Closing the gap between strategy and the execution with ‘Why?’
Like on a protractor there is a very small degree of shift from the centre when close to the starting point, but as we move further and further away from this point the deviation from base becomes more and more marked; eventually quite a distance away from the desired spot. For me, this is exactly like the creative process through the production phase. Asking ‘Why?’ is the key to keeping it on track and closing the gap.
As with all good life lessons we learn they can come from working on amazing work and we can also learn them when things don’t go quite to plan! I’m lucky enough to have worked on so many award winning projects and with some amazingly talented and awarded people over the years I’ve stopped counting, but at the same time I’m quite aware that there are some jobs that just didn’t turn out like we all envisioned, and as a producer on the job I realise I facilitated that too. Of course if we get 99% right we can focus on the 1% we didn’t get and beat ourselves up about it! It’s what we do with this learning that matters; constantly growing and moving forward. I’m happy to share this for everyone to benefit, as well as in my own pursuit to constantly grow and improve.
There are so many projects where the job comes alive with the right people involved, the right decisions made through the process, and the work becomes so much better than the original vision, and more effective than ever hoped for. Those jobs where you celebrate the trophies at both creative awards and when sales go sky high – there’s nothing like it. In my experience, asking ‘Why?’ every step of the way through the production including choices about look and feel, cinematic style, talent selection, music, photographers, what money is allocated where, and who gets to do what is where the job stays on track and how this magic formula of amazing work comes together. Ask around yourself and see if clients and creative directors feel that their core idea and strategic thinking is regularly watered down during the production process and I bet you the answer will be ‘yes’. At the same time there are some creatives and production suppliers that simultaneously think the work is getting ‘better’ the further it moves away from the original brief and feel that the original brief sucked. This is then the constant juggling process for those of us in the middle!
Here are my key ‘Why?’ questions to ask to help keep jobs on track and meet the core strategic objectives:
Why do we need this content?
This question is often asked by account teams, strategy and senior creatives and they’re quite on track, but that’s as far as it goes. Producers and suppliers also need to be asking this question too, and ensuring that every decision supports this. That is also up to the creatives to share that vision, otherwise we don’t have the guidance to deliver what you need. This leads to an understanding of who the market is, what tone of voice should be used, what choices in production design are right for the brief, what level of gloss does the job need, what messages are essential, what’s the core objective – an award winning spot voted by peers, a blend of both award winning and effectiveness, a volume of solid work , making the deadline at any cost, keeping a client happy, to get something on our reel, to make sales by being disruptive or just cheap looking (shudder – that’s a real objective sometimes). This also means we can consider what else can be done to maximise the objectives too – what other material can be produced for little cost or impact to the job to expand into print, social or digital.
Why are we spending the money here?
Decisions about what we spend and where throughout the production affect the overall result. If we’re strategically focused, then those decisions make sense and the money streamlines into the right places. Being chaotic and spending money on option after option without having the focus on the strategy or the vision means not only money is wasted but you don’t have it where you need it (or someone goes broke in the process). Asking ourselves why we need an original score at the expense of good talent, or good cinematography at the expense of an idea, or whether we need a massive unit base at the expense of shooting time are all valuable questions. This comes back also to my pet subject about running good process to allow the best creative work to flourish. Chaos doesn’t equal creativity. Some creatives need options and experimentation to be good so we also need to be sure we’re allowing the money where they need to play up front.
Why do we need this many people in the chain?
Like the politically incorrect saying ‘Chinese Whispers’ the message gets diluted the more people we add in the mix and the more people that change hands during a production. As much as this makes good sense for resourcing at times the vision can be lost. Recently I worked on a project where there were multiple teams across the job, with people changing over mid way, with the people with the real vision for the work out of the mix and I can see that this impacted the end results on the job. Sometimes the business objectives come first and that is also part of the ‘Why?’ sometimes (eg. we want the juniors to ‘have a go’, we want to use the team on another job, we’re not available etc) but we need to be sure it isn’t at the cost of the job.
Why do we do ‘cool’ over other objectives?
There are producers and creatives that have their own agenda for what is the ‘right’ execution and sometimes I do feel it is driven by vanity and ego (there I’ve said it), wanting to use the people with work in the current trend of the moment at a cost that is not relative to the value. Really good suppliers obviously make the work really shine when it otherwise wouldn’t, but it needs to be measured against other objectives and to be a real value. On a project recently the ‘cool’ people said that only one spot could have been made for the client and the other two of three ideas died but in some cases all three ideas could have a bigger impact if some compromises or changes were made to the execution. Sometimes the objectives are to get more than one message out there and that may be at the expense of a bit of cool (yeah, that’s hard to face for our ego’s sometimes).
Why are we doing this much content?
