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Please tell me that the asinine, made-up argument going on in the trades between “entertaining, involving” and “sound, strategic” advertising is over.

What a bunch of hooey. As if—the part that gets me—being “sound and strategic” somehow ensures that you will get results. As if—same coin, other side—tickling the funny bone of the collective ad world somehow, through some mysterious warp in space and time, beams dollars out of Joe Public’s wallet and into the client’s. And finally, as if all of us don’t already know the plain truth I’m leading to here: Any advertising that is not both involving (i.e. “creative”) and strategic is a waste. The hard part is combining them.

Because while effective advertising comes in one blended flavor only, call it “strategic-involving,” ad people come in two: Call them left- or right-brain, suits or stargazers, we all hate to admit it but none of us is both. Put differently, at best you can maybe balance two modes of thinking; no one can think two ways. (Unless you happen to be Ralph Ammirati. A certifiable creative/planning genius.) But for the rest of us, here it is…

Why I like testing… (done right).
I was once told by a very smart man, one who used to sign my paycheck, that what I know about research could fit in a… well, no need to elaborate. But being reasonably certain he doesn’t spend much time poring over artsy publications like Communication Arts (I know for a fact he never slept with the advertising annual under his pillow), I’ll add this man’s only flair for creative had a red felt-tip point on it. No, his strength was research; mine is to make something out of it.

News flash. Skilled suits and skilled creatives are not hard to find. What’s hard is when one side or the other has so dominated agency politics as to have “won” the battle. That’s when you get CDs pushing witty, pointless advertising, or copywriters who open each new TV script with the sound of a ringing bell, then try to make it relevant to, say, deodorant wearers, female, upper-middle income, ages 25 to 44.

No, creatives don’t need to think like suits; we do need some help understanding ’em (and vice versa). Can that be built in to a formal process? I think so. And for the collective good of the industry, not to mention all the royalties you’ll be happily sending me as your billings swell and grow, here it is. A few simple steps. Copy them if you can.

Give some, get some.
Warning: there are trade-offs. Account folk, and ultimately, clients, have to buy into ideas that send shivers up their nervous spines. We creative artistes, in return, see our share in the whole ad process get whittled down, whittled down, to where you want to buzz yourself on the intercom, just to see if you’re in. In between, we punch clocks along with our clients’ employees, logging in days as cashiers, carpenters, customer service agents, and cooks, for instance, one of my adventures a few years ago at a fast food chain.

Those are humbling experiences. Like when a customer chews you out—and waitresses smirk—because you mixed up his order and spooned grits, not gravy, on his biscuit. Believe me, putting on airs and saying, “excuse me, I’m really a creative ad person,” doesn’t work. Doesn’t work, either, when a strategist tells you to go back and try it again because you’ve totally missed the mark. Temperamental prima donnas don’t last.

But neither do patsy creative order-takers (Logo here? No problem. ‘Free’ in Extra Bold? Okay. Model in a green dress? Yes sir, right away, sir!). Because the payoff in this process is that, in our one little part where creative rules, it rules absolutely. No idea is too wild. No suit’s, no client’s opinion can shoot it down – if the idea achieves the client’s objectives.

Five formal steps, or phases, will see that it does. Two are research. A third is testing. They are rigorous. (Are you getting a sick feeling like this all leading up to “creatives can’t be trusted to stay on strategy”? Wait.) The point—where testing turns into a creative’s friend—is that it replaces subjective opinion, takes it right out of the game. Does the CEO’s wife like your commercial? Are viewers able to articulate its “intended main idea”?

Couldn’t you live with a process that makes one of those questions irrelevant?

The System.
Phase one is learning the client’s business, in other words, research. For the Strategists it’s quantitative: What do our client’s customers want? Where else can they get it? What will they pay? How many live inside five miles? Inside ten? For us creatives, client research means: go to work in the client’s stores and = warehouses; see what customers feel and want—from them and their competition. Hardly unique. But I’ve worked for agencies that were great at this – learned tons—then swept the bad news under the rug.

Creatives need this phase to educate themselves and to educate the client. If not, we’ll be stuck trying to fix the unfixable. Example: After two months of research, it was clear to us that my fast food restaurant client, had tapped out all the easy growth in one day part. Either someone had to tell them to “expand their menu”–something they did not want to hear—or they’d soon be telling us to sell more in that day part in a market that had all it needed.

Next, with pure research done, the creatives need it molded into something they can use. Phase two, called Interpret, is identify opportunities; set measurable objectives. Phase three, Develop, is select and hone those opportunities into an ownable position through which we can drive a 2% market share gain.

