The Barriers of Getting to Great Creative Work

If you’re reading this, chances are that you are one of those people who spend hours, days, weeks, weekends, holidays, anniversaries, and your partner’s birthday in pursuit of great creative work. And even though we might know it when we see it, it’s interesting to see that great creative work is different for all of us. The great creative work of a creative isn’t the great creative work of a strategist. And both, creatives and strategists are united in their belief that it’s most certainly different from what their clients think it is.

If it takes that much time out of our lives, it feels like it’s worth looking a bit deeper into the matter. And what started as a simple preparation for a workshop on Creative Briefs has turned into an international survey on the definition of and obstacles to great creative work and the role the brief plays in the process.

Getting to Great

This is the first article in a two-part series that aims to explore the definition of great creative work as well as the obstacles that get in the way of it.

This article will start by looking into what constitutes great work in the opinion of the 47 people who were kind enough to fill out the online survey. All of which work in the creative industry in different roles.

The role split of survey participants

The questions they answered aimed to shine a light on the elements of great creative work. As well as to explore what its effects are. The second part then looks at obstacles and barriers that get in the way of great creative work. Spoiler alert: it’s loads – but there’s a recurring theme.

The role of the Creative Brief in overcoming those challenges and what other tactics advertising professionals use to overcome the day to day barriers will be explored in the next article of this mini series.

The data

Before we dive in, a quick word on the methodology. All the data has been collected via an online survey that was distributed among people working in the creative industry. I put the link out through my wider network on LinkedIn, XING, and Twitter. Additionally, I shared it in two Facebook groups that are (mostly) dedicated to strategy. (If you haven’t done yet, it might be worth joining them here and here.) Too get a bit more of an ‘external’ point of view I also ran two campaigns on LinkedIn and XING. For more details on participants and data collection, please head here. If you want to have a look at the responses, head here. (Note: I edited some of the answers if they disclosed too much information about a participant and/or their employer; the rows represent the individual answers from each respondent.)

The below represents their answers and, sometimes, my paraphrasing and interpretation. When I quote specific answers, I use their position in the data sheet. “B15” means column B, row 15, which equates to the first answer of respondent number 14.

Defining “Great”

What do creatives, strategists, account managers, and communication specialists consider to be great creative work? In their own words, from their individual perspective, and contextualised through real-life examples.

At its most basic, advertising is about drawing attention to something (Merriam-Webster online), about making products and services known and persuading people to buy them (Cambridge Dictionary). “Great” work, then, should do all of these things – and more.

What makes work ‘great’

Based on the data, a rough conversational structure emerged around great creative work. It is defined through what goes into it (Element), how the input is applied and put to use (Execution), and finally how we experience it (Effect.)

Even when asked explicitly for elements of great work, it is most often described through the effect it has on the person who experiences it. The impact it has on the person, their environment, and lastly what impact it has for the brand.

So, even it is slightly putting the cart before the horse, let’s start with the effects of great creative work.

How we experience great work

Effects

Great creative work stands out. It is memorable and it stays with you – sometimes for years.

I am able to remember it and offer as a reference years later.

B15

Great creative work changes people. Both in a practical, but mostly in an emotional and social context. It makes your (sub)conscious act upon something that it hasn’t acted upon before. Ideally in moments that matter for the brand. Like the next time you have the choice to interact with a brand or you make a purchase (decision.)

If it makes you remember, think/talk about it, if it moves you

B8

Great creative gets talked about. It carries some sort of social value. Which prompts and allows people to share it because it helps them signaling what they care about or what kind of person they are. Whether that’s in conversations with friends or in the vanity hall of social media.

Great creative work adds value beyond the information exchange. Every ad makes you aware of something – great creative work makes you care about that something. That’s why great creative work “doesn’t feel like advertising at all.” [B18, B20] It adds value for the people who watch or experience the work. Because it might be enjoyable or entertaining. And it adds value for the people who commission it. Because it creates positive brand associations, positive momentum for the brand, and, ultimately, sales and profit.

[…] everyone involved has added value.

B10

In summary: great creative work steals and (re)directs your attention, and gives you the feeling that it added value.

How work becomes “Great”

Elements

Great creative work, all great advertising solves a problem with creativity. This starts with a brand’s real communication problem. Any advertising that doesn’t tackle that problem is arguable a waste of money.

Great work is work that solves a brand’s real communication problem

B38

Good advertising normally sticks at least for a while. Great advertising solves a problem.

B44

But solving a communications problem alone doesn’t seem to be enough to elevate work to “great.” Solving a bigger cultural or personal problem, even though maybe not strictly a communications objective, seems to be seen as the way to make work great.

If it ‘solves’ a cultural or personal tension or problem with creativity. This could be as simple as ‘Nobody is buying my product’ or complex ‘I want to correct a wrong in society’. The execution needs to fit the tone as well. But it’s a creative solution to some kind of problem.

