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10 posts from April 2008

The Three Fundamentals of Creative Strategy, Pt. 5

Ideal Scenario

Read Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4.

Great creative strategy always starts with a clear articulation of a business problem, and a rational strategy for solving it. This is the outer layer of the onion that peels away to expose a marketing strategy. Let's talk about how you apply your marketing strategy and your audience insights to generate tactics that sing.

Based on how you answered your top three questions in Part 4 of this series, you have the answers that you need to select your tactics. So, let's flip those questions around and use them as the proper guide to discuss the thinking that should help shape your tactical marketing approach.

Tell your audience what they want to hear, based on how they feel.

You've determined some key understandings about your audience base. Now distill that material into one key insight that will make them pay attention. Ideally, you have to be able to say this in one sentence (or less) to succeed in selling your client and your shareholders.

In the realm of financial services, think about MasterCard: "Priceless." Or Citi: "Live Richly." Or way back when Washington Mutual knew what they were doing: "More Human Interest." Each of those key insights was an embodiment of how they understood their audience needs. They are all ways of making a dull, droll, somewhat cutthroat industry foster a human connection with their audience. (Reading that previous sentence over again, I'm sounding pretty jaded.)

I'm not saying you always need to come up with some catchy phrase for your client. You just need to know what human insight drives your tactics. Some clients can hand the appropriate insight to you on a platter, and save you plenty of work. If you have a less sophisticated client, or you're being hired to generate this insight, you will need to include this key insight in the brief, or you're taking a big risk.

Talk to your audience where they'll pay the most attention.

Once you have the insight nailed, you go back to your research about where your audience lives and breathes.

If they're business travelers, you could hit them in the taxi, in the airport, on business television, on those little coffee cup sleeves.

If they're consumers, you may recommend redesigning their packaging based on behavioral research and focus groups.

If your audience likes to spend a ton of time online, you could develop a seeding strategy for bloggers, fostering two-way communication between your corporation and your customer base.

Of course, all of these thoughts will dovetail with previous efforts your client has made, and the statistics about how they have performed.

In the good old days, we used to talk about "above the line" communications (a.k.a. television, print, and other high-profile awareness-generating mediums) and "below the line communications" (direct mail, in-store sales, training, anything focused on fostering sales). Nowadays, there is no line. Since we're talking about fostering great customer experiences that lead to long-term relationships with brands, every single customer interaction could lead to a positive or negative impression of a company and its products and services. If a client comes to you saying they want to sell 100,000 more bags of chips a month, you can't just say to run some ads and call it a day. Your approach needs to be multilayered and more sophisticated, taking into account both traditional one-way media communications (such as advertising, collateral, branding) and two-way media communications (such as compelling interactive, social networking, blogging, thought leadership, in-person dialogue).

So while it's easy to tell a company that they need to get in front of 1 million eyeballs to generate 10,000 sales, it's not the appropriate answer anymore. I can't imagine walking into a client's office and advocating that kind of solution without being roundly laughed at. As consumers, we expect dialogue with brands. We know we're in control of the game and have a real voice in the marketplace. Online, your voice can carry just as much weight as 100,000 impressions of a banner advertisement, or more.

Assume the audience won't hear it the first time. Or the second. Or...

Another attribute of your audience research should be focused on how you can craft your communication strategy to surround the right people at the right point in the sales process with the right message. It's no longer "one size fits all" communications that can accomplish every single goal with one swing of the hammer. Be smart about how each touch fosters progress through your sales process, while at the same time, being aware that your customers may only get message 2, 4, and 7 out of your grand media scheme -- meaning that each creative communication should always hit home the key insight and provide some of the support necessary to foster the right kind of experience and prompt some level of future interaction.

Test, test, test. And then test some more.

Return on investment should dictate every move you make in the marketplace. Don't ever put a tactic on the table, such as a long run of television spots, or a grandiose series of online ads, without factoring iteration and improvement into the process. Due to up-to-the-second metrics on interactive properties, clients expect adjustment on the fly. And be prepared to kill a buy midstream or shift media or money to other channels if they don't perform at the right cost per acquisition. Unless your goals include some measure of thought leadership or more favored brand presence, don't think about pouring more cash into "love bombs" or other forms of sheer goodwill without the research to back up the long-term ramifications of your actions.


