Spice Up Your Campaigns—And Partnerships—With ‘Practical Creativity’

The words “spicy” and “creativity” share one thing in common: Their definitions vary from person to person.

To some, “spicy” means volcanic, sinus-clearing, face-flushing food that makes your whole body feel like it’s on fire. Others believe spicy food just provides a slight tingle on the tongue. Needless to say, these differing definitions often lead to dissatisfied customers, with the same “spicy” food seeming either too hot or too bland.

When it comes to defining creativity, agencies tend to think top-notch creativity wins marketing awards, resulting in fawning accolades and impressed colleagues; clients, however, view top-notch creativity as advertising that pads their bottom line with more purchases from the audience their ads were targeting in the first place. In fact, a 2014 study found that nearly two-thirds of clients and agencies don’t see eye to eye when it comes to defining the word.

This typical agency mindset prioritizes style over substance—and egos over results. Worst of all, it flushes clients’ money down the toilet. We see this happen every year during the Super Bowl when brands pour millions of dollars into glossy ads that provide a momentary awareness boost but fail to move the needle over the long run.

Let’s Get Practical
Years ago, a publication used the term “practical creativity” to describe my agency. At first, I was appalled. I thought it made us sound bland, like a piece of dry toast.

But after thinking about it, I have grown to love the term. It means we provide a level of spice that everyone can enjoy.

Clients love practical creativity because it produces work that’s on budget, on time, and on target. Agencies, in turn, value this approach because it results in happy clients who keep coming back to the table for seconds (and thirds and fourths). 

Striking the right balance between creativity and practicality isn’t easy to do, but it’s the best way to create strong partnerships. I know this firsthand.

These three best practices will help you head down the practical path.

Put Yourself In The Client’s Shoes
Before you begin pouring hot sauce all over your clients’ campaigns, take time to deeply understand their goals. Put yourself in their shoes and ask, “What kind of campaign would I like to see?” 

Would you want one that makes you look like a flashy advertiser, or would you want one that makes you look like a smart brand that understands its consumers? You’ll often find a huge difference between the two. 

Many of the savviest, most practical campaigns don’t try to singe the entire world’s taste buds and go viral. They focus on targeting niche groups of people with content that appeals to specific interests.

For example, when Tractor Supply Co. hired my agency for an experiential campaign, we decided it would be best to execute the program at midsize rural state fairs—not on the most crowded metropolitan street corners we could find. We resisted the bigger-is-better temptation and set up events in smaller, more relevant environments near their 1,600 retail locations.

Check Your Ego At The Door
Some chefs take great pride in watching customers struggle to eat a bowl of spicy chili. It fuels their egos to know they can provide a thrill to the small handful of diners who actually enjoy extremely hot food. But at the end of the day, they’re alienating the 95% of clients who would rather eat chili that doesn’t make them sweat. 

In a similar way, marketers love to create campaigns that evoke strong emotions. But when they let their egos get in the way, the creative they craft to evoke these emotions doesn’t necessarily help clients achieve their goals. It’s just heat for heat’s sake.

More often than not, practical creativity isn’t going to yield the crazy, sexy, cool campaigns you’ve dreamed about creating all your life. Instead, they’re going to require you to take a humble, collaborative, results-driven approach. Fifty-six percent of clients believe agencies care more about selling ideas than solving problems. You will stand out from the pack if you listen closely to clients and acknowledge that crazy, sexy, and cool might not be the best direction for their brand goals. 

Check your ego on a daily basis. Allow clients to take credit for a brilliant idea you came up with, let them blame you for something that isn’t your fault, and don’t be afraid to admit when they’re right and you’re wrong. Let their goals drive the collaboration, not yours.

Value Your Reputation Over Your Revenue
One of the worst things a restaurant can do is tell customers a dish is “mild” when it really isn’t. Luring clients into purchasing a product they won’t be able to stomach betrays their trust and eliminates any chance you have of retaining them. 

Trust is a very elusive currency these days, but we can all agree that it results in stronger partnerships between agencies and clients. So you need to do everything you can to show clients you are always looking out for their best interests. 

Lines of communication should always remain open, and agencies should constantly strive to be upfront and transparent throughout each and every campaign. Drive home the fact that you want to make clients rock stars, not see how much money you can squeeze out of them. This is especially important when they ask for the moon, but their intended timelines or budgets won’t allow for it. 

It’s never easy to turn down a larger paycheck, but oftentimes, it’s the smart thing to do. Clients will appreciate the fact that you’re going above and beyond to help them stay on time and on budget—and undoubtedly, they’ll mention this when sending other brands your way.

Successful marketers understand that practical creativity wins the long game. Clients don’t care if we win awards or get recognized for being artistic geniuses; they just want results. If the work delivers ROI and happens to be really cool, everyone wins. But if agencies only nail the “cool” factor, they aren’t building long-term loyalty with their clients.

Agencies that take a results-driven approach—caring more about ROI than marketing awards—are those that clients will give their business to again and again.

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