Client Creativity Research

By The Drum, Administrator

December 12, 2002 | 9 min read

Did you know that most marketing directors make excellent ventriloquists? Here’s the proof.

Imagine that you, the marketing director of a major organisation, are sat in your boardroom. It’s a chilly Friday afternoon. Not, perhaps, the best time to see the creative team from your advertising agency, but they kind of ran out of time earlier in the week so it is now or never.

After the coffees, the nervous small talk about your football team’s prospects for the weekend ahead and the appalling state of the weather, they finally get on with it. Rationale is followed by rhetorical considerations and rejections. Then, at long last, what you’ve been waiting for – the culmination of endless strategy meetings – the reveal of the big creative idea.

Your next Big Campaign Idea (they hope) is sprung on you.

Now, here’s your chance to practise your ventriloquism skills.

Try keeping your teeth closed, with a little space to allow you to breathe. Now, mutter in a quiet voice through slightly pursed lips: ”What the bloody hell is that?”

See? Easy, wasn’t it? You’ve vented your frustration. Your advertising agency didn’t hear you and therefore weren’t offended, even though your reaction didn’t exactly blow their socks off. And you can all spend the next three weeks re-shaping some half-baked ideas into something like it in time for the campaign launch.

Hands up, how many marketing decision makers have been there?

Now, step forward all the advertising and design creative directors who’ve had to put up with recalcitrant clients who don’t recognise strong concepts when they see them?

Is this really the true state of the typical relationship between agency creative teams and their clients, or has the industry made much progress in moving to a more enlightened way of working where imaginative and creative thinking is a truly democratic process?

To cast some light on this age-old issue and establish whether clients and creative agencies get the relationships that they deserve, The Marketeer commissioned management and creative training consultancy Strategem to conduct research amongst 100 of the North’s leading clients over the last two months to answer these questions and a few more.

Why? Because, as the thumbscrews make an unwelcome return to most companies’ cost planning, it’s critically important that the best possible job gets done – on brief, on time and on budget. If clients and agencies aren’t doing everything in their power to make this happen, the reputation of the creative industry as a whole suffers. As long as the orthodox “we brief, you listen, you present, we respond” routine in creative development works best, then fine, don’t fix it. But if it’s getting in the way, perhaps it’s time to examine new ways of bringing customer and supplier together.

Our partner in this research project, Strategem, specialises in helping a wide range of companies improve their creative potential.

Working with the world-renowned Centre For Creative Development, based in The Netherlands, the consultancy doesn’t necessarily see creative training as a passport to making people become wacky, zany types – they’re into the serious business of using creative techniques to improve the way organisations approach new product development and production processes, as well as marketing.

Matthew Crimes, who headed up the research for The Marketeer, said: “What we wanted to do here was to test the perceptions of marketing budget holders within some of the UK’s leading businesses on the effectiveness of their creative relationships.

“Although we came into this research with an open mind, I think we suspected that there’d be some pretty fixed views from clients over how their agencies performed and where the rules of engagement should be drawn.”

So, just how does UK plc view the creative process, and is there room for improvement – on both sides?

“What we didn’t find was a client base ready that was truly fired up by their relationships with their agencies,” says Crimes.

The research, undertaken amongst 100 of the North’s top client companies, showed that only one client in five felt that their agencies were fully tuned in to their needs. The vast majority of companies scored their agencies as only doing “pretty well”. That’s not exactly a ringing endorsement for an industry that prides itself on excellence.

The theme was continued when the marketing directors were asked whether they thought their creative agencies fully appreciated the client’s input to creative thinking.

Crimes says: “Just less than half our sample – 48 per cent – said their creative agencies really valued their perspective and input; the remainder qualified their perception with rising levels of scepticism about how the agencies viewed their client’s input – which is interesting, to say the least.”

So why is this happening?

When the clients were asked to score the closeness of their relationship with their creative agency, fewer than three in ten felt that they always worked together as a team.

A quarter of the sample said that this could happen occasionally, and the rest – some 44 per cent – said that they didn’t see themselves as a team with their agencies.

It could be this relative antipathy towards building a team relationship – from both sides – that’s pushing this creeping cynicism between clients and agencies. The proof of any pudding, of course, is in the eating, so what did our sample of clients think of the fruits of their agencies’ perspiration and inspiration?

The findings showed that there is some consistency emerging here. One in four of the marketing chiefs polled said there is no such thing as a “reveal”, as they have worked hand in hand on the campaign.

That statistic makes some sense, as Strategem had already identified 20 per cent of marketing directors who said that their agencies thoroughly understood them, and 28 per cent claimed that they worked together as a team.

Further down, however, you can see a correlation between lack of teamwork and increasing levels of disappointment. Of the rest of our sample, only 8 per cent said that the creative response was usually bang on the money.

The remainder – some 67 per cent – said that either the work was pretty good, but would need to be worked into shape, or that they struggled to see how the creative ideas could work at all.

So, is this a result of the over-keen client wanting a slice of the creative action and the too-arsey creative team sniffily fending them off their territory? According to Strategem’s findings, it would seem not.

“When we spoke to marketing directors, we kind of expected that the vast majority would be up for making a bigger contribution to the creative process,” says Crimes.

“In fact, 44 per cent of marketing decision makers didn’t want further involvement in the creative process and a further 8 per cent were unsure of its value, meaning that more than half our clients were not willing to take things further.”

Again, less than 30 per cent thought that this was a good or a very good thing. According to Steve Duncan, Category Marketing Director with tissue and towel paper manufacturer Georgia Pacific, the key to a successful relationship is through a partnership, where criticisms don’t engender over-sensitivity.

He says: “Creative agencies can be a bit over-protective and have been known to throw the occasional tantrum when criticised. I appreciate it’s a cliché, but things do work much better if they see themselves as a real extension of the marketing team; we’re all on the same side and pulling in the same direction. We’re then in a position to share things with them more fully, and prioritise our needs effectively.

“Pack design, for example, might not be as sexy as the next TV advertising brief, but it’s in front of the consumer every day – small but important issues like that.”

Helen Ritchie, at Best Western Hotels, believes that it is this commercial awareness that marks out an in-tune creative agency.

“Agencies frequently fall into the trap of presenting creative work that reflects their struggle to understand the commercial realities that the client faces,” she says.

“ Get this bit right, and they can become much more effective”.

It’s this key theme – of effectiveness – that The Marketeer and Strategem are most keen to drive home to agencies and their clients.

“Like many other things, it appears to be a question of attitude,” says Crimes. “From our research it seems that many marketing directors don’t want to get too close to their agencies for all sorts of reasons – they want to be seen to be in control, or they think they don’t have enough time, or they think their contribution would be belittled. Similarly, there are lots of creative directors out there who’d run a million miles if they thought their client was going to be ‘on the team’.”

The reluctance – on both sides – is misplaced, as the results speak for themselves. The research showed that, in general, clients who work hand in hand with their creative team see more accurate results earlier – saving time on re-working and re-presenting, saving input and tears, and ultimately saving budget”.

But what if the shy and retiring wallflower types are just too bashful to get it together?

“We spend a lot of time running something akin to a creative dating agency – and, to continue the analogy, a marriage guidance counselling service,” says Crimes. “We teach agencies and their clients how they can make an equal contribution to the creative process and how they can see each other’s perspective and priorities. Above all, we teach them the value of partnership, so the Friday afternoon ventriloquism sessions can be consigned to history’s dustbin.”

For further information on how Strategem’s team can breathe new life into a creative relationship, e-mail Matthew Crimes at


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