In the final part of this series, I'll share some broad guidelines to help your marketing insights take the appropriate form in compelling marketing communications.

Continue on to Part 6 >>

The Three Fundamentals of Creative Strategy, Pt. 4

The 3 Fundamentals of Creative Strategy

Read Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3.

Great creative strategy always starts with a clear articulation of a business problem, and a rational strategy for solving it. This is the outer layer of the onion that peels away to expose a marketing strategy. In this post, I'm going to detail the key questions that comprise the guts of a high-level marketing strategy and the seeds of both your creative strategy and marketing tactics.

Marketing Strategy at a Glance

Based on our business needs, what actions should we take in the market to better sell our products or services? From the corporation's point of view, this often boils down to bottom-line impact, moving the needle by a point or two. For designers, this business need must be clothed in a human insight to have any lasting effect on the market.

When embarking on a marketing plan, the following questions need to be addressed and always in this order. Otherwise, you're throwing tactics at the wall like spaghetti.

1. What does the audience want to hear from this company? Is what the company wants also what the audience wants? Before you can propose a strategy, you need to know that the audience is receptive to such messaging. And if they aren't, you need to come back to the client with solid research to indicate the direction they should take.

2. Where does the audience want to hear it? Where does the audience live, breathe, and communicate? Where they live, work, and seek distraction, as well as online destinations where they congregate -- and how much time they spend in those different locations -- are all fair game.

3. What customer problem does this approach solve? Where's the real customer pain you're addressing? If you're creating a pain and then solving it for a customer, then you're going to have a harder row than stepping into your audience's view with something fresh that fulfills a tangible need.

It's important to note that these questions are the core of both your marketing plan and your creative brief. And often all the answers can be found through informal research.

The Importance of (In)Formal Behavioral Research

The questions above can be answered in a number of ways, but most often it requires some level of research. And by research, I'm not talking about 50,000 surveys and heavy focus groups over a period of months around the United States. I'm describing observing your audience in their domain, either through spending some time where they congregate, or doing some anthropology by easing your way into their work environment to gauge how things appear from their point of view. This can be accomplished by engaging with a formal research partner, but in the case of most projects, there isn't time or budget to do so.

So, in lieu of hiring a professional, I do the following.

Spend time in retail environments with the customers. I go out to stores where my client's products are sold and watch every little detail: how people make choices between multiple products, what they may say aloud, whether they interact with salespeople and the quality of their interactions. Designers nowadays are asked to address the overall experience of engaging with a brand, and the sum of these interactions can often give an indication for why people aren't acting in a manner that the corporation would like. The audience is always in control. My rule of thumb is that if I see a behavior repeated 4 to 5 times across multiple stores, it's probably an indication of a much larger concern -- especially if those behaviors are happening across multiple geographies.

Spend time watching how your customers behave online, and if they complain about their on- and off-line experiences. If you can get metrics from your client, combine them with how customers are reacting on wikis, blogs, forums, Facebook, and Twitter. Marry up trends in your Web site statistics, such as fall-off in transactional processes, with real quotes about actual problems that can be solved. Treat every complaint like gold from heaven. If your customers aren't complaining, they probably aren't giving you strong insights.

Do a task analysis. Task analysis allows you to step into the environment of your key audience members and observe how their specific needs can be fulfilled by a the features of a product or service. Ideally, you'd work this kind of research into your agency fee, and a task analysis can help bolster and refine your general behavioral research while also contributing to the development of, say, a complex Web system.

Listen very closely to the client's point of view about their audience. I always read the client's provided research and mine it for insight before going into the world to validate. Even if your client provides you with all the answers, I think it's our responsibility to see if there are any areas in the margin that we can scribble in a little more insight. Designers are intuitive thinkers that can sense the emotional undercurrent of a person's dialogue about, say, a bar of soap. Teasing out those details provide the shape of how our audience is behaving at this moment in time, and what they expect out of any kind of corporate communication. Sometimes your audience is moving so quickly that how they felt six months ago isn't an accurate snapshot of where they are now -- and where they are headed tomorrow.

The following is a gut check that I always apply at the end of research.

