Asking the cows about farming.

I was recently sat in an awards jury, as you do, when a ‘medical person’ insisted that in one category all you really had to do, to launch a new drug, was to announce its arrival.

Drug X does Y.

No selling or creativity was required.

It was a curious, if not uncommon occurrence, to hear that opinion and she was adamant. After all, she had been in the business for many years and she knew what she was talking about.

The medical business, mind you.

No amount of creative advocacy would budge her.

The thing is, yes, she clearly did know her area of medical expertise and to an extent the usual protocols for launching a drug in that category. But (with as much due respect as I can muster) what worth was her opinion from a marketing standpoint?

Do you know anyone who will admit to being persuaded by advertising? yet somehow it works.

So is it fair to assume that because you are an expert in your own field, you also are wise to the clever tricks we adfolk can pull? Or that you know how to market to yourself and your cohorts in the most effective way, better than mere advertising people?

We all use toothpaste regularly. (If my son is reading this, that will seem a bit of a stretch I grant you, but nevertheless…) does that make us experts in oral hygiene marketing?

The amount of times I have heard consumer clients talk about their products, (mostly car clients)  in terms of ‘just put it on the poster and it will sell itself’. I wish it were that simple.

Sometimes, within the B2B world, we don’t have the perspective required from our positions inside the tent to really see the bigger picture.

Look at it from the reverse angle.

The medical world, I am sure, rolls its collective eyes when patients rock up at surgeries with their own ailments pre-diagnosed. (If my daughter is reading this, how is the Denghi fever this week?)

Experience tells them that a runny nose might not be Malaria.

As they say, a little knowledge is a dangerous thing.

In a recent piece of research we had been carrying out for a new campaign the creative work was well received, as far as it went, but the doctors were not so keen on the strategy. Instead of them taking it at face value, we were told that other doctors would not believe it.

So what is the role of creative research when you get this reaction?

Do we listen to our experts in the field or do we rely on our knowledge that, actually, people sometimes react differently when they’re not being consulted for their opinion?

Do we trust in creativity?

Like a salesman pitching door to door do you just accept that if the customer initially says they aren’t looking for a new set of dusters you can’t sell them a new set of dusters?

We used to have a saying that research was like ‘asking the cows about farming’. The cows are right at the heart of the process, they live and breathe farming, they experience it everyday.

Just don’t ask them how to run the farm.

A good research company can sort the creative approval and understanding from the amateur strategic advice, but very often we take everything that spouts from a research participant’s gob as if it’s unquestionable pearls of wisdom.

And sometimes it just isn’t.

Sometimes they will tell us they like something because it sits within their comfort zone, not realizing that what is required is actually something outside of that dreaded zone.

Recently another doctor told us that even though he liked an idea we didn’t need the one visual thing that made it different. He didn’t know what it’s role was, so as far as he was concerned it was unnecessary.

Therefore our client felt that research told us we didn’t need it. But just because he didn’t know it’s role didn’t make it unnecessary. Without it, the ad was wallpaper.

The respondent was playing creative director and if anyone is going to be hideously wrong about stuff I insist it should be me.

Because if you need further proof that people, when consulted, often say one thing but do another and therefore can’t always be trusted, take a look at the recent election in the UK.

All the polls said the Tories and Labour were neck and neck and yet somehow we have a Tory Majority government.








Why we need more primadonnas.

will ferrel

The term ‘primadonna’ is usually intended to be the ultimate crushing insult for a creative.

Worse than being a talentless creative is being a petulant, precious one.

It implies a fluffyness, a puffy sleeved temperament and an irrational obsession for all the icing on the cake not the sponge and it’s intended to cut right through to your strawberry jam heart, ouch…you called me a what? how very dare you.

Well, excuse me but….I wish I was more of a primadonna.

You see, one man’s primadonna is another’s creative expert.

