10 Things Clients Can Do To Get Better Advertising

There’s no denying that there’s currently a lot of gnashing of teeth about the parlous and desperate state of creativity in advertising right now.

It’s fair to say that there is awful lot of rubbish work being produced.  And an awful lot of “meh” work and an awful lot of wallpaper work that just goes unnoticed. 

All in all, a pretty depressing state of affairs, I’m sure you’ll agree.

There is a myriad of reasons why this might be the case.

It’s hard to do great work and make it see the light of day. Bloody hard.

However, it ain’t impossible.

Rummaging around in the advertising blogosphere and speaking to mates in other agencies, I sometimes get the sense that a sort of fatalism has crept into the business and that some people have almost given up trying to do great work so convinced are they that it has almost zero chance of it happening.

I appreciate that quite often there are some substantial barriers that get in the way of great creative work. Some might be cultural, some might be personal, some might be financial.  All could be deeply ingrained.

It’s really easy to lay the blame at a client’s door.  After all, they’re the ones that ultimately have to approve and pay for the advertising.

But agencies are also equally culpable.  They’re the ones actually doing the bloody work in the first place. It’s their responsibility to ensure it’s as good as it possibly can be, whatever barriers might stand in the way.

Now, there’s no magic wand that can be picked up and waved by clients to ensure that the Holy Grail of great creative work is found when answering every brief. 

But I believe that there are some fundamental principles that, if followed and adhered to by the big client cheeses commissioning the work, then this will significantly increase the prospect and likelihood of them being rewarded with great creative work....

1.     More time.

Within reason, the more time you have to create and produce advertising, the better that advertising will be.

The less time there is, the greater the possibility that the advertising will be poorly conceived and poorly executed.

Yes, everybody is under pressure to move quicker and deliver things faster. Yes, there’s a constant demand to turn things around at the drop of a hat.

“You need this by yesterday? No problem.”  

That’s the attitude that needs to change.

Clients need to give agencies proper, decent time to come up with great ideas.

And agencies need to try to buy, safeguard and protect this time if they want to do great work.

2.     Only work with the best possible people

The better and more talented people there are involved in the creation and approval of the advertising, the greater the likelihood it is that good work will be the result.

Sounds obvious, doesn’t it? Probably because it’s true.

The quality of people makes a massive difference to the quality of the advertising.

Not all creative teams, planners, account handlers are created equal.

Very few agencies are blessed with a high density of talent across the board. And even so-called “creative” agencies can turn out absolute stinkers.

Quite often, there can be a systemised streaming approach to who works on what.  The “jewel in the crown”, shop window accounts can often be staffed by the cream of the crop and heavy hitters, leaving the less glamorous or smaller clients with the runts of the litter.

If I was a client, I’d demand to know the track record of everyone working on my piece of business. That’s a sure-fire way of finding out from the start whether great advertising was a probability or a pipe dream.

3.     Involve as few people as possible in the development and approval process

It’s a truism that too many cooks spoil the broth.  Quite often, they’ll end up all pissing in the broth and suggesting individual recipes for a new broth that nobody will ever agree on.

Streamlined teams with direct and immediate access to key decision-makers will always produce better work than legions of minions and middle-men scurrying back and forth trying to accommodate the world and his wife’s point of view.

Beware of dealing with people who only have the power to say no. For they are often the time-wasting devil.

4.     Don’t “test” creative work with research.

Research can be a very useful tool early in any process to help understand strategy and audiences better.

However, put creative work in front of the general public as research stimulus and see how quickly it all turns to shit.

Steve Jobs famously said customers don’t know what they want until we’ve shown them.

And Henry Ford is supposed to have said  “If I’d have asked customers what they wanted, they would have told me they wanted a faster horse”.

This might be a sweeping generalisation but I remain convinced that the same holds true of asking people what they think about an advertising idea before it’s actually been made.

Instinct and judgement from advertising experts is going to beat the views of eight disinterested people in a windowless room every time.

5.     Let the agency creative director be the creative director.

Why keep a dog and bark yourself?

Most clients clearly recognise that agencies have a specialism and that they provide them with something that they can’t do themselves, otherwise they wouldn’t hire them in the first place.

However, there’s an unfortunate and distressing trend for a certain breed of client to spend a disproportionate amount of time and energy fannying around endlessly challenging the content and detail of agency creative recommendations whilst making half-baked creative suggestions themselves in an attempt to make the advertising better.