See what can and can't be controlled in the sales process. Ever been asked to sell more product when the product really isn't very good, or when you can't control the customer's experience in the store? When doing research, you need to be aware of what you can actually accomplish. You may need to share with the client that their goals are unreasonable, and propose a sturdier, more realistic course of action.

Until They Pay, Keep Your Research Close to Your Chest

Keep in mind that working through this kind of research, especially before you've been paid a fee, is something that you should parcel out to the client very carefully. Depending on the scale of the project, this kind of research and analysis can take a good number of days, and time is money for any design professional.

I recommend that you determine the depth of your research in advance of agreeing to respond to the client proposal or request, and try to keep it to a budget. When I aim for a major piece of business, I dive hard into the research and try to come up with a strong insight before determining any course of action. If the project is at a much smaller scale, those insights may have to wait until they've signed the work order and we've started in on the creative brief.

Once you've collected this information, and you have distilled it into the key themes or trends that indicate a strong support to the business problem, you're ready to talk about marketing tactics, which will follow in our next installment.

Continue on to Part 5 >>

And Now, an Interaction from our Sponsor

Rabbit Ears

You're watching the new episode of Lost on, and during the break, a little app from Google pops up that says you have two new messages on your Gmail account, there's a hurricane blasting its way through Peru, and your RSS reader has two articles you'd probably want to read before Jack and Kate start to make out.

"Entertainment with utility!" That'll be the rallying cry of the new breed of advertising married to interactive television.

Wait--don't we watch TV, go out to movies, and listen to music to escape from reality?

Definitely not. Anyone who has a young daughter or son, or has spent time observing TV-watching behavior, knows that we are now experiencing an unprecedented level of layering. Using their computer to sift the Internet for that next hot band, watching a so-so sitcom on their flat-screen TV out of the corner of their eye, chatting on their Bluetooth headset with their BFF, and maybe even having a little snack they just whipped up in the microwave. Simultaneously. I see people trying to cram as many interactions into each minute as possible.

So my thought is simple: layer the interactive experience so all those things happen within the computer. Or the TV. Or mash them up into one device. Give the audience the options to select how many layers they want. And integrate the online applications they use most into the advertising, creating utility in a domain usually reserved for talking dogs and men being chased by women due to their body spray. I'm already watching a TV show for entertainment. Make some of my advertising useful.

Sounds easy, and I'm sure Apple is already all over this in their secret R&D labs. But whomever cracks this code and creates the tightest integration will win: for consumers, for advertisers, and for those who create the platforms to deliver this kind of quality experience for their audience.

How to Get Started in the Design Business

Portfolio Bling

Know what you're good at, and what you wish you were good at. Outsource the latter until you learn your vendor's methods. Note the partnership in your portfolio. People won't look down on you for being a team player. In fact, they'll want you on their team because you know who to call when you need to bring in a photographer or a copywriter.

Sell what you're capable of providing and what is within reach. Designers are always encouraged to stretch outside their boundaries, and that's fair if you're strong in a related area -- a brochure design to go with that logo you just put together, or a newspaper ad that goes along with the billboard. Don't cross clear boundaries, like offering to design a Flash advertising campaign just because you've done some print ads, if you don't have the chops to fulfill it. Build your expertise on work that's structured to accommodate long-term learning, like pro bono projects.

Even if you think big picture, you may need to start small. A portfolio accretes over time, slowly evolving. Don't think every project will land within the hallowed pages of your book, or you will pay for it in skinned knees and time lost. Those who choose their battles wisely see the utility of failure and the value of identifying what work deserves that extra 3% of polish.

Know your methods. They're what set you apart. Utilizing software is a skill. Design thinking is a talent. You need to merge the two to win in this business. Oh, and also a really good account manager.

Stay humble, but be an authority. There's nothing worse than a designer with a big ego, lording over their client. It's not your name on that poster -- it's your client's. Do what's right for them and you'll have a job. Become an Artist with a capital A if you want to fulfill your dreams and impose your vision on the world. The pay isn't so hot, though...

Are You A Non-Profit Designer?

Free Blender

I'm not talking about pro bono work. I'm talking about barely breaking even on existing client work. You can make the most beautiful design work in the world and run yourself right out of business. Here's how.

