Driving Backwards

It’s a truism that great advertising always starts with a great brief, but in practice I often wonder how true this really is. Great advertising actually almost always starts when the creative team understand the product and critically its audience, preferably by talking to them directly (or by being one of them). How often does this happen at the beginning of a job, as part of the brief? And how often do creatives get given a brief written from a business brief and some data instead? This is at least two removes from the conversation that should happen, and it kicks off a process that works more or less backwards.

If you ask a creative what their main problem is when it comes to producing great work, most of them will say bad briefing. It’s always the problem, right? However, if you’re a creative, the solution is not to get the planning and account teams to come up with better work. This just perpetuates the problem. In fact, however good the planning team is, you won’t get a great creative brief if you just wait for them to write one. You have to go out and get it. I was reading, recently, about the creation of Volvo’s Splits ad, because it looks like a great example of how to use a product benefit in an ad. And it is. But if you read Forsman’s account of how this ad and the accompanying campaign was written you will find that the creative team spent a lot of time talking directly to their audience, which in this instance was truck drivers. The Splits ad is about the stability of the Volvo truck’s steering,  and it’s a nice demonstration of precision driving. So far so simple. What makes it work, though, is not just the way the ad is put together and filmed (and the large budget) but the fact that the message about driving really resonated with Volvo truck drivers. Because it was about driving backwards. This is the key thing in the film. It seems odd to make an ad about driving backwards if you’re not a truck driver, but apparently it is the hardest thing to do, and the time when Volvo’s system is most useful. That could only have come from someone who actually knew about driving a truck.

Driving backwards is, perhaps coincidentally, exactly what I am talking about. The standard process for producing an ad, from a creative point of view, goes something like this. The planners read the clients brief and look at data about the client’s business. If it hasn’t already been decided they talk to the media companies and work out where the message will have to go. Then they write a brief and sell it to the marketing team. Then they give it to the creatives. The creatives talk to the planners to work out what they can get away with and how much latitude there is in the media plan, then they try to come up with a decent idea the planners think the account team will think the marketing team might like.  Everyone checks this against the data, maybe by doing some research, and then they put it out there to see if it sells the product. 

Occasionally a decent idea will be squeezed out of this process, but it doesn’t happen very often. It’s a bit dysfunctional isn’t it? But my account is not entirely a parody. It’s uncomfortably close to what actually does happen in a lot of creative agencies a lot of the time, and it’s more or less the opposite of what should happen. This is because first thing creatives should do on any job is understand the product they are selling, mainly through talking directly with the client’s audience and the client. That is where the conversation needs to happen, between audience and client. That’s how you find out the importance of driving backwards. Then you can have an idea you feel the audience will like. It’s good practise to test this out on the audience to make sure you’ve got it right, but if you do, do it fact to face, not via some horrible online poll. Then you can post rationalise the idea by writing a brief to show the client marketing team. This will be a pretty easy brief to write because as creatives you will have all the knowledge required. You can sell it to the marketing team by explaining the brief and then the idea, and then you put the idea where your audience are most likely to see it. And this is really the most important point of all. You shouldn’t decide on the media until right at the end, when everyone has got the idea.

Why does this almost never happen? Well, to be honest, it happens more than you’d think. I was reading about the creation of the old Guinness White Horses ad recently. The creative team were told on no account to make an ad about waiting. On this occasion, both the agency and the client valued understanding of the audience above process. It may have helped that the creatives were part of the audience. 

This may seem like a one off, but it shouldn’t be. If you’re a creative, it is always essential to  remember where the important conversation happens and do your best to understand it. I always say that the creative’s job is to think like customers. Just remember that this is difficult, and very little understood, and that as creatives you may be the only team in the whole process who think that it matters. And that, if you want to do better work, it’s up to you to do it.


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