Marketers and agencies say it time and again: strategic thinking is a critical and necessary part of what we do. It’s where we show our worth and expertise as creative professionals and it’s where clients often need the most help.
So why is the time and budget allotted for strategic thinking so often one of the first things to hit the cutting room floor, in a rush to “get results”?
I was thinking about this during my drive home one night, and it dawned on me that the struggle for strategy doesn’t stay in the office: it shows up at the homework table, too. Like one night when my 7-year-old son, Oliver, was working through a school assignment. I’m one lucky mom: I don’t often have to tell him to “Do your homework!” He dives in all on his own. But this time I found myself saying: “Do your homework—slower!”
The assignment was to write a story, and Oliver’s teacher gave the class a week to do it. In fact, the teacher hadn’t even yet sent home the requirements and details. For some reason, he decided that being the first one to turn in the assignment would be the ultimate accomplishment. “Done!” he said after about half an hour at the kitchen table. He showed me the first draft: a story about a ninja. We could’ve left it that, and on some other nights, I might have, grateful that homework was done for the next few nights. But I knew he could push it further. We talked about how there’s no prize for being done first, but there often is for having the best story.
Why don’t we pause and take the time to figure out the best story? It dawned on me that I often face similar situations at the office.
Ready, Shoot, Aim?
Sometimes, homework feels like it has a lot in common with agency life. Assignments have deadlines and someone important to please (in Oliver’s case, his teacher; in ours, the client). Of course, as an agency, the stakes are higher and extensions may not be an option. Regardless of the deadline, the client expects and deserves the same level of care and thoughtfulness whether there is a one-day turnaround or a longer timeline. But in this fast-moving world we’re living in, filled with noise and an abundance of data, this can be challenging under tight deadlines, mounting pressure to get something out, and even politics.
The time needed for strategic thinking can get the axe because of the need to have something done quickly. We’re eager to please and want to overdeliver, and the client is eager to have their social campaign, or video, or creative concepts in time for an important launch or meeting—so let’s jump right in and start making things!
So how do we plan to succeed under these ever-evolving circumstances? It’s not like we have the time we need—or do we?
Get Back to Basics
The key to making sure strategic thinking gets its due time in the spotlight, is by changing what clients think when they hear the terms most often associated with this activity. Phrases like “strategy formulation” or “discovery phase” come to mind. For many people, those terms might as well be a synonym for “taking longer and costing more.”
However, this interpretation gets it wrong on several counts. For one thing, each project needs varying amounts of strategizing. The strategic needs for a social campaign are much different than that of a conference design, and both differ from an all-out multichannel media campaign. More importantly, in the end, strategic thinking actually saves time and money. With an appropriate level of research and insights in place, you have a solid roadmap for future, related efforts that won’t require starting over every time. Instead, you can iterate and revise as you go and become more focused, thoughtful, and efficient with each deliverable that is an articulation of the defined strategy.
Formulating the strategy for a creative endeavor means doing your homework and thinking critically about what you find. It’s understanding what approaches are resonating with your audience, and how you can differentiate yourself from what the competition is putting out there. The most basic, and most critical form of strategy is the Creative Brief.
If Time is Brief, At Least Create a Brief
“Done” does not often equal “done right.” So, where do you start when you want to create something that has the power to change consumer behavior in the desired direction if you have little to no time for strategic thinking? The Creative Brief.
The Creative Brief helps us make sure we’re aligned and moving forward in the same direction. It’s the bare minimum strategic artifact that a creative agency should produce—ideally it should be the culmination of a robust discovery process that uncovers lots of useful research and insights. A Creative Brief allows us to better define and clarify subjective feedback, as being just that, or something more. Sometimes, a client can create a Brief and hand it back to help us get off and running. But, ideally, a Creative Brief is co-created and, in doing so, our work is elevated.
Here are a few points to remember when building a Creative Brief:
- Start the conversation. The Brief is a starting point to a conversation, and never simply dictates a solution. It should inspire a thought, an idea, and potential insight for the creative team. More importantly, it should revolve around the single most important thought that allows the creative to start the “How might we…” juices flowing.
- Know your audience. When writing a Creative Brief, practice empathy and put yourself in the shoes of the audience receiving it—the creative people tasked with creating your big ideas. It’s not the same audience you wrote for in the source content.
- Make it brief. You’ve likely heard this saying from philosopher Blaise Pascal: “I have made this letter longer, because I have not had the time to make it shorter.” What matters most? Everything can’t have the same priority, so challenge yourself to prioritize. Something will inevitably have to come first.
So how can you make sure your Creative Brief is asking the right questions to set your project up for success? We’ve broken down our Creative Brief to show what questions we ask and—more importantly—why.
Telling a Richer Story: Done Well
With surprisingly little pushback, Oliver agreed to take more time with his story. He decided to sleep on his story and come back to it with fresh eyes the next evening. What started about a ninja, and how he became one, ended up as a story about a ninja, and why he wanted to be one. Oliver wrote a story with more depth and empathy, and he noticed the difference. He’d also created a solid foundation for further adventures.
Oliver didn’t know it, but as we celebrated with dessert that night, his story was the result of him taking the time to engage in strategic thinking. That small amount of extra effort and a little more time resulted in no tears and no tantrums—just a much stronger and compelling end product that was turned in. Early.
Download our guide to Unpacking the Creative Brief. If you find it helpful—or if you have questions—we’d love to hear from you!