Creative Presentation: The Cloak or The Yoke?

[February 22, 2012]

In the midst of many changes currently rocking the advertising industry, one constant is the Creative Presentation. We recognize it as the ritualized walk-through that precedes work on any new campaign. In the course of an average career, agency denizens of every stripe will participate in several dozen creative presentations. It’s a time-honored practice dating back at least as far as the era depicted by Mad Men.

In the present era, a real-world creative presentation features a larger helping of market research—from “back-up” to “set-up” to “up-front.” Our clients now demand a Reason to Believe the Reason to Believe before they’ll open their ears. That’s one of many bad habits we’ve taught them over the decades, starting from the moment we voluntarily threw off the consultant’s cloak and stepped meekly into the vendor’s yoke.

Yet despite these accommodations to changing times, a glaring flaw persists in the way clients typically receive the ideas we present. Nearly 50 years after the heyday of American advertising, most marketing managers still can’t distinguish between two discrete entities:

1. A creative concept 
   (Driving a Mazda as the route
   to exuberant personal freedom)

2. Its physical realization 
    (Zoom! Zoom! Zoom!)

As I see it, the distinction is clear: A creative concept is a thought process that can be expressed in any number of physical realizations. At a true concept presentation, this thought process takes center stage. It’s not the time to debate color palettes, pixel widths, placeholder copy, taglines, stock art style or programming gimmicks.

If this sounds obvious, I only mention it because this principal is violated to some degree at nearly every creative concept presentation. And that’s a problem, because no single factor wastes more time in the creative development phase than a faulty creative presentation. 

You see the problem in action the moment you receive Round 1 feedback. Your clients, far from acknowledging the intent of your presentation, have “approved The Blue Concept.” They want you to find efficiencies by repurposing existing assets and simply making them Blue. Forget the communication strategy you hammered out over artisanal pizza only the day before. You’ve sold your clients Blue and all they want is Blue.

Saving time. Losing the day.
The source of this confusion stems in part from a misguided, penny-wise model of time management. As hard as they try, many marketing managers can’t fathom the idea of producing “work we can’t use.” Following this line of logic, a concept presentation in the sense I mean it is a waste. If it’s in the presentation, it’s got to appear in the final result.

Trouble is, there’s no better way to stymie creative development. Instead of buy-in on the thought-process underlying the concept, the agency receives marching orders not directly related to the issue at hand—the development of a fresh, engagement strategy. That’s when it dawns on you: Your client has approved nothing beyond the most superficial aspects of the creative concept. Ask about messaging and you’re liable to hear:

       (over phone, filtered)
Isn’t it all in the print brochure? 
Hold on…Right. I just checked with 
Diane and she says it’s all there. 
We’ll send it over so you have the latest 
version with Diane’s tweaks. No sense 
reinventing the wheel

What’s a “creative” to do?
Having stated a problem, it’s incumbent on me to suggest a solution—even if habits ingrained more deeply in every generation seem impossible to reverse. Nevertheless, there may still be ways to help clients grasp the real purpose of a creative presentation.

Since the term “creative” is now so hopelessly corrupted that it applies equally to a concept, a design layout, a tagline and a person, we should rename the ritual. To reset your clients’ expectations, consider calling it a Concept Exploration. Then set ground rules for meaningful feedback and map out each step of the creative development to follow. It’s the only way to stem the tide of tweakage.

Second, but no less important, realize that creative presentation doesn’t end with that fateful first meeting. To keep the project on track, you must continue to present your idea at each stage of the process. Otherwise, even the soundest creative concept will die the death of a thousand minor edits.

Finally, do whatever you can to bring enthusiasm to the table. To succeed, you must take your clients somewhere they’ve never been before—to the very brink of creative thinking. Only then can you hope to do the kind of work that used to be the standard. That is, before we redefined agency work as a species of docile servitude to clocks, dollar signs and the folly of wishful thinking. 


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Mark Laporta

Writer, Creative Consultant
New York, NY




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