Bill different rates for different clients, based on how much you like them. Sure, give that classy nonprofit a hefty discount. And that referral you got from your sister, cut them a break too. Pretty soon, everyone's getting a deal, and you're bleeding money. Keep a consistent rate structure and you'll be protected in case of emergencies. Don't bill clients like you're running a retail store. You aren't selling a product. You're providing a service.

Give little extras away for free on every client project. It wasn't in the contract, but it'll just take you a few minutes, so why not make that sticker? And if they need changes to it along with a quick little one-sheet, that'll take only take a half-hour, right? There goes $1,000 out the window. Every time a client asks me for something gratis, I have to weigh the value of the work they've requested against the long-term value of the work we're contributing to their business. With rare exception, extra work always requires compensation. Otherwise, your client will expect the Mercedes-Benz luxury treatment when all you've got is a Toyota hatchback to offer.

Be a killer designer, but don't keep up with technology. Assume that every three years, the technology landscape will change dramatically. Browsers evolve. Markup standards change. Printers upgrade their prepress systems. Software vendors change the fundamentals of their interfaces. Not knowing your tools and implementation methods, or not having a strong support staff that can keep you up to date, can cause you major strife while you're also trying to get out the work. It also plants fear in the hearts of your clients and is a big risk factor for retaining business in the long term.

Do spec work to land every project. Rule of thumb: If you can afford to give away a week of work for free in order to land every new project, you probably shouldn't be doing spec work. You should be taking a vacation due to your extraordinary wealth. Or, as is more often the case, you should be scrambling to improve your cash flow by closing new-business opportunities that only require proposals -- and fewer flaming hoops to jump through. Besides, those flaming hoops usually set your clothes on fire and then you need to run around in circles, waving your hands in a panic until help arrives...

Ecotagging: Fostering Transparency for Sustainable Business

Consumers now expect sustainability and ecological sensitivity to be factored into the cost of manufacturing and selling consumer goods. Corporations such as Patagonia, through their Footprint Chronicles, and Timberland, with their nutrition label for social responsibility, have started a major trend that pulls back the veil on the apparel industry, making us aware of the major demands that the textile industry put on our world. It's not enough to just offset your purchases. Through our purchasing decisions, we can alter how the industry operates.

The EcoTag for apparel, shown below in a draft format, was designed as a prototype to make sustainability factors more transparent for purchasing decisions across all brands -- not just these brave few who are striving to lead the industry. The ultimate goal of the EcoTag is to incent corporations to make their sustainability measures accountable to their customers. “Sustainability grading” or other methods of ranking products, derived from ecotagging, would create new ways for customers to evaluate the value of a product, while forcing corporations that have since been uninterested in bringing sustainability practices to their businesses to change their behavior.

The front panel of the tag displays the standard SKUs for a product, as well as the costs of offsets and recycling that have been factored into the product price.

EcoTag Front

The back panel of the EcoTag gives a view into how a piece of apparel was sourced, produced, and shipped, as well as the average carbon cost and whether the clothing is organic, recycled, and/or biodegradeable.

EcoTag Back

Ideally, the tag would be resized, printed, and affixed to goods in a way that had minimal impact on the product’s carbon footprint.

Without an industry-wide standard for this type of information, it will continue to be difficult for consumers to make educated decisions about what they purchase and how their purchases will influence the world. With proper education of the consumer at point of purchase, the latent waste of the textiles industry may be reduced and ideally replaced with more sustainable options.

Download a one-page PDF summary of this piece at this link:

If you're interested in helping with this endeavor, please feel free to contact me at david at

Taking Stock of Using Stock Imagery and Type

For Purchase Only

At first glance on the magazine page, you notice the tightly-drawn outline of the Los Angeles skyline, and below it, a pool of blue-green water roughly splashed and dripping down the page. Within that three-dimensional puddle are any number of shapes that merge and swirl together like a Rorsharch inkblot: men resting in large inflatable rafts rendered in razor-sharp vector outlines, hand-drawn sketches meant to represent scribbled paparazzi with cameras raised to their faces. And did I mention the typography? The slab serif face fading in and out of the water, calling out different facets of the brand's services...

