My favourite part of many briefs is the bit that asks for some desktop research on industry best practice. It's the immediate sign that the client is uncertain and isn't likely to really back ideas that can truly transform their business even though they've asked for a 'step-change' idea.
I have to sympathise with such clients, however. Let's try and understand why the brief comes in for big thinking and ends up being whittled back to an incremental step forward.
The world wants creativity; it yearns for it and celebrates it when it's put in front of them as a perfectly formed idea. Apple is the poster boy for our desires. But why is it that we resist these ideas when they are first conceived?
I believe it's because that's just how we are wired. Back in the cave days we had to use instinct to survive and escape predators. In order to overcome an instinctive reaction takes an awful lot of willpower and re-wiring of our brain synapses.
This goes a long way to explaining why we are resistant to big ideas. From an early age we are trained to create as much certainty as possible and avoid uncertainty. We favour analytics over intuition and our own inherent creativity.
Let's take this back to the brief. The agency comes back with a big idea. It fundamentally re-looks the brief in a manner that the client never envisioned in the first place. It changes the way the category operates for the better and provides a better customer experience. In the long term it should ensure that the business gains market share over competitors.
The idea is exciting and the client initially shares the enthusiasm for it - until they take a look at current best practice. The big idea flies in the face of current convention. It means unlearning those neural pathways. We all know how the story ends - as an incremental improvement on the current market leader.
If business is going to win into the future it has to re-think, challenge and find a better way. Technology has given us the most unbelievable opportunities to truly reinvent categories. Time to get ballsy and actually act on these opportunities. The most amazing thing then happens: the idea works and all the competitors suddenly realise that there is a new best practice and they all follow like lemmings.
How can you approach briefs to deliver big ideas?
See a problem, not a brief. A brief, if you really think about it, asks the agency to execute a pre-determined solution. Produce a new brand identity, advertising campaign or pack design. Dig deeper, understand why the business has arrived at the need for these executions. Could there be a better way? What's the real problem? Have sales declined or has the competitor launched a new variant? What then is the best reaction to these changes in the external environment?
Start with the customer, not the business. How can we best answer this problem faced by the customer. Get into their shoes and understand what would solve the problem for them.
A large cable provider in the US asked their agency to produce a set of informative adverts to help customers better understand their invoice which was quite confusing. The business immediately assumed the customer wasn't too smart and needed educating on how to read its bill, at the great cost of a new campaign and flighting schedule.
By looking from the customer's perspective it would be better to redesign the format of the bill to make it more understandable. In doing this, the company in question not only made their bill easy to understand and built brand equity, but cut the volume of inbound calls to its call centre by 20%, actually saving it money, not spending it!
Everyone is a marketer. A recent McKinsey article* pointed out that the future of marketing lies not in the marketing department, but as the responsibility of every single employee. Why so?
They recognise that every action the organisation takes, in some way, impacts the relationship with the end customer and thereby affects reputation. In this age of social media we now conduct a dialogue with customers. Poor service from the accounts department, for instance, can immediately result in a flurry of Twitter activity.
It is critical that every employee understands their brand and what it's all about. It also means that marketing happens at every touch point. No longer is it purely about a brand identity and CI manual, you have to be considering every single interaction and understand its impact on your reputation.
Is your branding agency asking the right questions, delving into a brief to understand the underlying problem and coming up with solutions that meet the customer need in new and often unexpected ways that fall way outside a traditional CI manual? Are you bold enough to be creative?
*We're all marketers now. McKinsey Quarterly, July 2011.