Chinese brush painting

Insights and Experience trumps mere creative window dressing

“I am not happy with the font. I don’t like how this chart is illustrated. I need more creativity from you in the photograph you shot for this campaign. I need more vibrance in the colors in this image…”

If you, like me, have been in the creative industry for 3 decades, you would have heard these and much more. If you came from production management as well, you would agree with me, over many “war stories”, that we have often been at the short end of many late nights trying to laboriously and slavishly salvage poorly executed designs that would choke at the production front, or poring over motion footage that were shot so badly that any post-production could only end in abject failure.

Design fetish gone overboard

You may have also observed a transient and infrequent occurrence in the marketplace, where in absence of a more effective strategy and actionable tactics, an indulgence in design or aesthetics becomes the obsession instead.

Don’t get me wrong, I am a formally educated fine artist, and I appreciate good design and aesthetics.

But the trouble is that in a business, the fundamental reason for its existence is to garner profits. Every expenditure, and every business reasoning, should be about how to drive the business in a manner forward to make money, and to sustain it in the same manner for the long haul. The business should ideally also grow organically over time, in terms of profits. And should the business experience exponential profits due to some spectacular reason, every decision going forward should be about preserving the business for the long haul, since no business can expect exponential growth. Life, as with the economy or businesses, go in cycles of ups and downs.

So, how should you choose an agency?

Going beyond mere creativity

Choosing an agency (whether advertising, public relations, or digital media) is not simply looking at pretty designs, or the number of little gold statues. It is about how much insights the agency can provide to you in understanding and reaching out to the people who matter – your customers, and your stakeholders.

Creativity is a necessary component. But creativity is not constrained to just pretty pictures or fancy designs. Creativity in an agency should be seen in the macro perspective of strategy, insights, tactics, and stakeholder relations.

For example, if a campaign is ill-conceived and there is no way to engage consumers, any superfluous or elaborate design will still not make the cut, neither would any elaborate and expensive photographic or video shoot done in exotic locations with superficial special effects in post.

It all boils down to the fundamental idea behind the campaign, if the copy (text) is well written to engage hearts, if the media strategy is well executed, and that social mentions are well taken care of. It is not rocket science, and yet, the devil is in the details.

From brand building to getting sales

And if the stakeholders are involved, then design necessarily takes the back seat, especially if your business has investors, or is public-listed. Expensive expenditure in creative pursuits will be scorned at by serious investors, when they look at your balance sheets and especially your bottomline. If you intend to work with an external agency partner, choose one that works synergistically with you to watch expenditure that are expensed intelligently.

Next, your business surely is intended for longevity. So there is a need to build a brand based on good public relations with every stakeholder, not just the media. Since public relations necessitates a long-term vision with a sustained program to laboriously build your brand with the media, the institutions, the industry partners, the shareholders, and of course, the consuming public. The messaging is everything – tell the truth.

Some of us have deep industry backgrounds. Our field experience may range from all sides of the fence, whether from the media, the clients, or the agencies. The pool of experience and expertise is often what is most important, especially as it relates to the buying consumers and how to engage the brand to be successful not just in media coverage, but especially in moving products off the retail shelves, engaging distribution channels effectively, getting successes on e-commerce, and so on. If your agency has people who have hands-on fields sales experience and have direct contact and insights into your buying customers, then that is an important bonus. Leverage on that.

It is all about longevity

Ultimately, what is your business about? It is a for-profit entity meant to be sustained over the long haul. This means maintaining a good honest reputation, building products and solutions that work without mere window dressing, and having planned and calculated wisely such that your business will be around for decades, or more. There are many good examples of small to large enterprises that have been around for hundreds of years, based on these simple and straightforward perennial principles. Why not yours?

So, when you partner with any communication agency, work on your fundamentals, and find compatible agencies who will share your vision for the long haul, and keep you on track for the long haul.

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Seamus Phan (@seamusphan) has nearly 30 years of experience. He is a professional speaker, meeting facilitator, marketing and branding consultant, creative director, copywriter, journalist, technologist, photographer and filmmaker. Some of his blog articles are reproduced at McGallen & Bolden, where he is the creative director and lead strategist. ©1984-2015 Seamus Phan. All rights reserved.