B30

“Great work” is work that impacts culture in a meaningful way, that has “depth.” Now, what counts as “meaningful” or “deep” is debatable and open for interpretation. A good measure of this is the advertising, or more ideally, the brand and their products become part of the cultural conversation among people – on a longer term. And if those people are the target audience, even better.

Impacting culture in a meaningful way and having a certain depth leading to becoming part of the conversation between people.

B11

There are a few responses that tie “great” creative work to the social impact it has, clearly indicating an appetite in the creative industry to use their power for something more than sales targets.

If it’s socially impactful, if it helps enable minorities being heard and understood.

B10

Execution

Great work, in order to add value and be seen as part of a positive value exchange, needs to be relevant to the audience and their environment, their culture, the context in which they move and operate in. But in order to create standout and additional memorability, there are a few more tangible requirements to elevate work to great.

Great creative work has the burden to be “new”. It has to be “unseen”. It needs to surprise you in order for the consumer to reassess their relationship to the communicated topic.

Unexpected, unseen, emotional, impactful

B14

A magical mix of a surprisingly true observation wrapped in a well-told story with an exceptional level of executional quality delivered in such a way, (technology, time & location) that it doesn’t feel intrusive but worthwhile.

B41

On top of that, great work is simple and clear. It lands a simple and clear message, it is based on simple and clear truths. It’s supposed to be clean – free of gimmicks and unnecessary fluff. Laser focus.

Differences between disciplines

Overall, all disciplines seem fairly aligned when describing their definition of great creative work. It’s worth noting, however, that there are a few subtle nuances in the responses between creatives and strategists and account managers that might be worth keeping in mind when reading through the next chapter about the barriers to great work.

For strategists, great creative work is mostly measured in how it changes consumer behaviours in ways that are favourable for the brand so they reach their objectives. This is fairly similar to what respondents working on the account team mention.

For creatives, great creative work is measured by the emotional reaction of the audience and its dissemination through culture. It’s more about feelings, about being delighted, surprised, uncomfortable. Which then, ideally, leads to a change in behaviour.

If you want to know what kind of work the respondents consider great, head here for the complete list.

What’s in the way becomes the way

If people working in the creative industry generally have a clear idea of what great work is, and if they want to make this kind of impact, and if they want to deliver that kind of work – why isn’t there more of it?

This part is about the obstacles and hurdles respondents feel they frequently need to overcome to get to great creative work. Judging by the responses, there are internal as well as external barriers that keep them from creating great work. Those barriers seem to be related to processes, knowledge, ambition, and communication.

“It’s not me, it’s you.”

The biggest surprise, looking at all the responses, was an unanimous agreement that the biggest obstacle in getting to great creative work is, drumroll, the client. The surprise obviously isn’t that some blame would be directed towards clients. The surprise is more that roughly every second comment or response to the question what’s in the way of great creative work included the world “client.” [F2-48]

Once you get over the initial assumption that this must be a clear case of externalising our own incapability, it is worth looking into the more granular themes that come up and why every discipline alike – creatives, strategists, account managers, and specialists – think that clients are one of the biggest chokepoints.

Many times, respondents cite a lack of bravery and conviction paired with a lack of trust. This results in a process that hinders creative ideas to “flourish.” This process involves creative testing – which is often quoted as another one of the big barriers for great creativity. (Which is probably worth diving deeper into, as it indicates that many brands use creative testing the wrong way.)

Clients who want to test everything and therefore sometimes don’t understand that certain creative ideas need trust to flourish.

K11

Another client-induced barrier is their focus on the short term. Which is interesting as it seems there’s a (misguided?) assumption that great creativity is only achievable when working with long term effects in mind. (This is an interpretation, but it looks as if respondents feel the opportunities for standout work rarely can be found in briefs regarding the short-term – i.e. sales campaigns – but only on big brand briefs.)

Clients want short term wins and no long term strategy. Additionally, they let consultancies do that short term thinking for them instead of developing something together.

F30

Another big theme is the lack of knowledge and education around basic principles of marketing and advertising. From an inability to focus on the essential – e.g. what’s the core of the assignment? – to identifying the real problem, to sticking to a single minded message to overcome that problem. All of these things are called out as client-induced pain points that get in the way of great work.

It’s hard to make them understand that less is more and that you need to be focused on one message instead of thousands. They always want to add this and that and also this one.

F33

Others quote a lack of understanding of production realities or an agency’s capabilities as a barrier in the process. Ultimately, the biggest miss from client’s is seen in their lack of understanding of the true power of creativity and their agencies.

They are uneducated and require time and effort to convince them what they can get for their budget, how long will it take and what’s agencies capabilities that they shouldn’t be fucking with.

F15

This concern about a lack of understanding might also explain why many respondents from agency side point out to the client interaction as a pain point to get to great work. Whether it’s the way clients manage the creative process with their agency or how and when they involve more senior decision makers.

