, they do a pretty poor job on the thinking front. Basically, many do not know how to think about creative work. This not a matter of “what” to think as it is “how” to think. This lack of critical thinking skills regarding creative work, noted below, contributes to why their communications suck:

  • They do not anchor their assessment of the creative work to the Key Thought (i.e., the belief/benefit they need to communicate in order to trigger the specified target-customer behavior) in The Essential Creative Brief;
  • They focus on trivial execution elements as opposed to the center-of-the-plate, which is the Campaign Idea;
  • They do not recognize and/or appreciate a Campaign Idea;
  • Often they are unable to determine if the creative work is on-strategy;
  • They look hard to find something, from their perspective, that is wrong with the creative work;
  • Because they are looking for what is wrong they overlook a nugget of an idea that could possibly become (with additional work on the part of the creative team) a BIG idea;
  • They have no feel for the capability of the creative work to trigger the intended target-customer behavior;
  • They lack the empathy to experience the communications as their target-customer might experience, and respond, to it;
  • They don’t know what to look for in the creative work or where to begin;
  • They are ignorant of proven principles for effective communications;
  • They speak without thinking or first crystallizing their thinking; and
  • They look at the work they way they think their boss is likely to look at the work … among other factors.

We are not suggesting that these marketers are stupid. No, they are far from stupid. We have a lot of respect for their intelligence. It is just that they have not been properly instructed and trained to review creative work. If they have been trained, their training is not reinforced, or they do not get enough practice.


Once we have conducted a “thoughtful” assessment of the creative we are ready to provide direction to the creative resource team to make, if possible, the creative work more productive.


Commenting with Skillful Means to Direct the Creative Team

We comment to direct the creative team. Ah, commenting, here’s another skill that is absolutely essential to develop, if we are to avoid creating communications that suck and, instead, creating leadership communications. However, few marketers possess the ability to comment with skillful means (i.e., in a way that improves the situation without causing collateral damage). Here are commenting factors that contribute to the development of communications that suck:

  • Again we bring-up the incorrect practice of speaking before thinking (which makes it clear to everyone present that the marketer doing the commenting does not know what the hell s/he is talking about);
  • Not providing an overview of the work to set the appropriate tone for the creative team and frame the direction you want them to take;
  • Beginning your commenting with false platitudes (great job!), when subsequent comments reveal that you do not believe the work is good; or
  • Thanking the creative resource team for all their hard work (which is not an overview);
  • Not linking the overview to what the creative resource team wants to know (“Hey, do we have anything here that you believe is worth going forward?”);
  • Providing “constructive” criticism (all “criticism” is destructive!);
  • Not saying what you mean and/or meaning what you say;
  • Identifying what is wrong with the work as opposed to what needs to be done to make it more productive;
  • Talking about everything the creative team has shared with you, as opposed to what you like and want them to do further work;
  • Being vague about the direction by using words such as “strengthen” and “tweak”;
  • Being prescriptive with direction by telling, and demanding from, them that they use a specific set of words, situation, visualization, etc.;
  • Talking down to the creative team as if you were the voice of authority, font of all-knowledge and wisdom, or some other absurd notion;
  • Contradicting yourself (what did s/he say?);
  • Focusing on unimportant elements of the execution;
  • Talking without saying anything that anyone is remotely interested in hearing (there’s an acronym from Karen Blumenthal, journalist and author, that captures this: “ANGAS” – And Nobody Gives A ----!);
  • Not prioritizing the direction;
  • Overwhelming the creative resource team with so much direction that it saps their confidence and/or morale;
  • Not going back to the beginning when it is the wisest course of action, instead of trying to fix something that is beyond repair;
  • Not owning-up to the client’s role in generating sub-standard work; and
  • Not recognizing what the creative resource team did well … again, among other factors.


We need to do better with our coaching, both assessing and commenting, if we are to avoid the development of communications that suck. We must do better, much better if we are to develop leadership communications. A great client coach who is knowledgeable about the potential effectiveness of the creative work and can comment with skillful means can be the critical difference in getting to leadership communications versus communications that suck. Here are some best practices for your consideration:

1.     Focus your assessment on the Campaign Idea – Your assessment should start with identifying whether or not the creative product has a Campaign Idea, which consists of the “naked idea” (the creative concept), key copy words and core dramatization. All three parts need to work together to dramatize the Key Thought into compelling customer language. The Campaign Idea is the center-of-the-plate of the communications. If you don’t have a Campaign Idea it is unlikely that you will have effective communications. So focus here first. Ask yourself:

  • Does the naked idea represent a compelling way to share the Key Thought?
  • Do the key copy words capture, or lead you to the realization of, the Key Thought?
  • Does it have a core dramatization that assists in the discovery of the Key Thought?
  • Do all three work together to communicate a single-minded message?
  • Does this have “legs” (i.e., can be used in many mediums, and for a long period of time)?
  • Does it make you feel (as the target-customer), really feel, the Key Thought?
  • Do you believe it will trigger the specified target-customer behavior?
  • Does this creative work make you feel proud of what you’ve helped develop?

There are other executional elements of which you should be aware, that vary with the specific medium. But if you have addressed the Campaign Idea you have come a long way toward avoiding communications that suck.

2.     Comment with Skillful Means – Don’t speak until you know what you think! This is good advice in all walks of life, one that is difficult for all of us. But it is absolutely essential if we are going to make sense with our commenting and earn the respect of the creative resource team. One you know how you feel about the work (based upon a disciplined assessment) here’s how to comment with skillful means:

  • Start with an overview: The overview lets the creative team know where you stand regarding the quality of the work. It is your conclusion about the work. It could be that your overview is the work is ready to proceed to the next step, or that while it is close it requires some additional work, or that we need to go back to the drawing board because it requires significant work … among others
  • Provide “productive” direction:  Don’t talk about what you see that you don’t like. Instead, talk about what you need to see for the work to be more productive. For example, instead of saying “the key copy words don’t communicate the Key Thought” say, “I need for the key copy words to capture the Key Thought in customer language.” As mentioned earlier, be specific with your direction but not prescriptive! Point the creative resource team in the direction they need to go and let them figure our how to get there. Avoid fat language, which is open to interpretation.
  • Summarize next steps: Let the creative resource team know what you expect them to do next. Use this opportunity to crystallize the next steps and ensure understanding of what actions they are to take. This could include things such as revising Campaign Ideas, developing new ones, demonstrating how the creative team might pool-out the Campaign Idea, sharing the work with senior management, etc.

3.     Learn to coach effectively – Coaching is a skill. Like all skills it needs to be developed experientially. Coach Vince Lombardi is attributed to saying, “Practice does not make perfect. Perfect practice makes perfect.” So, we need to practice and get appropriate feedback from a skilled instructor coach to enable us to take our practice, and performance, to the next level. If you are interested in developing your coaching skills (assessing and commenting), and improving your ability to develop leadership communications, you might want to consider participating in our Brand Positioning & Communication College program. We are currently considering conducting an Open program in Chicago, November 15th -17th.   For more information about this program click here or call Lori Vandervoort at 800 255-9831.


Richard Czerniawski and Mike Maloney

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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