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Aligning Strategy and Creative: a blog of two halves

March 23, 2016 | 7 min read

Here, Thinking Juice’s strategy director and creative director each share their side of the story…

Thinking Juice's creative director Matt Turner.

Daniel Ward-Murphy, strategy director, Thinking Juice

When I first joined the ad agency world, I believed that agencies were the best at using insight in a truly directional way, but I also felt the best research work existed outside of agencies. As a result, I wanted to use my personal experience in both areas to build a department that did both, really well, with rigorous research underpinning the strategy that would then, in turn, guide the creative.

I could wax lyrical about the importance of a well-written brief at this stage, but even with great strategic work and an excellent brief it can all be derailed by a wild creative director, prone to off-brief moments of inspiration.

At Thinking Juice, I’m very lucky to work alongside Matt Turner – an experienced creative director who understands the value of good planning and is thirsty for a clear, narrow brief. He is the polar opposite of someone who tries to reverse engineer great creative into strategy.

This provides us with a fantastic foundation and there is limited interference to get in the way of great work, but it still needs delivering. So how is that done?

Firstly, robust research is conducted to draws out the key insight or insights to inform the development of strategic recommendations. This research will consider areas such as Market, Competitor, Customer and Brand. The guiding findings will be utilised to form strategy and the irrelevant, shelved, rather than discarded totally. (As data processing technology continues to evolve, findings that seem ‘irrelevant’ today may yet prove useful sometime in the future.)

The real ‘magic’ is then being able to add a layer of truly directional strategy on top that gives the right weighting to your assorted findings. There is no science in being able to do this well. This is more akin to art and, as such, relies on a blend of talent and experience. Agencies live and die on their ability to do this well.

It’s not easy to always get it right but as a strategy director it is absolutely vital. I have been successful in 5 of my last 6 pitches and would be the first to say I have been fantastically supported by Matt Turner and his amazing creative team – but those pitches could have been lost through either suggesting or not suggesting a fundamental change. The client context is key here but so is backing your instincts and being true to what you believe. For some, we have gone in all-guns-blazing, suggesting a fundamental change to their service proposition, for others a repositioning of their messaging hierarchy is all that is required.

It is worth focussing on the narrowness of the brief that in passed to your creative team. There is absolutely no point in delivering a wide brief, as the creatives will either knowingly or unknowingly decide the strategic direction through their work. If a bold call is required then ultimately the team doing the research and insight are best placed to make it.

So if a brand’s wider proposition is built around being authentic, traditional, celebrating history and providing great food and drink – and you need a campaign – then there is no point in simply communicating the above in a brief. Even if the client hasn’t gone through an exercise to distil their brand proposition or define their messaging hierarchy you still have to narrow the brief down. If history and taste are the most important elements then say it. “The proposition in the brief is ‘a taste of history’ – go make it work!” It’s not too wide so the brand lacks direction, but it’s not too narrow to be problematic for the creatives. The guys can deliver great campaigns for years to come which all dial up to this proposition.

As a strategist working with a great creative team you will always be surprised by how many options they can create from a narrow brief, but your only job after that is not to beard stroke and try to be a creative yourself, it’s just to police and ensure that the ideas are on strategy and on brief. Other than that, sit back and enjoy what the incredible work your team will produce.

Matt Turner, creative director, Thinking Juice

“We’ve left the brief open, so you guys can go crazy.” These are the words I hate to hear when I get a brief. Alternatively, if a brief gives me a tight message to communicate, who to communicate to and the channel it’s going to be delivered through, I will skip away happily and drum up the team.

For me, our planning department are part of the creative team. They’re the foundation of the brilliant work that works and some of them are bloody good creatives too (but don’t tell them I said that). I’ve had times where the strategists will come into briefing sessions and toss in a starter-for-10 idea, and you think: “sh*t, that’s really good, I better beat that.”

So what is it that Daniel and his planning department actually do for us? He gives us a strategic advantage. He finds the strongest positioning and where the competition is weakest and identifies an opportunity that no-one else has seen. For me that is creative.

He has employed some great and talented individuals and he’s been training them in-line with his own approach so we have real consistency. The outcome is that it really is working for us. We haven’t reinvented planning in advertising, but we are maximising its advantages and placing it at the core of our business which makes the difference to our clients.

The planners and my creative teams have really been putting this into action over the last year or so and the results are starting to speak for themselves. It’s work that is outperforming our previous work on every level.

It amazes me that some agencies and creatives still don’t hold planners in high esteem, as brilliant work really does start here. Fudge the planning and the work is built on a flimsy base. It may look great as most creatives can spin ‘gold’ out of straw, but give them something of beauty in the first place and the creative can bring it to a high sheen.

A brilliant example of this is our client uSwitch. Our planners went off to research the market and discovered there was a place for an honest brand that traded on simplicity. They came to the creative department with a perfect brief – and even with executional ideas which meant all we had to do was come up with the creative wrapper. As a result, we were able to provide our client with the best performing TV advert they ever had.

As creatives left to our own devices we wouldn’t have gone down the same direction. Would it have delivered the results and reached the target audience as effectively? Probably not. So the biggest winner was the client – right strategy, right message, amazing results.

Thinking Juice is an integrated creative agency based in London and Bournemouth.

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