The internal process within our clients’ structure is a less than optimal one when it comes to getting to good work. Misdirection and lack of clarity (during brief/creative development) usually bites us until eventually we’re in a position where timing is not in our favour

F5

All of the above pain points seem to be springing from a very fundamental tension: a lack of alignment around the mutual ambition – and how to get there. This is clearly not only down to the client but very much in the hands of everyone on the agency side, too. A healthy dose of honesty and transparency upfront and throughout the process could probably do away – or at least lessen – this gap.

And this gap seems to be quite drastic. What the creatives want to make and what they think their clients want to make often seem to be two very different things. Judging from the responses, it rarely feels like a collaborative effort to get to a great shared output. It reads much more like an eternal exchange of blows in which both parties fight for what each other thinks is wrong.

Why do creatives, strategists, account managers, and industry experts think that clients don’t want to do great work? To answer this, we would need an insight into what clients, brands, and organisations consider great work. Unfortunately, there has only been one brand manager who participated in the survey, so this article can’t provide that insight.

Complex new world

Another external barrier cited by respondents takes us to the complex new world in which the creative industry operates nowadays. A new reality to which communications agencies, and particularly classically trained creatives, yet seem to have to catch-up to.

I think that many people, especially classically trained creatives, struggle with adapting to the new reality of advertising: the shift from old power to new, the accountability that comes with the need for efficiency, the fast pace at which our client’s change their minds, the complexity of implications, the confidence of the old days that is forever lost…

F32

Respondents point out that this complexity can’t be overcome with the decade old templates that have been developed in companies and agencies around the world and shared through marketing text books for ages. It’s probably not a surprise that this point of view has solely been articulated by strategists, account managers, or specialists – not the creatives. Creatives did point out, though, that often the clients lack an understanding of all those modern opportunities.

Knowledge of what’s possible. Willingness to try new approaches or formats. Exploration and digging into something that has a buzz, but you don’t understand.

F46

Clients and creatives who are not willing to adapt to societal and technological developments and who rather stick to dated comms techniques (i.e. TVCs)

F38

In the past it was often a lack of courage, but today a lack of willingness to accept new things

F2

This seems to suggest that the creative talent in agencies as well as in marketing departments of brands is not trained well enough for this changing communication landscape. And that agencies and those who work in the creative industry need to do a better job in trying to stay ahead of the curve.

In many agencies training and development plans are in place. But that often doesn’t seem to be enough. It might actually be connected to another problem that has been mentioned in the survey and that we’ll get to next.

Internal processes, team setups, and our old friend time.

Not all fingers are being pointed towards external factors. There is a big acknowledgment and awareness of internal factors and processes within agencies that get in the way.

Lack of proper creative process management.

F45

Whether it is the infamous “death by thousand cuts” or the confusion that is created by either involving everyone all the time or involving key decision makers too late. All of which results in the settling for okay or a “democracy of averageness.” [F19]

Design by committee (internal and external).

F25

On top of the process, it often seems to be the setup of the team that gets in the way of great work – or at least doesn’t necessarily favour it. It’s not surprising that having too many of the same people in a room and the process might eventually lead to fairly one-dimensional output. Sameness in, sameness out.

I think there needs to be more diverse perspectives to drive good work, and often I sit in a room with people who think just like me.

F6

Additionally, the evergreen of reasons why we don’t get to the kind of work we all seem to wish to be making is mentioned, too. When it comes to the interaction and processes between partners, another, unsurprising theme is the lack of time to actually focus on doing the work.

Time management so that the ‘real’ problems can be addressed.

F31

The differences between disciplines

Unsurprisingly, there are a few subtle nuances in the way strategists and creatives see those barriers.

When creatives call out clients being in the way of great work they use the words “fear” or “afraid” – while strategists who see clients being in the way of getting to good work see their focus on short-term objectives as a bigger hurdle.

The theme of lack of time and tight deadlines have been brought up mainly by strategists, not so much by creatives. Account managers share the concern with tight deadlines and, additionally, bemoan a lack of focus in the assignments. Creatives more often have brought up the complexity of the media landscape and the lack of knowledge of its possibilities on client side as a barrier.

Strategists often point to their clients’ processes and internal stakeholder alignment as the big hurdle on the way to great work. This is similarly prevalent among creatives.

Summary

Great creative work is probably one of the most debated and most subjective topics in our industry. This article is not meant to give a sharp definition, but aims to provide a new perspective – fuelled by the input of many advertising professionals from around the world.

The first part of the above gave a brief glimpse into the subjective world of great creative work: the effects it has on people experiencing the work, and the elements and execution details that make it great.

The second part outlined a few of the bigger barriers that creatives, strategists, brand managers, and communications specialists experience every day on their quest to great creative work. Many attribute the struggle to their clients and their lack of clarity, bravery, and knowledge – but the complexity of the new marketing world as well as internal challenges around training and team diversity play a big role, too.

The lack of alignment between clients and agencies – and sometimes between internal disciplines – will be the theme of the next article, when we highlight the role of the Creative Brief in this journey to Great and how a simple document potentially can bring what so often seems to be missing: alignment on direction.

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