As I looked deep into the design, I began to pick out elements that I recognized from various stock agencies, from the ever-ubiquitous Getty Images and their iStockPhoto microstock service. The typeface resolved itself into a familiar friend, just distorted a little in Adobe Illustrator. In time, I could see little other than a vector illustration that was hand-created by some artistic soul, who then blew into their vision a rash of raster and type assets that were cleverly arranged and manipulated, but not singularly unique.

Such is the hazard of being a designer in today's stock-controlled environment for visual assets. The times can often seem fleeting for those designs that rest upon custom-created imagery and illustration -- those tiny details that elevate your creative work from an intelligent execution with commodity imagery to a singular work of commercial art.

You can create good design with mediocre imagery or so-so typefaces. But you can only create great design with great imagery and killer type use. And great imagery and type costs money, time, or both -- something many clients are loath to sacrifice for a deadline. They see sites like Getty Images or Corbis and assume that we can just go buy what we need, drop it into a layout, and we're "Good to go!"

Here's a few rules for ensuring that projects with custom asset needs escape into the world with some measure of soul.

1) Never use royalty-free imagery or microstock for high-level client work. Period.

These days, the shelf-life of a design is however long it takes for an image to "crash" into another. I vividly recall landing what seemed like the perfect photograph for a high-profile advertisement, and right when the ad ran, seeing the same photograph plastered across the Web site home page of a direct competitor.

The client, angry, called and asked how such a thing could occur. We explained to them that since they'd cut the photo budget out of the contract, we had no choice but to use royalty-free assets -- and even rights-managed assets would have held the risk of an "indirect" collision with another placement in a similar industry. The client wasn't thrilled with the outcome, but future projects did contain the proper amount of money for use of rights-managed imagery that was vetted through the stock agency to ensure there was no overlap of use across any close industry.

In the end, it would have been cheaper to just shoot the photographs!

Unless assets have been manipulated far beyond the original presentation, or used as a very quiet support in a layout, the use of royalty-free or microstock assets is much too risky.

2) Don't let clients negotiate the cost of assets out of your contracts as "padding." You'll burn time and money seeking out the right visuals, or salvaging poor imagery.

Make it clear to your clients that great design requires quality assets. No questions asked. Either they give them to you or you charge them for acquiring or creating them.

Ensure those costs are captured in your fees, no matter whether it's a photo shoot or the rights for high-quality stock imagery, plus markup. If they try to shake you down in this area, chances are that in the end, they may not value your overall design as much as you'd like.

If they are a marquee brand and the work you're creating has shelf life beyond the immediate deliverable, consider a photo shoot or custom illustration as part of the cost of doing business. (Also, it's a definite red flag if you're working with a major brand and they can't provide you with a pool of custom-created assets to support their overall brand needs.)

If you need to negotiate on price, work with your client to negotiate on your fees, but keep your photo costs and markup on those services to ensure profit. In the end, you'll likely save money by not having to burn countless hours searching through the stock pools for "that perfect image."

3) Always assume all visual assets, whether purchased from a stock agency or provided by the client, will require retouching. And budget accordingly.

Just because you bought an image at Getty Images doesn't mean it's going to print beautifully on a CMYK press. Never think that any image whose rights you acquire, from custom-created to stock-licensed, will ever be prepped for reproduction in print or proper use on the Internet. Always budget the time or the outside resources to assure the quality of your assets. I never let an image out into the world without some level of color-correction.

4) Don't go back to your client to get approval for using a new typeface. Factor the licensing costs for yourself and/or your studio into your fees.

Designers love to work outside the box, and projects such as logo development always ask for seeking out new flavors of type as inspiration. Just fold the potential costs of licensing a new font into your agency fees, instead of selling in a killer logo and then dropping the bomb on your client that they'll need to pony up an extra $500 to cover the typeface for your agency. This conversation usually ends with a pissed off client and a designer eating the cost as overhead.


The stock industry has created a beautiful illusion of instant-access imagery and fonts as a commodity for creative professionals, as well as anyone else who can afford the licensing fees. Let's do our best to educate our clients to the real complexities of ensuring quality visuals in our design work -- and get paid accordingly for it.

How to Avoid FrankenConcepts


1. Show radically different ideas, not variations on a theme. If you don't show dramatic difference between comps, clients are much more comfortable playing art director. If you have one great layout and still need to generate multiple concepts, don't just iterate on the original.