For the creative, three key things get encapsulated here: a position, a goal, and a yardstick—all settled and signed off on, among ourselves and with the client, before we start comp one. What we don’t get are vague wish lists, like “60% recall” or “33% read most.” How can you work towards that? Or even “Create awareness for another fast food chain in an overcrowded marketplace as the best place for quick food”? Sorry. Doesn’t cut it. How do you measure those? And what would it prove?

Instead, our goals are specific, business-related and quantitative: something to shoot for and something to measure by. Most important, neither we nor the client has to grope in the dark for that make-believe animal: a good, or “creative,” ad.

The deal
But isn’t that just what creatives do best? Maybe. Certainly it’s what we want to do most. We all got into this business to do cool ads. But live by the sword, die by the sword. Cool is nothing but one man’s opinion and if anything drives creatives nuts, it’s the idea that their work will die based on one silly opinion that isn’t their own. Most creatives I’ve known live in a place where if they hear one more opinion, they’ll scream. Our answer? Forget opinion.

So here comes phase four, Execute. It’s the only step that includes “creative.” And here comes the first half of the beauty part: After all this fact based research—whether it’s five phases, one, or seventeen, who cares?—we the creatives need never stop and wonder, “gee, do you think this will sell more fast food?” Instead we have what we trust are attainable goals. And we know what perceptions we need to change to get there. Our whole job is no more, no less than to convey an idea.

Which—beauty part number two—allows finally for the free rein all of us crave. The account side has tested and researched and gone out on a limb to tell us, “just deliver this message and everything will be fine.” Now we get to go out on a limb and say, “ok, here’s how we’ll do that.” That’s the bargain. Yes, it’s a constraint. But it only tells us what we have to do, never how to do it. And that’s a job that, if you ask me, any creative ought to want to sink his teeth into.

Not that it isn’t scary. Because from here on out, it’s up to us. And the hard part, as only anyone who’s tried to do it knows, is not simply re-stating the message outlined in the strategy. Any fool can do that. For creatives in this system, the one, single, butt-on-the-line responsibility is to get that message, the “intended main idea,” heard.

The payoff
And isn’t that the fun part? For a boat client whose manufacturing process creates a hull that is indestructible. Let the consumer offer suggestions on how they would like to see you put your ‘tough” strategy to the test. Videotape the best suggestions and post them back on the web for consumers to see how the boat survived their destructive ideas. For a computer client who needs to tell programmers about how fast their software is, give out play eyeglasses made from cardboard with wide-open eyes printed on the front, so they could nod off on the job in their new free time (this in an industry more used to blather about superhuman job dedication). For a college-town fast food chain, one whose biggest draw was its greasiest, heart-stoppingest, hangover-soppingest, everything-on-it nightcapburger, post “friendly” directions to the local cardiac unit… “because they are conveniently located.”

Pardon if this sounds like boasting—I guess it is—but the point is: We promised to make those messages heard. We did that (and had fun doing it). Our strategists promised that, if we made those messages heard, we would achieve our (quantifiable, agreed-in-advance) goals. And as we later found out in phase 5, Evaluate, we did that also. (If not, we’d have gone back and tinkered.)

Did some focus groupie take offense at the way we went about it? Don’t know. We test results; we test consumer attitudes—before and after they see the ad. It’s a circular process. We even go back and start all over again as circumstances evolve. We do not, ever, focus group the creative.

The Challenge
So there’s our unique methodology, offered here, free of charge, for anyone who cares to put it in place, a guaranteed system promising miraculous agency management insight into where to draw the line between… no; how to assign responsibility for… strategic and creative advertising goals.

Okay, we haven’t exactly given away the store. Again, it’s not quite as easy as it sounds. Among other things, as I’ve hinted, trust is required—an elusive thing at best. To a degree, these steps institutionalize inter-agency and client/agency trust.

Another precious requirement, always in short supply, is time. This certainly isn’t the fastest way to create advertising, and early on with a newly won client, we don’t mind falling back on some proven, traditional techniques for quick initial results.

What the system does do is put some meat on the typical, empty, agency mantra—”breakthrough creative backed by solid research and brilliant strategic thinking.” And gets around the phony, pointless arguments that some very smart people get put in. Like one of those Ad Age panels with some high ad officials quote-debating-unquote (I don’t believe it) about “Ads that entertain VERSUS [emphasis not added] Ads that sell.”

Of course the goal is ads that sell. And of course entertainment is one (very good) way to get there. It is also, for most of us creatives, our strength and the reason we come to work each day. If intelligent testing (and planning and research) can both help us sell and give us greater artistic license… grab it.

by Robert Shaw West Brand Futurist The Republik Companies Chairman/CEO