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Why is client-side creativity too often a self-defeating process?

A look at some of the most common reasons why client side creativity goes so wrong so often.

In the lead up to a keynote, I did a few weeks ago I had been doing a lot of thinking comparing and constructing agency and client side creative teams. I have found my biggest career successes working client-side at Starwood Hotels but I know that talking with other client-side creatives that is a very rare thing. Most internal creative teams are relegated to glorified production resources while agencies are revered as innovators and original thinkers. So why does it keep happening? What goes wrong inside the creative process of a corporate structure that creates such dysfunction, lack of respect and lack of innovation? Here are a few of the common things I have seen time and time again.

Short term memory loss in the ivory tower

I think the first part of the problem is a matter of perspective and being able to look at a project with fresh eyes. When a team starts working on a project they forget that when it is released what the customer experiences is completely blind to the logic, compromises and excuses that have been built up on the by the internal team over the course of the project. The consumer doesn’t know or care about why something was de-scoped to an awkward solution or that you will fix a problem when you get around to version 2.0. You have to have the ability to develop short-term memory loss and be able to see the work with fresh eyes or else those problems will be glossed over by the meaningless internal reasoning for why it is OK that it isn’t right. You have to look at it from the customer’s point of view because that is the only true reality and that will determine the success or failure of the a project.

I think this happens the most inside of a corporate structure because you live with the brands, their problems, their work and their excuses so you become desensitized to them. The symptoms of this problem are usually expressed through things like eye rolling and under the breath jokes in meetings when you try to propose a solution to fix long-standing problems that are ensnared with internal politics and problems. It is a hard place to be in when you have to be the person who needs to stand up against the apathy and frustration that lives around these issues and try to effect change.

You constantly have to work to keep a fresh view of what the outside world is seeing. I try to start with small problems that can really be solved to get momentum and then try to work up to the larger ones building on the smaller successes.

New creatives don’t lead to new ideas.

I wrote the previous section knowing full well that even if you develop the ability to rise above the internal excuses and blindness you still have to overcome a massive problem. Let’s look at the problem by creating a comparison between a website that is produced by an agency and one produced by an internal creative team. What is the difference in the process and structure between the two where you generally see the more cutting edge and powerful solutions out of the agency than what you see out of internal creative teams? The divergence isn’t in the process of how the work is created but in how it gets feedback, gets approved and the hierarchy has to travel through. At an agency the creatives are in a structure that puts them at the center of the universe and empowers them to be leaders and the voice in guiding the vision with supporting teams to help delivery of their vision. In a typical corporate hierarchy creatives aren’t the center of the universe and they have they aren’t empowered to be able to influence the final deliverable because their work has to go through a decentralized corporate approval system. This breaks the idea into multiple directions by multiple stakeholders who dilutes it into smaller and safer ideas a large group can take credit for and will satisfy the internal approval audience. This is a crime because the internal creative teams have the best view into the problems that need to be solved for the company and can bring solutions to market faster than those created by an external agency who aren’t as familiar with all the nuances.

If you ask any company they will always say how they want to be like Apple or BMW and produce these breakthrough ideas and designs but they don’t understand that better designs and ideas aren’t going to come from hiring better designers. They come from a fundamental structural shift where the people with the best ideas are given the most power and ability to execute on these ideas without having to put them through a system that robs them of their power. Hopefully, more and more people will come to understand this problem so more good ideas see the light of day.

Deadlines make you a commodity. Ideas make you essential.

The last big problem I have found between client side and agency creativity is that most internal groups have no idea how to position themselves in their company to be seen as essential to creativity and innovation. Agencies don’t have this problem because they build themselves to be seen as innovators and have spent huge amounts of time refining their pitch to sell this image into any organization they work with. I’ve found that most client side creative teams do not have the same image or presentation and instead value their ability to hit deadlines which are a mistake. Don’t get me wrong, it is certainly an essential skill but it is also one that makes the team a commodity because the ability to hit deadlines is something you can find on a million other teams so it isn’t something that is going to differentiate, elevate or empower the team. I have found success by simply focusing and showing the company that you are a team that focuses creating ideas instead of hitting deadlines. I do this because ideas have power, ideas change things and great ideas can generate a lot of revenue. If you are able to show your company that you are able to do this then you show them how you are an essential part of their business that can separate them from the competition, get them press and most importantly make them more money.

Final thought.

Over the years, I have found pro’s and con’s being on and agency side and being on the in-house side of creativity. To be successful, you need to understand the strengths, weaknesses, and opportunities of your current situation to be successful. You also have to take the time to understand how you need to position your group inside of your organization to be successful and I see leaders struggle with this problem no matter where they are.

It is just that the client side often makes it more difficult to due to more of a structure that has more silos, more politics and more challenges to find ways to get great ideas to be at the center of their thinking. But the rewards can be so much more satisfying since client side gives you the opportunity to really invest in a brand, their products, and their problems. If you can solve the problems then it I something that lead to amazing work.

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Creative Director, Designer, Brand Builder, Speaker, Podcaster, Crazy One. As a designer, I have 20+ years experience creating the strategy, concepts, and designs for award-winning integrated global advertising campaigns, building multiple global Fortune 500 brands and creating innovative digital experiences. As a leader, I have 15+ years transforming agency and client-side teams using a mix of creativity, business strategy, process and political skill to create innovative, world-class work and cultures that change industries and companies. My clients have included American Airlines, W Hotels, Disney, Citi, ExxonMobil, Acura, Old Navy, Nationwide Insurance, Verizon, Subaru and many others. My work has received over 150 international awards, my app designs have been named as one of the World’s 100 Greatest Apps, Apple has featured my work in 9 keynotes, 4 TV commercials and more.

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