How to get some jam on your 'bread and butter' work

Issue 6 | February 2008

Steve Harrison has won more creative awards than any other creative director in direct marketing.

He believes that creativity doesn't just belong in one department of the agency but that great work requires a team of people all at the top of their game. And that includes a great client.

We were thrilled he accepted our invitation to edit this issue of Directory though many of you might be rather less so. Because he was tough, very tough on all the campaigns submitted.

What that means is if your work did get accepted then it must be very, very good.

If you failed to make the cut, don't despair. Perhaps you're working on something right now, which will allow you to be completely, utterly, totally brilliant. If so, don't forget to send us the results of your brilliance so we can publish them in Issue 7!

Watch Steve talking about the work in this issue in one of our home movies.

Patrick Collister

Editorial Director

"A principle isn't a principle until it costs you money." I used to have this saying by Bill Bernbach stuck all over my agency. I often thought that as an addendum you might write ... "and a few friends, too." After you've read this, some of you may not be inviting me to hang out on your social websites,but here goes.

I was pretty daunted by the prospect of being Directory's guest editor. The quality of both the work and the editorial has thus far been exceptional. I just hope that this isn't the issue where standards drop across the board. I say that because this time round we had a bit of difficulty finding 40 entries that made the grade.

Now you could say it's all my fault. When Patrick asked me to step into the breach I made a suggestion: "Let's not bother with the bijou work done for clients who'll run anything you give them. Let's focus instead on the 'bread and butter' work done for clients who pay at least fifty grand a month for their agency's services.

Some of you, it seems, looked at this and said "bugger that, let's wait 'til April". Quite a few did what you probably do day-in day-out and ignored the brief completely by sending in your work for the local florist ... undertaker ... fancy dress shop. Others, however, took me at my word and submitted real work that originated from real briefs.

And that's where the problem seems to lie. If the work is a bit disappointing then I think it is primarily because the 'real briefs' aren't good enough.

I make that judgement purely on the basis of the submissions. There weren't many that described a coherent strategy and even fewer that stated a clear, single-minded proposition from which the creative could have proceeded.

Some of the propositions that did appear were so abstract you could frame and hang them next to a Kandinsky. Take for example this one for an energy drink: "communicate that [name of product]'s positive energy opens doors."

Then there were the poor sods working on the car brief who had to dramatise 'Naturally Capable'. They would, I'm sure, commiserate with the benighted souls struggling to sell a range of computers with the injunction: 'Grow Innovation'.

For every such masterpiece of concision there were those written by people who had obviously broken the 'Full Stop' key on their word processors. One otherwise well-written submission finished with this flourish: "dramatise the idea that consumers should be prepared for the unexpected and avoid settling for just any car insurance especially when they can get [name of product] quality at a good price."

What did the author want the ad to be about: 1) be prepared for the unexpected 2) don't settle for the ordinary 3) the quality of the product 4) the low price?

Seeing planners and account people struggling like this only reinforces my view that the standard of brief writing in the industry is still low and the quality of work will suffer unless something is done to improve it.

OK, some of you might say that this edition is an aberration and we should look to the past issues and work being produced for Cannes to see that we're on an upward curve quality-wise. I'd simply point out that a disproportionate number of the pieces that are sent to both Directory and Cannes probably had no original brief other than that set by the creatives who came up with the idea for a compliant client who wasn't paying for the media.

Which is why even those agencies with strong creative reputations (built partly in the manner described above) produce ordinary work for their big car, fmcg, telecoms, investments, banking, insurance, IT and office services accounts.

Why do such talented creative departments and brilliant CDs produce ordinary work? Because, as I say, the people writing the briefs do not know what they are doing. They don't understand that every effective (and award winning) ad is an exercise in Problem-Solution. Quite simply, all they have to do is find the customer's problem and how the product or service that they are selling solves that problem.

I could show you how this simple duality has informed every ad that you hold dear, from 'Snowplough' to 'Subservient Chicken'. But let's instead see how it has shaped the good work on the pages ahead.

Take the Virgin Trains mailing. What's the problem here? People know that cars and planes are destroying the earth's atmosphere. But they still need to travel. What's the solution? Take the train: it emits up to 76% less CO2.