2. If it's interactive work, clearly explain your documentation. I don't like to show "concepts" for UX, but when shifting from wireframe into multiple screen design concepts, be prepared for the client to react to details that were clear and "approved" in the documentation. Clients can start mingling elements of multiple screen designs to "solve" the problem, while it's often best to return to the wireframe and update the information architecture of the page first.

3. Show fewer concepts whenever possible. Any more than three, you're at risk.

4. Get them to love your idea before they love your execution. Be prepared to design less, not more. Microdetailing your comps can lead to your filigree being folded wholesale into the final design. This is why I always recommend showing sketches whenever possible, and getting the client to swoon over the direction before the visual.

5. Make sure the content structures don't wildly differ. If you introduce new types of content to a page -- i.e. "This idea has a pull quote, while in the other one we tried long copy..." -- you're introducing different layout features that could be mixed and matched. For interactive work, this isn't as much of a concern, since you'll be working off a wireframe. Though this could be a problem. (See #2.)

6. Articulate your creative strategy for each comp before showing the work. I find this the most important rule of the bunch. By drawing a boundary around what you're trying to accomplish, the details feel integrated with the concepts and don't "peel away" so easily.

Have any ideas to add?

WaMu's WTF Advertising

Big Whoop

Sometimes, when seeing an ad whizz by you on a bus, or hearing a spot on the radio, you can reach straight through the ad to the creative brief -- and in a good way. A creative solution to a well-defined business problem can have a sort of elegance that practically sparkles when you see it, brimming with energy.

This isn't one of those ad campaigns. I unveil to you: Whoo hoo! (See the TV ads on their microsite here.)

WaMu Whoo Hoo

Hello, Washington Mutual -- or should I call you WaMu? Let's spend millions of dollars on TV, in-store, direct, print, out-of-home, radio, and Web site communications on a large-scale advertising and branding campaign associated with a word without any defined meaning to our audience (other than calling to mind Homer on The Simpsons and "Song 2" by Blur). We can then imbue said exclamation with the following meaning: that it is related to the experience that people have when they come in and bank with us -- specifically, as they discover the great set of benefits we provide them for free, and enjoy not being smacked with fees as they do their day-to-day banking.

Great idea in theory. But this creative approach is what I call WTF Advertising. You look at these ad executions in and out of home and go, "What the heck is this supposed to mean?" Then you connect the dots when you happened to collide with a radio spot or TV ad. I didn't for many weeks. And when I did see the ads, I was very disappointed. This is it? This is "Whoo Hoo?" Big whoop.

Here are three lessons I learned from enjoying these ads.

1. Don't do an integrated campaign with a print execution that relies on a sound.

The term "Whoo hoo" totally flops in the out-of-home executions because it has no tangible meaning outside the TV and radio spots.

The key insight and hook of your campaign isn't working if it can't be transmitted across all media in a cohesive manner using words and images that convey a solid, consistent meaning. You should never expect that someone will see more than one execution in a campaign, no matter how much money you're spending on media. Unless you embed sound chips in all your print materials, and when you pass by the billboards, it beams the words "Whoo hoo!" at your car and pipes them through your stereo speakers.

2. The entire hook of the campaign isn't supported across the customer experience after purchase.

All of the ad executions in TV and radio rely on invoking the emotional experience of starting a relationship with WaMu, and imagining how your day-to-day life and dreams become real as a result.

Dreams, meet responsibilities. "Whoo hoo!" isn't supported in the actual experience of being a WaMu customer in a consistent way after you've initiated a relationship. "Whoo hoo" becomes marketing fluff after purchase.

Since the campaign has come out, a few people who are long-term WaMu customers have mentioned to me how they have never felt "Whoo Hoo" about their banking relationship. In fact, they're looking to get out, and were prompted by the ads to make a faster exit. Was this an intended byproduct of the ads? Can't you make more money from making your current customer base happy, instead of going out and trying to land new ones? Talk about alienating your core constituency.

Plus, you know it's bad advertising when people start sending phone messages regarding said ads to your wife, asking her if said blogger feel embarrassed to be in the same profession as the people who created them. Or when people start blogging in such an eloquent manner to bring down the two-handed hammer.

