Less is More in the Black Hole of Buying and Selling Creative

I was at an agency-centric conference in Chicago recently, and after talking to a quite a few business leaders, it became strikingly apparent that the buying and selling of creative services was a black hole.

Agencies were haemorrhaging money on design cycles (or, conversely, making a lot but not knowing why). They spoke of both staff and client frustrations with the whole process.

Allow me to be clear: design isn’t magic and it’s not art. Design is communication. It’s a thoughtful, elegant professional craft that takes years to become proficient in and decades to master. In short, it’s like anything else in business. Although designers can often be perceived as wilful, temperamental prima donnas, the good ones aren’t and the ones with potential can be trained up (provided an experienced individual leads them).

The genre of how to run a creative practice is complex (culture, vision, etc.), but I’d like to address one of the biggest fallacies of the industry that’s easiest to remedy: multiple creative approaches aren’t good for clients. At very best, you’re presenting one right concept and two wrong ones. You’re chewing through budget (yours/theirs) to service a majority failure and stealing from the potential success of the best candidate. Focused thinking/effort invariably produces better work than a scattershot approach that rewards discrepancies.

Most important, you’re establishing a precedent that your client has the design wherewithal to demand choices that supersede the very specialized intelligence of your agency. Your client knows their business. You know yours. (That’s why they hired you). Clients haven’t been trained in line, form, typography, composition, user experience, creative strategies, design awareness of audience segmentation, etc. Unless they have a creative pedigree, how could they possibly be in a position to art direct your informed creative?

Clients used to multiple versions might push back, but the core of their concerns are whether their brand, objectives, and values are being represented fully. (Their job may be at stake if you fail – remember that!) Convincing clients to yield the illusion of control is actually straightforward: allow them to participate in the creative process, but only in a strict sandboxes.

Clients should participate in the creative brief: to feed information so one may be established and approve it before visual design cycles start. A creative brief provides an overall metric of success (on a macro level) for how to interpret the value of the design exercise. When presenting your single creative vision, you should expose the design rationale and speak to the creative considerations that are derivative of it. Clients don’t have the design lexicon to have a conversation on naked imagery – demystify it with a written/verbal rationale that doesn’t use buzz words. With this method, the creative review is focused on fully executing on the brief/objectives and not whether a particular client viscerally “likes” something.

As the principal of a creative agency, I’ve lead a lot of design exercises over the past 14 years. In that time, only two were initially rejected – both were our fault for misunderstanding the client objectives and not getting sign-off on the brief. (The second rounds were on-point). Our clients have come to embrace that being presented one fully informed/exposed creative vision equates to being serviced far better. There are more “working” marketing dollars for the campaign (leading to increased success), our design team is happy/validated, and the bottom line on the projects are protected. Sometimes less truly is more.