Creative agencies are always being asked by their clients to deliver creative ‘things’. But what gets produced is only half of the story. The other, and sometimes more important, part is how it is done. Creativity is not just the things we make; it’s the way we make them; the ‘doing’ that goes on behind the scenes. In the words of the late Steve Jobs, “Design is not just what it looks like and feels like. Design is how it works.”
But why does this matter to brand managers and marketers, as long as campaigns and designs are produced on time, on budget and do what they’re supposed to do? Surely, the ‘how’ is for the agency to figure out? That may once have been the case, but times have changed.
In the past, marketers and brand managers could set long-term visions and objectives and behave like creative project managers implementing linear campaigns. But today, developments in technology mean we engage with brands and consume products, media, and services in radically different ways than we did a year or two ago, let alone a decade ago.
In response to this, the role of branding and marketing executives is now more like that of an innovative entrepreneur who should be flexible, adaptable and able to pivot in response to sudden shifts within their company, sector, or market. Having a deeper understanding of how creative teams go about their work can help brands achieve this sought-after level of flexibility and agility to adapt to sudden change, and can result in more successful campaigns, products, branding and advertising.
Why Is Everyone Talking About Being ‘Agile’?
The word ‘agile’ has become a bit of an overused buzzword in design and creative industries, but it remains an extremely productive approach to creative work. In his new book, ‘Building the Agile Business’, author and digital strategist Neil Perkin describes an agile business as being ‘velocity x focus x flexibility’. In other words, a business that is focusing its efforts on moving in a clear direction, but that also has an in-built ability to adapt and change course if and when necessary.
To achieve this, creative agencies often work in agile ‘sprints’ that break down a traditional chronological scope of works into much smaller cycles of work that all inter-relate. This ‘agile creativity’ allows the very brief itself and deliverables to be interrogated early on, often revealing new ideas, directions and opportunities that end up enhancing both the brief and the end result. It also allows scope for ideas to be tried and tested early on, rather than finding out much further down the line that the idea won’t quite work the way they first thought.
The alternative and more ‘traditional’ approach to this comes when brands and agencies are too rigidly focused on the final product, on the ‘what’, at the outset, which can lead to great opportunities being missed and time and money wasted. For example, a comprehensive brief with strict deliverables and an inflexible, linear timeline that spans one or two years means that the project could very easily be outdated or superseded by the time you reach the final deadline. Taking an agile approach enables brands to test new ideas early on and to adapt easily to changes to ensure maximum success.
What Does Being User-Focused Actually Mean?
This sounds obvious and, again, also sounds like something we’ve all heard one too many times before. But what does being solutions- or user-focused actually mean? In the words of Eric Ries, author of The Lean Startup, “We must learn what customers really want, not what they say they want or what we think they should want.” In focus-groups, participants try to think about what they might need or want, and in brand HQs and agencies, marketers and designers imagine what they target audience should, or could, want. This is a much weaker position to start a branding project from than a position based on learnings from the real world. After all, what’s the use of a design project delivered on time and on budget, if it’s not really what consumers want?
Instead, creative projects should always be based on real solutions drawn from actual users’ needs. This is one of the main reasons why start-up companies can be so disruptive and competitive. They get a basic product to market quickly and can change and adapt it rapidly in response to what they learn from real customers using it. They don’t start with spending a lot of time and money to create what they believe is the perfect product only to find out it is fatally flawed. Brands should learn from this start-up mentality by adopting agile approaches to creating new work and by not being afraid to test ideas out in the real world. They will ensure they stay competitive and create work that genuinely resonates with customers.
The Iceberg Model
A common problem is brands that want to try and do everything right away in one campaign, product or service. It’s not until they understand more about creative strategy, the ‘how’ of branding and design as opposed to the ‘what’, that they realise trying to do everything from the outset never works. Attention and focus get spread too thinly. In this situation my advice is always to focus on a single core business proposition – the one thing you want to be remembered for. While the long-term ambitions for the business might have the scale of a huge iceberg, it’s the tip of that iceberg – this core proposition – that you will always be recognised for and from which everything else builds.
Think of Google and ‘search’, or Amazon and ‘books’. Both focused on one idea, made sure it worked for users, built value around it, and made it the foundation of the business. From there, they’ve expanded outwards and have explored a wealth of other possibilities that lie beneath the surface. This approach to brand strategy – starting lean and nimble before building out, using agile sprints and real user-focused insights – is the way brands can maximise their chances of making their campaigns and products a success.
The only danger with these more ‘agile’ approaches is that they could be taken as a license to challenge and iterate for the sake of it, causing a project to lose overall focus. Going back to the agile business formula, that’s why ‘velocity’ – momentum in a set direction – is so important, even if that direction changes later down the line. As with everything though, balance is the key, and the best approach can often be a hybrid one that has a set budget and timeline into which agile sprints can be incorporated.
Ultimately, brands need to find out what works best for them, but there’s no getting away from the drive across our industry to work in more flexible and agile ways to keep up with the speed of change in the world.