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Karen Faith: Research, Strategy & Creative

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Working With Creatives 101

This talk was given as a part of an orientation for new hires at Google Small Business Americas in February 2014.



Here’s the thing: when you hire creatives, what are you buying? Buying creative services isn’t like buying any other thing.

When you go to a restaurant, you get a menu to choose from. You find what you want, order it, and in a relatively standard amount of time, your order arrives in front of you. That is a perfect example of what the agency relationship is not.

If my creative agency were in the food business, you would come straight back to the kitchen, put on an apron and get messy. We don’t know what’s going to happen because every dish is new. And because every dish is new, we need to have a conversation. In a restaurant, the chef starts the conversation with a menu. With your agency, you start the conversation with a brief.

A brief should include enough detail to define the problem, but not so much that it begins to define the solution. For example, to us, some briefs sound like: “we need to feed a lot of people, really soon but no rush. Make it awesome.” (Not enough info.) And sometimes, it’s like, “we need 5,000 medium rare grass fed beef burgers with Wisconsin extra-sharp cheddar and local applewood smoked bacon served open face on toasted, buttered sesame buns. With pickles. Half of them should be vegan.” (Wrong info.)

Kick us off with what you got as best you know it and be honest. We are here to help. To help you get started, here are the main ingredients of a great brief:

OBJECTIVE: what is the challenge?
Clarify the problem. What are we trying to solve? What needs to be accomplished?

DELIVERABLE: what are we making?
Is it a website? A logo? An event? A product? If you don’t know yet, that's better. We can help you find out.

AUDIENCE: who is it for?
Who are they, where are they, and what do we know about them?

INSIGHT: why are we making it?
What deep understanding do we have about the inner nature of the challenge, the audience or the strategy?

TIMELINE: when is it due?
Be clear about what is flexible and what is not so nobody goes bonkers.

BUDGET: how much support does it have?
What do we have to work with?

The one thing we don’t need you to tell us is how to make it. Focus on what your project should achieve and leave the rest to us.



Once you know what you need to solve, the next question is, who does what?

Traditionally, agencies have a handful of specific roles within their structure: writer, designer, creative director, project manager, account person. In these more traditional agencies, each person has one role. That's changing. Big time.

Many agencies are made up of entirely multi-disciplinary creatives who do everything from account management to UX research and a little art direction on the side. So it's best to think of these roles in terms of their functions, not their titles, since the project manager you're working with may well be the same person that's designing your website. 

The idea is that direct communication is not just clearer but deeper, making better work. Not one of us is one-dimensional, after all, and in our experience, putting people in boxes makes more trouble than it solves.

That goes for everyone, not just creatives. So when we sit down with you, we’re going to ask a lot of questions, and you can do the same. Learn who is wearing what hat, and what other hats they've got in the mix.



Once you and your creative team are rolling, there are a few things you will do well to get cozy with: seeing unfinished work, and letting things go.

Be prepared to see unfinished work. You know what good work looks like, but you may not know what it looks like to get there. Ideas live most of their lives as napkin scribblings, wireframes, outlines and pencil drawings. Practice seeing the concept first and ignoring the execution. This will save you a lot of time and money polishing the wrong ideas.

Which is the other thing: most ideas go nowhere. That’s not a bad thing. It’s great. It’s a sign they’re taking it to the limit, and getting you closer to where you want to be. It’s also a thousand times better to kill a bad idea early than to drain your budget trying to fix it later.



When you see our backstage mess, you will have an opinion. You will hate things, you will love things, you will immediately have very specific ideas to improve things. None of that is helpful. Because, as shitty as it sounds, your feelings and suggestions are irrelevant. We don’t need to know how you feel or what you like. What we need to know is whether we are hitting our objectives. So let’s talk about how to find out.

1. Write an actionable brief.

First, we need a clear, actionable brief. See above. The particulars vary, but a brief should include enough detail to define the problem, but not so much that it begins to define the solution. 

2. Find what’s right with it.

So you’ve written a brief, we gave it a go and it’s time for the first concept review. Before pointing out that we’re on the wrong planet, find one thing that is succeeding. In fact, find what’s working about every single idea, even the ones that are total duds. And by this I don’t mean “say one nice thing.” This isn’t just to boost our morale. It’s to strengthen the foundation we’re standing on. You can’t build a house with a wrecking ball, and if we spend all our time removing what’s failing, we aren’t necessarily left with anything we can use. Find a starting place that’s solid.

3. Talk functions, not feelings.

When you see something that’s not working, tell us what doesn’t work about it. For example, instead of saying, “I don’t like that line. Can you make it pink?” You might say, “that line is important. How might we emphasize it?” We know about 1000 ways to emphasize something with color, size, font, copy, placement, you name it, so if that’s what needs to be done, don’t limit yourself to pink. Let us do what we do best.



So you’re working with creatives. How do you light their inspirational spark? Just so you know, it isn’t on you to be our muse, but it may help you to know what motivates creatives. The good news is, according to research, it’s the same thing that motivates everyone. Four things, actually: achievement, meaning, connection and play.

1. Achievement

It isn’t really gratifying to crank out the easy stuff, so go ahead and set the bar high. Challenge and complexity are welcome. Of course, getting a sense of accomplishment can be about having something to show for your day, too - but sometimes, the work that needs doing can’t really be seen or touched. In order to feel the satisfaction of progress, we need clear goals and tasks. Make an agenda for every meeting and recap the decisions that are made. A meeting of meandering conversation might feel worth it if everyone can see 3 decisions that came out of the mess.

2. Meaning

Not every project is a spiritual experience, but for someone making the 5th revision of a banner ad, it helps to be informed of the big picture. Let your creatives know where their work fits into the grand scheme, for your project, the campaign, the strategy, the whole dang company. Knowing why and how our work matters goes a long way.

3. Connection

Get to know your creative team and let them know you, even and especially if you don’t feel you have that much in common. It doesn’t take much to create a sense of community and togetherness, and connection isn’t just making friends. Connection means staying in touch. Don’t wait for an emergency to check in. Say hi. Share what you’re reading. Send videos you like. If we only ever hear from you when you need a favor or have a complaint, we’re going to have a harder time feeling connected.

4. Play

Play may seem like the easy one, but it isn’t. Because in this context, play doesn’t mean playing XBOX. It means achieving a sense of play WITHIN the work, during the work. Inviting play into the work requires an open attitude toward curiosity, crazy ideas and tangents. Which means taking the work, and oneself, less seriously at times. We need and want to riff on weird ideas, and it makes your project better if we do. So we’re going to take a little extra time to explore and laugh, and we want you to join us. Like, you know, relax. Enjoy the process. Photoshop our faces onto tiny dogs if you have to. It helps everyone.