The more creative agencies know that actually, if they are going to produce great work, you need people obsessed with great ideas not comfortable ones, with exceptional production values not acceptable ones, painful though it can be.

So I think this so called ‘insult’ reveals a deeper issue when used and it’s about one word: Respect.

You wouldn’t call a doctor a primadonna if he or she insisted that you had Diabetes and wouldn’t hear otherwise.

When I worked on a big car account in a previous life I had a senior brand manager who was the consistently designated shoot attendee and consequently after several trips, mainly to LA, ( those were the days) we began to attain a sort of, if not exactly a friendship, a system of interaction that wasn’t entirely aggressive.

let’s call him Bernard.

He was about 40 then, he looked like an insurance salesman and had a sort of fastidious doormouse-like personality.

He was a dullard but he was our dullard and despite the sometimes odd client/creative dynamic I liked him.

At most car manufacturers, much like pharma companies, the role of marketing is something you pass through on your way to more important jobs. A successful stint in sales? fancy trying your hand at saying no to agencies for 18 months.

Invariably you’d just get a client to understand what it was he or she was looking at and then they’d really get in to it (or not) and they’d be off.

Bernard started to get in to it.

All he had to do was approve the car shots and as long as we covered the basic animatic we’d researched he was happy. And I can’t deny it, a two week shoot in LA saw a lot of swanky meals in swanky restaurants, sometimes spotting the odd celebrity and a good deal of sunshine. Then after a while, on location, we saw him having a look through the viewfinder, he started to not like wardrobe choices and he might feel strongly about a location or a cast member he felt was more ‘on brand.’

And like most agencies we went along with him in the most part, indulging him where possible. Arguing the toss occasionally.

You might feel these are all quite legitimate elements of his role.

But what exactly gave this man, dressed head to toe in M&S, the idea he was any good at wardrobe?

Well, I suppose to an extent, we did.

Then one day, back in the UK, my ECD came to me with a dilemma.

Bernard had had an epiphany. He wanted to join the agency.

No, not as an account man.

Or planner.

Oh Christ, not a…

Oh yeah.

And what’s more, guess who he thought would make a perfect art director for him?

Bernard had never really written anything before. Not for fun, never really had any real urge to create anything, not a poem, not a song, not an outline for a movie, not drawn anything, not built anything just for the pleasure of it, never had an idea in his head about a new invention. He didn’t really watch movies, play an instrument, watch much telly or really pursue anything creative just for the fun of it.


Maybe you have met creatives like this, but not I. At least not good ones.

Most of us, by the time we enter an actual agency have spent a lifetime honing their ‘creative’ work. Just for our own pleasure. We’ve even gone to college and studied it, we know about creativity and ideas in a way that a safari guide knows where to find a cheetah that most of us would miss because we’re too busy looking at the interesting tree.

To his credit, Bernard had apparently had the exact same idea for a brief as the one we had presented to him recently. So, you know…he was clearly a natural.

But back at the agency this put us in a somewhat awkward position.

Say “sorry no” and we risk him resenting us and doing everything he could to make our lives hell.

Saying “yes, welcome aboard” would mean we could hire him and then fire him in a couple of months as he would no doubt be useless and we get a new client in to the bargain. (We actually considered this but felt the agency would not be thanked by his previous colleagues and would make us look like immoral bastards – with some merit.)

The third option was to dissuade him of the whole preposterous notion.

As we sat at lunch, somewhere in Soho, I heard the full epiphany.

He had been on holiday in Greece and got caught in a huge wave that had sucked him under and he thought he was going to drown. As he somersaulted in the surf he swore to himself that if he ever got out of this alive he would change his life. Stop doing this stupid job of his and do what he really wanted to.

Become an ad agency creative director.

The more generous among you may have thought I missed out the 4th option. Give him a chance, go on..take a risk, you never know. Don’t be so cynical.