I’d politely suggest that these kind of clients should worry less about the colour of trousers that somebody might wear in their commercial and defer to people with greater expertise and experience who may know a thing or two and may be able to help them.

It’s amazing what a bit of trust and mutual respect can do for a relationship. 

The clients that give their agencies the space, freedom and encouragement to do great work are the ones that usually get great work.

6.     Make sure agencies are properly and fairly remunerated.

Pay peanuts and you’ll get monkeys.

With agency profit margins increasingly being squeezed, you can bet your bottom dollar [or bet your only dollar if you’re a tight bastard] that agencies will find a way to get by on doing the bare minimum rather than going above and beyond.

Cut corners on fees, production costs, resource and it’ll end up showing in the work that comes back.

7.     Grow some balls.

It’s easy to say and harder to do but clients should take more risks.  Too many people are covering their arse and not sticking their head above the parapet right now.

Sure, there’s no end of marketing career politicians climbing up the greasy corporate ladder but it’s often the brave, pioneering clients that don’t play it safe who end up making a name for themselves in the long run.

8.     Focus on quality rather than quantity.

Agencies aren’t at their best when they’re behaving like an advertising factory, churning out multiple routes upon multiple routes until a client happens to pick one they like.

And what clients say what they want isn’t necessarily always what they need.

Passion, enthusiasm and conviction goes a long way in this business. The best work often comes when an agency believes it’s doing the right thing for a brand.

There’s an immediate conflict of interest with that viewpoint and a defeatist, conformist approach that offers up a basket of lots of different ideas in the hope that a client will pick one they like.

9.     Don’t jump on the bandwagon.

The sheer act of doing something different to everybody else in your category will get you noticed.

Despite this rather unspectacular observation, it’s staggering to see how much samey samey bollocks is going on. It’s almost as if people are actually frightened of standing out from the pack.

Having a herd mentality rarely produces great creative work.

Don’t worry about what everybody else is doing. Just worry about doing something that's right for you and is distinctive from your competitors.

10.  Fun not fear.

Agencies should be business partners with their clients, not cowering, servile, obsequious suppliers.

Relationships characterised by fear rarely end up consistently producing great creative work.

If your agency and the people who work on your business feel valued and are having fun rather than feeling stressed and shit-scared then chances are you’ll end up getting much better work.


These thoughts by no means provide a universal panacea.  But they’re solid building blocks for anybody genuinely interested in getting better creative work from their agency.

1 comment:

  1. Some great points here , but as a qualitative researcher I would have to disagree with the idea of not testing creative in research.
    As with ad agency people,ideas and execution there are good and bad researchers, but work I have conducted over the years has really helped clients and agencies better understand how different ideas and their executions or indeed different executions of the same ideas can work/ are interpreted/ have potential to be interpreted by the target audience. This research can lead to better choices being made and executions being optimised
    The stimulus of course isn't the final work, but a good researcher can get valuable feedback from "disinterested people". Good ideas and imaginative exections tend to interest people,and good researchers can extract valuable learnings from interested people. People tend to be disinterested in shit ideas and executions that tend to emerge from planners who over-complexify matters by looking at data and books by their peers rather than talking to actual consumers who may not be like them in terms of background and outlook.And creatives then phoning it in work wise.

    Apart from pre-testing giving client and agency some valuable initial guidance on the best way to progress- especially if creatives manage to deliver more than one decent idea (sadly all too rare due to time constraints these days...), it can also save the client a lot of money and the agency the account.
    I've done a number of post campaign qualitative audits over the years that include a client wasting £20m on a pan European launch campaign that failed to communicate what the product actually was to people, as the ad agency persuaded the client product demonstration/ inclusion held back the " big idea". Another of many examples is the London created fashion brand ad campaign that played heavy on irony, failed to engage inspire or land in any other market, and got the agency sacked from the account worth millions. Testing creative beforehand would have been valuable feedback for that agency, who somehow felt the London mindset was what united young people across several global markets.
    The views of consumers and an informed objective opinion on creative can make work better. You may feel that many of the problems with ads these days stem from research killing creative idea. My 20 years of qual work with clients inform me that many shit ads these days are due to not conducting initial research to evaluate and explore how creative works and could possibly work better.
    I hope these thoughts add a bit of value to what is a great blog. All the best.