Sometimes people can be focused on getting a truck load of content out there but this can mean the production dollar is watered down to the point that the work doesn’t stand up over a long period of time. This is then fuelling that cycle that we need more content to keep it fresh. Both options are okay actually – but asking the ‘Why?’ up front is important so we can determine where the priorities lie.
Like we used to have the triangle of good, fast and cheap where we could only ever have two of them, perhaps the evolution of this these days is more – volume, good, fast and cheap and we can only have three of them? I think these days there are many suppliers that can do good, fast and cheap if the script is right and the right people are on board but add volume into the mix and it goes haywire.
Why are we working with them?
This is not only a good question to ask to be sure that people aren’t just getting mates on board, or the people who happen to be in our radar at the time are chosen, but about ensuring that everyone that is involved in the job is actually strategically and creatively aligned with the type of work that the client needs. I see many people choose suppliers that are not right for the job but also unaware that this is the case too. Choosing the in-house team because it makes you a better profit, over using the right supplier externally can mean the job suffers.
Why are we listening to them?
This is about the credentials check, the folio review and really understanding what is motivating people to say what they do. Are they driven by the desire to get the work or to profit in some way? This can work in the opposite way too – Should you be listening to others when you are not? I worked with a team recently that listened to someone else because they were well liked, but in the end the content produced was so off brand it was embarrassing (and as a member of that team I had to wear the end result too – awful!)
Why are we funding the client’s work?
I’m all for being fair at the end of the day. Sometimes there are good reasons to fund part of the project and that’s when it helps the business leverage a new position in the market or to attract more work of this kind but it can get out of hand sometimes and the value of the investment is not tangible. Going back to my main point about the strategy being lost, I do think that there are decisions sometimes to fund parts of the job when it isn’t going to add anything to the success of the work for either the client or the agency, and additionally it does undermine the value of the next job when the client thinks you’re under-delivering for the same cost when the favours have run out.
Why are we communicating in this way?
This is about everything from tone of voice, cinematic style, look and feel of the talent – the whole gamut of the production process and probably pretty obvious to those of us that do this every day. At the same time I’d like to ask sometimes why are we following what everyone else is doing? Why are we using the same old voice talent, the same style of read and maybe we should be shaking it up once in a while. Following trends and styles is so easy to do but knowing when to zig when everyone is zagging is a tough decision but one that is often not considered. As a producer, we also have the ability to come up with a fresh executional approach that supports the creative and should be continually asking this question of ourselves as much as the creatives.
Why are we being vanilla and not standing up for what we believe in?
Those who know me well will know that that’s not me! Doing just what you’ve been asked to do without question sometimes means the job can go off track. I’ve also found myself succumbing to what a more senior creative person wants and just doing what I’m asked to and I can guarantee I wished I fought harder when the job doesn’t turn out as good as it could. We all can be focused on just getting something done, pleasing others and not think about what the real mission is. If there’s a seed of doubt about the job then stand up for it I say.
Why do we think that our way is universal?
Many people believe that if work appeals to them that it will appeal to everyone. Having learned so much more about thinking styles and personality types now I know myself there is no such thing as a universal approach, but you can do more to appeal to each type of thinker in work if you know what that is. This is beyond just behavioural economics but also in language choices. There are mental processing systems called Meta-Programs that drive us to take action and there are 64 different categories of thinking with many different complexities. For example there are global and specific thinkers – some think big picture and some love details, some start with global and move specific and need both, some use the details to form a global opinion in order to act. So, making sure that our communications cover all possibilities improves our chances of connecting. Unless this question has been asked it is tempting for everyone to cast their own subjectivity onto each project.
Why aren’t we listening to the people?
At the end of the day the work lives or dies by how people at home or our market respond to the work – they either buy or they don’t and the work succeeds or fails (black and white!). The temptation is for clients to use research as a support to help guide decisions and this can be misguided – not so much by the results so much as how they’re interpreted and when research is done. It seems to make sense in principal, but perhaps it is the way it is done that is the real problem here? I’m of the belief that we can integrate the process much more smoothly and control the results to protect the creative if we do it right. So, I know I’m focusing on ways to improve that integration and be sure that consumer feedback aids the process and we end up with better work instead of going against it. This could be in two parts – using feedback throughout the process and also having more people involved who understand the psychology of people to improve the ‘hit rate’ so to speak. I worked with a creative team recently that had been trained in Neuro-Linguistics and notice how their work is really standing out right now and winning awards and being effective for clients. This is like seeing code though – only those that know the code can see it and can see the value of it (the others are quick to poo-poo it too!). I’ll personally be choosing more people with some science like this blended with proven creative talent as I can now see the value of it.
So, there are lots of ‘Why’s?’ for us all to consider and I’ll certainly be asking more of these myself.