Category: bizness

Devaluation of Design

My response to In-House Designers discussion of the week: Devaluation of Design:

We work in a time where the tools of the trade can do as good a job as  it used to take a trained designer to do.

Proving the value of design is tall task as it can be so subjective. What is brilliant to one person is “meh” to another.

Measuring the value can make matters worse. Remember that scene in “Dead Poets Society” where the teacher has the student read the paragraph about how to measure the quality of a poem? Measurement is not the cure-all. There are so many outside factors that affect effectiveness – under certain circumstances even the very best design can be rendered useless.

In Corporate America, volume of work is often viewed as the key indicator for success. But volume does not equate to quality.

I believe…

Consistency is part of the answer – being able to communicate the brand no matter which platform or channel.

Technical excellence – the work should be tight and right every time.

Understand how to communicate to your audience. Most of the time your stakeholders do not know how to do this and this is a huge opportunity to increase the value.

The Seven Most Hated Words in Advertising

Hate is a powerful emotion and should not be bandied about lightly.

You reserve hate for things like Hitler, terrorism or Brussel Sprouts. But you may also reserve the right to hate the following seven words when spoken by your client:

I’ll know it when I see it.

When you are presenting new creative work and at the end of the presentation you hear these seven words spoken in the ensuing discussion, run, don’t walk, and get as far from this client as possible. When these vile words (all of which are innocent enough individually) are strung together when reviewing work, the outcome is almost always deadly.

Generally speaking, “I’ll know it when I see it” means your client has no idea what they are doing, no clear direction and that makes them unwilling to commit to anything. How can they commit to an idea when their decision will make something that has been abstract suddenly become concrete?

The consequences of working once “I’ll know it when I see it” has been put on the table are as follows:

  1. You iterate until the client sees “it”. Which is fine if you are charging by the hour, but if you you are working on a fixed price, you just lost all hope of turning a profit on this project.
  2. You will turn yourself inside out trying to hit the target from every possible angle. This can be a positive thing, right? It is good to stretch yourself, but ultimately no. You have a good many talents, but good telepathy is probably not one of them.
  3. You will second guess yourself to the point of madness. Shattering your confidence in your abilities is disastrous.
  4. If you’ve read previous ramblings I’ve posted, you know how I feel about stress. “I’ll know it when I see it” is very stressful and will rarely give you the opportunity to do your best work.
  5. Since you’re already in the presentation phase of a project, you’ve eaten up a lot of time and now you are going back to the drawing board to start all over again. The potential to get stuck in an endless loop of despair is great.
  6. Odds are good your client will never see “it”. This is frustrating for both you and your client. Frustrated clients are never a good outcome under any circumstance.

Running away is rarely a good option. So how should you handle the situation should the Seven Evil Words be spoken?

  1. Even though these words will sting, keep a clear mind, stay focused and think. What was it about the work that elicited this reaction? Did you miss something? Did you have clear direction to start with? Did you have a proper brief to start from or was it started over a casual phone call? Use this time to educate the client.
  2. Ask questions. Try to tease out an understanding of why your client does not see “it”. This is hard and often times does not bear any fruit, but as a professional creative it is your responsibility to try.
  3. See if you can get the client to latch on to one thing that they do like about what they are seeing. This will give you something you can build on, even if you are starting over.
  4. Go ahead and invest a little more time on the project. Yes, this can be a frustrating option, but devote some time in an effort to keep your client happy. You could land on the right answer. Just don’t overcommit yourself, that’s where the madness comes in.

Years ago I worked at a small boutique design studio. We had taken on a new healthcare client and were in the process of building their brand from scratch. We got them to chose a name fairly quickly but we ran out of luck when it came to the logo.

Historically, when pitching logos we would show a client three designs, each carefully thought out and executed. Having named their business, we had a ton of designs in mind and pushed it out to showing five. We take in the black boards, got some disagreement and lackluster response and were asked to come back with some more designs. Okay, you don’t always hit the mark.

So we went back to the studio and worked up more designs. This time we took in seven designs. Same response. I can see my boss is getting a little testy about this, because we have shown some outstanding choices, but he agrees to go back to the studio to work on a 3rd round.

We go back to the client’s office and spread all 20 designs out on the conference room table. After some hemming and hawing, those seven words that should not be uttered came out of the client’s mouth:

“I’ll know it when I see it.”

What happened next is the stuff of legend. My boss politely says that we have given you much more than you asked for. There are multiple choices that not only solve the problem, but give the new company a strong foundation to build itself upon.

The client asks to see more designs. At that my boss stands up, gently collects all of the designs spread out on the table and calmly replies “I’ll send you my bill” and we leave.

They paid in full.

Advertising Emergencies

Dave Trott posted a piece recently about taking the creation of adverts too seriously. He’s spot on.

Who hasn’t gotten that call, usually after hours, from your client/marketing manager/whoever, screaming, with their hair on fire about missing a deadline. Something fell through the cracks. Someone bought an insertion and didn’t bother letting anyone else know. Armageddon was at hand.

Your career might not survive, but it’s not like anyone has ever died because an ad wasn’t released on time.