3. Don't cultivate a rebel personality when you're really just pretending.

Do you sign up for banking services on a whim? Because of a feeling?

Being this unbanklike isn't necessarily good for a bank brand. Especially when banks make money off late fees, interest, etc. "Whoo huh?"

I'm a big fan of disruptive, polarizing ads -- if that's what they're intended to do. There are a number of brands, such as Axe in America, or Pot Noodle in Britain, who do a great job of being brash to the point of inspiring real brand hatred, inspiring a closed circle of ever more loyal product users.

In this case, what polarized me was recognizing the audience WaMu was really aiming at. Perhaps they have always been aiming at them, but it's just so baldly explicit in the ads, I can't help but take notice.

The people who float through dreamy interludes where they frolic and dance from the feeling of a bank that truly "gets them" -- those people are not doing so hot when it comes to finances. I can just hear the creatives presenting the concept: "The target audience -- those people 25-45 who are scrambling for money to make rent or their mortgage, that are dancing on the razor's edge with their finances to open their business or save for their children's college tuition -- will respond well to these ads. Because we've 'got their back' and a suite of great rewards for signing up with us, they'll switch to WaMu."

Gawd, that's bold. And exploitative. And insincere.

You're a bank. You hold people's money to make more money. You'd better "have my back." The last thing I want a bank to do is tell me that I'll feel good signing up for a bank account, because that feeling will fade. What I really care about is having money in my bank account and my bank not going under.

I have nothing wrong with the business strategy that is behind WaMu's staple Free Checking package. They've been hammering on it for years, positioning it in a number of different ways. It's the weak marketing strategy here that makes me cringe. WaMu isn't Umpqua Bank. Now they know how to be sincere.

You blew it, WaMu. Now go merge with Citigroup. You can join good company, as pundits have been tearing apart their ads for years.

The Three Fundamentals of Creative Strategy, Pt. 3

Business Strategy

Read Part 1 and Part 2.

Great creative strategy always starts with a clear articulation of a business problem, and a rational strategy for solving it. This is the outer layer of the onion that peels away to expose a marketing strategy -- or a sales strategy, or a need to retool existing products or services due to customer feedback, etc.

To forge the right approach, quantify the business problem, qualify the competition, and distill what you've learned to show understanding of their need. This post talks about qualifying the competition and distilling what you've learned.

Qualify the Competition and How It Shapes the Problem

After the client presents the business problem and you ask necessary questions to understand its context, look at everything you can find that frames the problem from the competitor's point of view.

Clear business strategy is crucial for us designers in presenting proposals or participating in a pitch, where clients may intentionally refrain from disclosing key information to see how much you can glean and intuit from the scraps scattered across the media and the Internet.

You need to sniff out the business reasons for specific marketing initiatives through client interviews and research in order to ensure that you're making the most appropriate strategic decisions to solve their business problem.

You also need to show that you understand the world that your client lives in, understanding the trends that shape their industry.

This is different from traditional market research, which would live in your marketing strategy.

This is knowing which competitors are privately held, and sometimes more nimble, versus publicly traded. Which products in their industry are selling the best, and why. What the analysts from Forrester and other trending firms are saying about your industry category. What the Wall Street Journal noted in their most recent column on your corporate outlook. What is going on locally and globally on a cultural level that could have an impact on your business.

All these elements shape the world view that your client holds. Being able to present this kind of information, peppered through your ongoing communication, lets your client know that you appreciate where they're coming from -- and helps to support your creative strategy from a business perspective.

Distill What You've Learned to Show Understanding

The best trust-building exercise with a new client is reflecting back to them what they said, in an intelligent manner, with a few key learnings that they may not be aware of.

Whenever you write a proposal for a new project, you should begin the document with a narrative articulation of the client's business case and current strategy. This shows to the client that you understand their business needs at a high level, and any marketing recommendations that may follow are derived directly from their needs.

Always try to simply answer Who? What? When? Where? and Why? The How? is always proposed through what follows the business strategy: our marketing strategy.

As you craft this paragraph or two, be aware of your audience. As such, I make it as simple and quick to understand as possible. I always pretend, as I'm writing, that the CEO of the company could get their hands on this document. Besides, don't you want the CEO signing off on the dotted line and handing you that nice big project?

Continue on to Part 4 >>