But Bernard was 40 (no crime). He wasn’t prepared to drop his salary ( I don’t know what it was but I’m guessing around 80k) and he wanted to waltz in to a senior job without ever having written an ad or earned his stripes within an agency, leap frogging other writers and art directors in the process.

What gave him the right, no….the flaming fucking arse-wobbling nerve to think he could even ask?

How dare he?

Would he expect to be taken seriously if it was a firm of solicitors he was having lunch with? An architect firm? A vet practise?

“Yes, well I have really enjoyed looking after my cat and I’ve visited a few farms in my time so I thought that it might be a natural progression to start treating Mastitis in dairy cattle.”

What was it that made him think that it was just a matter of physically being able to write and spell, that qualified him as a copywriter?

The cheek of it, you might think. But then, we do exactly what clients want more and more, every day we have to take on board their taste and artistic talent and accommodate their ideas and all in the name of collaboration and idea neutrality lest we be accused of primadonna…rism.

Well, it looks easy. Didn’t we just walk in off the street with some poems and a fancy haircut?

Look, don’t get me wrong, I’ve worked with some ‘creative clients’ in my time. But what makes them so isn’t because they think they can do our jobs it’s precisely the opposite. They embrace creativity in the way I embrace football, it doesn’t mean I’ll be getting a game at Stamford Bridge any time soon. And I also think – to be absolutely clear – agency/client teamwork, both exercising their own skills to create the best work, is essential, rewarding and ultimately truly effective.

But all that is beside the point if your client thinks you don’t like their idea because you are being ‘precious’.

If you want to be a creative in adland you need some evidence of talent. You need to create a spec portfolio and you need to get work experience, or go to college or evening classes and learn the craft. How to think. Very often it involves a couple of years trolling from one agency to the next on month long placements, no actual job, showing your work to senior creatives, trying to get an interview with a CD, hustling and working hard. Always writing new campaigns, thinking of ideas, filming test ads getting them critiqued, learning and doing more campaigns. It’s bloody hard and only a few actually make the grade. Others make the grade but quit when they realize they have no life.

And the few who get a job have to put in the years tackling all the unglamorous stuff the seniors won’t touch any more.

But as I told Bernard all this, encouraging him to maybe do an evening class or two, try putting a book together,  he blinked back at me through his NHS glasses and clearly didn’t see why it would apply to him.

This was about fifteen years ago, but the culture of ‘everyone’s a creative now’ is now generally accepted as a way of getting clients to buy in to the idea, so they can feel ownership and that is all well and good, but I hate to put some cautionary brakes on this joy ride.

We need to be careful it doesn’t devalue what we do. Or we will no longer be the pros who will go away and create magic out of thin air from good strategic thinking, but a co-worker in a committee-based ideation conglomerate.

It seems such an easy leap to make if you’ve been on enough shoots, sat in enough workshops and seen enough agency ideas that you’ve shaped according to your own creative skills, honed over many years working in a…er…pharmaceutical company.

And Bernard? As I recall, we spoke to his boss and explained our predicament. They took pity on him, as they were decent people, and found him another job within the company better suited to his dreams.

I know what my favourite quote from any client is and will always be.

“I’m not sure, but you’re the experts and I trust you”

Unless we maintain our reputation and be the doctor to their patient then we will always struggle to sell good work. So argue the toss, put your point of view across. You know your job, be a bit….precious.

Because, guess what, the client’s had an idea.


Oh stop being such a primadonna.







The 3 worst ways to judge creative

From outside the Pharma tent, you could be forgiven for thinking it all just looks like stock-shots and poor typography created by people not talented enough to make it in the big wide consumer world.

OK, controversial start.

But you and I both know that contrary to perception there is talent in them there hills.

And even clients, if asked, will say they want good creative. And some of them even actually do.

So maybe the problem is evaluating creative correctly. If you have people who don’t really understand the mechanics of communication working for the agency, then the battle is already lost.

So with that vast assumption, I give you my top three daft creative judging criteria that can kill good ideas and make me want to kill needlessly and indiscriminately with a blunt dagger.