This isn’t open heart surgery after all.

None of what I say is to minimize the work we do. Quite the contrary, I whole heartedly believe creative marketing work is more valuable than ever.

But people freak out about marketing work. They really, really, really stress out about things. Why is that?

Like so much of life, it goes back to confidence. Confidence is the antidote to stress. If you feel confident about your ability to get things done, why stress out about them.

Early in my career I almost died because of an advertising emergency. We were pushing a deadline and needed to get film up to the publisher in Chicago. I was voluntold to deliver the film to the FedEx up at the airport, the last pick up of the day. Doors close at 9:00.

It was after 8:00 when I hopped onto the tollway up to Intercontinental. And, of course, a huge thunderstorm was blowing in. One of those storms where the windshield wipers have a hard time keeping up with the ocean of rain coming down.

I’m driving like a madman. Minutes are ticking off as I start to hydroplane. I start to lose control of the car. I have never been so scarred in my life.

Right there and then I decide to slow down. I might miss the last flight out. I might have some explaining to do the next morning, but it beats being in an accident over some film.

Nothing we do is worth that kind of worry.

I made it in time and drove home slowly.

There is no such thing as an advertising emergency. Get your act together, do the work, follow through, communicate. Just do your job and you’ll alleviate all the emergencies.

Punt It Over to Marketing

Yesterday I was approached about doing a billboard. The company I work for does not promote the use of billboard advertising. I personally don’t believe in them either. Despite whatever Clear Channel or any of the other media company says, in my experience I have yet to see any kind of significant return on the purchase of billboard advertising. So, of course I declined the request.

But the guy persisted. He had to have a billboard. He had to get our name out there. “We’re dying in the field and this billboard is the only thing that will save us” was this guy’s stance.

If things are that dire then call it quits.

A billboard, or any other ad for that matter, will not save a business.

It’s easy to punt problems over to marketing departments and have them take a stab at solving a problem. What gets me is that when they ask for help, they are quick to offer up tactics but rarely tell what it is they are wanting to achieve. A billboard is a tactic, not a solution.

Solutions are hard to figure out. They require considered thought, and often, some time. Rarely does an innovative idea present itself under duress.

After some quick chatter with a colleague about the problem, we came up with a good solution:

Rather than make a huge investment in a billboard, how about cleaning out the local Krispy Kreme and driving around to a few customers’ locations and drop off some doughnuts. Don’t even try to sell anything, just let them know you’re available should they need you and have a nice day.

This solution that would save the company about $10,000. In the process it will create bigger impact on the business and perhaps some goodwill with our customers. But it requires work. And unfortunately, he will never do it. It’s easier to scratch your name on a P.O. and it is to rent some real estate for a couple of months.

Marketing can do many great things to help a business grow, but rarely is it the solution to a fundamental business issue.

Be the audience

A while back I wrote about being a chameleon and started off by addressing my lack of style in the way I dress. In reality, it is not truly a lack of style as much as it is that I want don’t want there to be any barriers between me and my clients, so I dress like them.

I’ve held this practice for years. Never one of have a closet full of black t-shirts and jeans to match, I dress conservatively at work so that I can easily go meet with anyone at any time and look appropriate. Yes, it can be and often is very square.

This basic way of thinking applies to other parts of my life, too. I’ve gone down his path for very specific reasons.

I never dated another design student while in school. I spent so much time with my classmates, that I wanted a break from them. Needed to. I never  wanted to spend all my time talking about design; There is a bigger world out there. Yes, my wife did teach art, and I relish conversations with her on aesthetics and other issues around making and appreciating art, but that is little of what we talk about. We mostly talk about life.

For the past 25 years I have chosen to live in suburban west Houston. It is amazing to see how things have changed over the years; our area that was once quiet and rural is now bustling with commerce, traffic and tons more people. Living out here has been deliberate. There are more trendy places to live, places where I could be closer to more culture, but living in the ‘burbs definitely keeps me grounded. Also forces me to seek out new things to see and do. A very different mindset than when you constantly are immersed in that lifestyle.

Why is a creative person forcing himself to live an “ordinary” life? It is very much by design, and largely because I never want to loose touch with the real world, not live in the ones we create. I want to be grounded. I want to have the perspective of someone NOT in the business. I want to be the audience.

Rory Sutherland and Dave Trott continuously rail on Twitter about how out of touch the advertising industry is. They could not be more right. Last weekend the Houston Ad Fed held their award show and I reviewed the many of the winners online this past week. There was beautiful work, don’t get me wrong, but how effective/affective was any of it? The work spoke to me as an ad man, but how much of it resonate with me as a consumer? I’ll bet you know the answer.

I went back and forth on where I was going with this post, when I happened onto this tweet. Me and Austin Kleon are simpatico on this subject.

As a creative practitioner, you should feed your head constantly. Actively seek out things that inspire you and get your juices flowing. Just never forget, you’re not working for other creative types — you’re working to make some change for people who are not like you. They won’t analyze or spend time with the work the way you do.

Don’t loose touch with the real world. You may not live in it, but your work will.