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It's Time You Blew Up Your Agency's Old-School Creative Process

7 min read

I'm Jeremy Carson, and this is everything I wish I knew about the advertising and creative industry when I got started. And everything I'm discovering as a Creative Director today.
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There's an anthem in the pessimistic corners of advertising: "The industry is dead."

"We need to be more creative, or the industry is dead."
"We need to stop only focusing on creative, or the industry is dead."
"We need to celebrate with rosé and yachts, or the industry is dead!"

I've got good news for you: the industry isn't dead. It isn't even dying. But just like always, it's changing. And the latest change is a four-letter word.

Data.

But really, that's just a tool. Just like TV is a tool, and Instagram is a tool, and print is a tool. The real change is a constant in advertising: relevancy. And for some reason, while I'm super unpopular when I say that, it's always been our end goal, hasn't it? We do our best to be relevant to people, to connect with them, be it through video, pictures, audio, events, or whatever it is we do. We connect with people, so that they love a brand, so they'll buy our stuff.

But with data and modern ad tech, we can discover individual motivations and focus unique messages upon those individuals. In normal words, we don't have to talk to people, because now we can talk to a person. Something we could never do before.

It's a simple concept that requires a massive mindset shift, not only in the way that we view process end-points like media and analytics, but how we start with strategy and creative.

It's the difference of separating the heart and the head, or allowing the two to meet.



Isolating Data in a Traditional Creative Process

Data isn't new. We've used it forever in our industry, but we just called it things like "research" or "focus groups." And we implemented it in a way that was very segregated. It kept the head and the heart separate.

Strategy and Creative

Strategic Planners would talk to dozens of people, sift through testimonials and scrape research journals, until they were able to piece together some brilliance to kick-start a campaign. Today, we do the same thing. But instead of talking to dozens of people, we can use candid, anonymized data from millions. People who were telling us what they love, by simply behaving how they do.

But the process is still the same: Planners think of the single group they want to talk to (the "aspirational audience"), then they do the research on them, and develop an insight.

Data powers the insight. The insight powers creative.

Then, the Creatives take that insight and make something that connects with those aspirational people. One golden message that moves us, or tries to, universally.

We inject data into the process. It powers the insight, which powers the creative.

And then we hand it off…

Media and Analytics

This is where the data-lovers are hiding. Those people? Media and Analytics. God, they thrive on it. It is literally the life blood of their industry. Targeting and results. Every good agency puts the two hand in hand.

Media takes the creative, finds the people they want to talk to, and points the creative at them. The problem is, as any media planner will tell you, they end up using the same creative for the different targets. Which makes absolutely no sense. But it's not their fault, because that's all they've got.

So, when Analytics looks at the results of the campaign, seeing how the different targets react to the same creative, they get wildly different numbers. Some groups react well. Others, not so much.

Side note: why don't Creatives like campaign analytics reports? Wouldn't you want to know how your campaign performed? A Creative literally comment on my article, "I don't want to make creative for KPIs." KPIs are what tell you if your creative did its job or not!

But this is the "output" data that we're already so comfortable with. We keep the numbers with the numbers people, which works best, right?

Wrong.

Using Data Throughout the Creative Process

Separating Strategy & Creative from Media & Analytics removes any ability for them to work together. This idea of isolating each part of the process, each point at which data is used and how it's used, is comfortable and familiar, but inefficient and ineffective.

It works fine for talking to everybody in the same way, but horribly for being relevant to different people in different ways. It's good for people, bad for a person.

To make personally relevant creative, we need to completely change the creative process. A process that interweaves the different groups, and connects each to the one that came before it, in order to constantly evolve.

Strategy

It's hard to say where to start, because there's no beginning to a loop. But, just to compare apples to apples, let's go with Strategy.

The difference here is that Strategy doesn't just pick the aspirational audience and research it. We look to Analytics to see where their results were strongest and weakest, then create a bunch of groups, based on those results. Finally, we research those groups, diving into the different mindsets and understanding how each one should be spoken to.

Basically, you gotta do what you do for one audience, but do it for a bunch of them. And don't guess who you should talk to, use historical data to support it.

Media

Here's where we see a big shift: Strategy talks to Media. Because it doesn't matter if we've broken those people into different groups if we can't target them.

So, Media takes the strategic audiences and develops media targets. If they don't fit, it goes back to Strategy. We have to align, because in the next step, we create for those targets.

Creative

Creatives don't like numbers, I know. We like people. So, instead of seeing data in some overwhelming spreadsheet, we can simply look at data as the people we're talking to.

A brand means something different to everybody, so we have to recognize, understand, and uniquely speak to what that is.

Media and Strategy aligned on those groups. Creatives have to figure out what we say. But it's not saying one thing to everyone. It's saying different things to each group. That way, when Media targets those different people, there's unique creative crafted specifically for them.

(Production)

Oh, I snuck this one in here! Because, in this process, I think of Producers as part of the Creative phase. See, when we're creating the same one or two pieces for everyone, there's a standardization to what Producers can plan for.

But, when every campaign is different, when we could be speaking to 10 or 100 different groups, with just as many pieces of creative, Producers need to be nimble. And the only way to be that nimble is to stick to the hip of the Creatives. Producers need to keep us honest, so we can create within the bounds of the sandbox we get to play in.

In short, we need to produce more work, without sacrificing the quality in the craft. And there are dozens of different ways to do that.

Analytics

Since Media already knew where to point the creative, and the Creatives knew what to create for, the last step is to see how it performed. What were the results?

Just like in every step of this Data Loop, there's more work. And it's no different for Analytics. Because every placement has multiple pieces of creative, which give different results, and have to be tracked independently. Since the creative was made specifically for those groups, you need to know which pieces in this complex puzzle fit well.

And so do the Creatives. The integration of this process means that Creatives have to care not only about who we're talking to, but if the way we spoke to them was actually effective.

Rinse and Repeat

Then, we return to Strategy, who looks at the results of the work. We figure out where and with whom the results were strongest and weakest. And then decide how to differently speak to those groups.

Creating For The Heart and the Head

You may read this and think, "Oh, so we just need to have the departments work together." I wish it were that simple.

This is a complete process shift. Everyone has to get on the same page, from Strategy to Media to Creative to Production to Analytics to the leadership of every one of those departments.

It has never been and will never be a binary solution. It's a balance between talking to the individual and talking to the world.

The problem is, agency structures, agency process, they're hard to change (or at least slow to change). And we've been working the same way for decades. We've gotten comfortable with how we work and tend to resist radical transformation.

But get on the train, people. Because soon, you're going to figure out that you can't use the old tools to create for this newly changed creative world.

Long Live Advertising

While I'd love to say, "If you don't start creating this way, the industry is dead!" I'd be exaggerating.

There will always be a place for the singular, universal brand message. It has never been and will never be a binary solution. It's a balance. When do you speak to the individual? When do you speak to the world?

But when you find that balance, you'll realize that the ways you approach those two mindsets are completely different. Whether you're one integrated agency with everything under a single roof, or a team of agencies working for the same brand, your process has to adapt.

Because it's true what they say: the only constant is change.

Thanks for reading!

If you enjoyed this, say hello @thejeremycarson. LinkedIn Instagram

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