“I know it’s an orange, but if people haven’t seen it’s an orange they might think it’s an apple”

I once worked with a female creative who had a rather annoying habit of accusing you of some slight at every turn, no matter how innocent the intent.

“Do you want another drink?”

“What are you trying to say? that I can’t buy my own drinks?”

Now somebody, somewhere, will always misinterpret something. But I tend to think that so long as 9 out of 10 interpret it as intended then a little collateral damage is sustainable.

Have you sat in a creative review like this?

”…are bagels a bit negative?”

“How do you mean?”

“Because of New York”

“Is New York negative?”

“Well, I mean…as in 9/11”

“yeh, I think Mark is right..we don’t want people thinking about 9/11 in an ad for diabetes, it won’t reflect well on the brand”

“Plus a 9/11 is a car and we’re a drug”

“Good point Fran”

There is not a single ad that has ever run that you couldn’t find an obscure reason why it shouldn’t have. But if you are stretching to make negative associations you can bet your target market won’t bother making them.

The only question you should ask in this situation is:

If you were actually trying to make a statement about 9/11 would you start with a bagel?



But what if nobody reads the headline?

management-trainee_48 copy

By and large, a good concept should be the perfect blend of headline and visual. (I’m sticking with print as it’s easier) If you can cover either one up and the ad still works then one of them is redundant.

The late David Abbott’s famous Economist ad ‘ I never read the Economist’ – Management trainee aged 42 – would not have been any better for seeing a tubby, balding man of 42.

And I’m pretty sure the famous Silk Cut campaign would not have been improved by a line saying ‘ the silkiest cut of them all’ or something. The visual did everything it needed to on its own.

Sometimes they face the world alone and sometimes they rely on each other to make sense. Just like the rest of us.

Meanwhile some people still think they have a serious point to make.

“But what if nobody reads the line…then it’s just a picture of a pig on a pogo stick”

“I think Gareth has a point…if I didn’t read the line I wouldn’t understand it”

That’s sort of like saying a French film was shit because you don”t speak French.

Very often, to my horror, I have found that even creative research (in pharma) seems to think the measure of a good idea is to judge it independently of a headline. And sometimes the reverse. Now, as I have said, not every idea needs both, but that shouldn’t be the only judgement. (The other thing that drives me nuts is the propensity for taking one successful line and shoving it on a totally different visual idea and assuming that is the perfect solution)

When faced with a creative problem that nobody can solve, very often there is no problem in the first place.



Can we change the line from ‘smoking causes cancer’ to ‘live life to your best potential’?

I know that everyone wants to portray a positive image especially when it’s connected to a brand. But a positive image isn’t only ever attained by being positive.

No, really.

It’s not enough to employ a blanket ban when judging concepts. Like everything, there are exceptions. Sometimes showing you understand the real problem that patients face, or the new science that changes the understanding of a disease, involves communicating that carrying on prescribing the ‘old’ way is lagging behind.

I remember sitting next to a colleague at the PM awards while we watched as a certain Windsor based agency went up for the gazillionth time to collect an award for a campaign that intelligently portrayed ‘the problem’.

“I don’t get it…they’re just showing the problem…everyone has the same problem” and to a point he had a point, but if you can own that problem then you can own the solution too.

Revisiting that Economist ad, can you imagine what it would have looked like in the wrong hands?

“Yes, Dave…er…love love love the idea but it’s got a bit of a negative vibe, couldn’t we give it a bit of a switcheroo round to a positive? Like…and I’m not a creative but “I always read the Economist – Managing Director aged 16.”

Personally, I can never look at that Economist ad and not feel a twinge of guilt that I should be reading the magazine.

And isn’t that what the best ideas make us do? change our behaviour? Think? act? Negative or not.

So next time you’re wondering how to evaluate an idea remember it may be worth bearing in mind how not to judge it.

Or is that too negative?