How about the Schwarzkopf mailing. What's the problem? The customer feels his grey hair makes him unattractive to women. The solution? This new shampoo turns your grey hair to black and you into a babe magnet.

There's also the Land Rover campaign. The problem here is again pretty universal: people don't like paying taxes. The solution? An opportunity to buy a Land Rover and avoid forking out for the tax you'd normally pay.

Take a look at the Thalys station idea. The problem for Belgians who like skiing is that they're stuck at sea level when they want to be on the French Alps. The solution, with these train connections you're almost on the slopes already.

And finally the Royal Mail Business to Business mailing. The problem for business prospects lies in finding a marketing medium that attracts attention and engages prospects. The solution? Only direct mail engages every one of your prospect's senses.

Simple, eh? But when I look at how most agencies go about writing their strategies I am reminded of the great Scottish football manager Billy Shankly and his view that "It's a simple game made complicated by fools".

Of course I don't think your colleagues are fools. They're probably just unaware that their primary function is to identify the customer's problem (practical or psychological) and how their client's product or service can solve it.*

At this point I should stress that it is the customer's problem they should be trying to solve. Not the client's. Are you amazed that I have to point this out? If so, you should have seen the submissions.

I knew we were in trouble when the second entry I looked at explained: "We decided to ignore the brief and focus instead upon the benefit to the customer". It's a bit frightening that anyone thinks such a point is worth making in a submission. But even more alarming was the prevalence of 'client-centric' (ugh, how that term makes me vomit) thinking. Take, for example, the instruction from a brief for a range of computers to get "attention for [name of brand] whose special spirit pushes the boundaries of what computers are and how they are spoken about." Or this for a brief selling a car: "The [name of product] is a model that rocks and reflects brand attitude".

I'm sure that both reflect pretty accurately what the client wants. But neither cast any light on what's going on inside the customers' heads and how the product might make their lives better.

In short, they ignore the fact that unless someone can identify the reason why the customer might want to buy the product or service, there really is no point in doing any creative. Indeed, at this point I'd suggest you find an A2 pad, write on it: "If the brief isn't right, the work'll be shite" and stick it in plain sight of everyone in the agency.

That's the first thing you need to do. The second, if you're a creative director, is a little more troublesome. But that, after all, is why they call it 'work'. Quite simply, it's your job to reject briefs that do not have a single-minded proposition that focuses upon the product's solution to the customer's problem. If you sign off a bad brief then you're as culpable as the untrained junior who probably wrote it.

But don't just reject it out of hand. Otherwise that poor sod will be back outside your office in four hours' time with something that's probably worse. Sit down and explain that you're all in the business of competitive persuasion. That the agency's primary function is to persuade customers to buy your client's product instead of that of the competition. And that the best way of doing this is by showing how your client's product will makes the customers' lives better. Then tell them about Problem-Solution and how it will lead them to the Proposition.

If they don't get it, write the bloody brief yourself. Then get the agency together tomorrow lunchtime to tell them you've had enough of these abstract, client-centric (sick bag, please), pseudo strategies and from now on you want the customer placed in the centre of everything the agency creates. And that starts with the brief.

There will, I suspect, be much staring at shoes and sucking of teeth from some quarters. Indeed, you probably won't be carried shoulder-high round the building after delivering this little homily. You may even lose a few friends because of your candour. But the standard of work on the 'bread and butter' accounts will improve. And, as I observed at the outset, "A principle isn't a principle...."

*For charity and public awareness work it is slightly different. Here it is the customer who provides the solution. The trick lies in dramatising the problem with such impact that the customer wants to get involved and make the solution happen.

Steve Harrison

Guest Editor


Steve Harrison has won more Cannes Direct Lions than any creative director in the world. Just over half were picked up for such big 'bread and butter' accounts as Xerox (twice), Microsoft (twice), Star Alliance, AA Road Assistance Insurance (twice including Grand Prix), M&G Investments and IBM (twice). He is idle at the moment so why not send your views on his views to [email protected]. He can't guarantee a response but it might make one or two of you feel better.

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