The “Prime Directive:” Are They Ready for Innovation?

[May 28, 2010]

In America, people like feeling up to date. Few things endow us with the glow of self satisfaction like following an inovative trend. In my experience, this same impulse toward innovation-chic fuels lots of decisions made by marketing managers and, sad to say, many creatives. As an outgrowth of this impulse, the quest for innovation can take on a life of its own.

Given the green light by a client, creatives are so driven to “stay on trend” that we often forget to ask a critical question: Is our client ready for innovation? In the excitement of the moment, there’s a tendency to drop everything and start riffling through trade publications for inspiration:

“Dude,” says the eager-to-please creative, “we can totally reskin that app and we’re good.”

Talk like that, while hapless in its own terms, reminds me of the “steampunk” science fiction genre, which reskins computers and atomic power as products of Victorian culture. While such stories are sometimes entertaining, they’re always completely improbable. In the real world, culture and technology evolve together.

In a similar way, you can’t introduce “high-tech” creative strategies into a project unless it aligns with your client’s marketing culture. To find out if the creative approach you want to pursue is compatible with that culture, take a close look at your client’s recent campaigns.

Find their ground level.
If your client has been content to “push product” with limited time offers and a chorus line of micro-branded product features, they’re probably not ready for their OneShow moment. Additionally, if their digital footprint consists solely of a hyperlinked sales circular, you have a lot more work to do before they’ll let consumers co-author their brand narrative online.

No matter that your agency’s stock and trade is edgy-edged envelop pushing. Move too fast and the dire day will dawn when your client contact announces, “We need to take a step back.”

What’s happened? You’ve inadvertently violated your client’s marketing culture. If the CEO is only concerned with selling more product, it’s no use selling consumer engagement to the VP of Marketing.

“And by the way, how much is this social stuff going to cost?” the incredulous exec exclaims, banging a final nail into the coffin.

In short, it’s the hard-sell/soft-sell debate, swept into the vortex of changing times. And a vortex it is—so much so that many clients are clinging tight to the nearest tried-and-true tree branch, just hoping they don’t get sucked in.

Not long ago I dealt with clients who had never even considered the possibility of updating their perfect Web copy. Fine people, really, but I knew from the start we couldn’t get them to Web 2.5 in one step. It would be a long road ahead until they might finally grasp that marketing has changed forever. I found myself at their ground level, explaining that copy was more than a stream of features, benefits and “strong calls to action.”

Be realistic.
Trust me, I understand: Taking baby steps doesn’t jibe with the self-image of an iPad-toting, Kazuki-ObyO-shuffling, goji-berry-munching advertising guru. But as long as your agency has booked a client with a radically different concept of marketing than yours, you’ll have to be realistic.

That’s because, despite your concern with engaging consumer audiences, the first audience you must engage—after your own CEO/EVP Creative/SVP Account/SVP Strategy—is the client. To sell your clients even one new idea, you’ll need to understand their marketing culture down to its last holy worship word.

Otherwise, you’ll find yourself in the unenviable position of being both 100% right and 100% wrong. So please, before you get the creative team in a lather about boldly going where no agency has gone before, make sure you’re not trying to sell radial tires to a corporate marketing culture that’s only just invented the wheel.


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Mark Laporta

Writer, Creative Consultant
New York, NY




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