Monday, March 7, 2011

This has nothing to do with advertising...

But it's a great quote so thought I'd share it.

War does not  determine who is right,
it determines who is left.

Friday, February 4, 2011

The D.A.F.T. principle.
(Or, how to take over an agency
without destroying it.)

The most vulnerable time for a company is when a new leader jumps on board – especially in the advertising world where so much can go wrong, so quickly.

We’ve all seen it. A new Creative Director starts and within one week he’s pissed off all the long-serving creative heads, the account service teams and, in the worst-case scenario, the clients.

Politics become rife. Emotions run high. And key people start leaving (and, if you’re really unlucky, they take their clients with them). Before you know it, the agency is half the size it was and is losing money hand over fist.

Then the sickening blow arrives. The Creative Director who caused the torrent decides to leave because he feels the agency isn’t moving forward in the direction he wants it to (that’s when you take out the shotgun and shoot a hole in his midriff).

This kind of occurrence in our world is a relatively common occurrence. So let’s step back and see how something like this could happen.

The agency may have needed fresh leadership to contemporize or re-energize the agency. Maybe the deadwood needed to be weeded out. New people brought in. Perhaps the agency needed a more aggressive approach to account management. Getting a forward thinking, and perhaps radical, creative leader may have been the right thing to do. But as we’ve discussed in an earlier chapter, many creative people aren’t managers – and would only know one approach to creating change – the bull in the china shop approach.

In other words, the highly ambitious creative director charges in and sets his agenda without any regard to the existing state of affairs, other people’s needs or historical context. He’s prepared to cut anyone down who gets in his way. And in a business that is ‘all’ about people, his actions can have a disastrous impact on the business.

Here’s the advice I’ve given ECD’s when they’ve taken on a new job. It’s based on the acronym DAFT.

This stands for:


Defer any judgments for at least the first month you’re in the job (and ideally, for the first two). That means don’t make any rash or quick judgments on the people, the work, the clients or even the ethos of the agency. Just watch and observe.


While you’re watching and observing, assimilate what’s going on (and write down the pros and the cons, if it helps). In other words, build up your knowledge of the people (suits as well as creative). Work out who has the key relationships with clients and who doesn’t. Who works hard and who slacks off. Who the smart people are and the ones that dumb down the agency. Who has talent, who has potential and who is a lost cause. Assimilate intelligence on the agency system of working. The strengths, the weaknesses and the areas for improvement.


Once you have a clear grasp of the agency and its issues, you can then formulate a plan to improve it. This may include working closely with your CEO and other stake holders in the organization. The approach we discussed in Chapter 4 (setting a vision that will inspire people) may be helpful here.


Once you know the plan, you can implement it. More importantly, you’ll know the ‘true’ weaknesses of the agency to focus on (versus the ‘perceived’ weaknesses), the ‘difficult’ issues you need to address longer term. And the people you want to keep and the ones you want to let go (knowing the impact on clients, morale and the culture of the agency).

The DAFT principle is a great way to for any new ECD to fuse with his or her agency without wreaking havoc on the place. The ECD can still be the agent for change, but in a way that brings people on board willingly rather than in a way that coerces people forcibly.

Sunday, August 8, 2010

Are you a good communicator or do you have the skills of a drunken scotsman, with a broken jaw, trying to speak French?

Advertising is a collaborative business. An agency only succeeds when there is partnership between the different departments and team members.

Every agency has its fair share of egomaniacs and people with an arrogant demeanor.

However, when egos clash politics become rife, e-mail wars start to erupt and ill-will starts to spread throughout the organization.

It’s important for a leader to nip politics in the bud.

When an e-mail war breaks out, approach the people involved and drag them into a room. Make them talk to each other to resolve the issue.

I witnessed a colleague of mine recently get into an e-mail war which spiraled out of control. He was unhappy at a proposal that was written from one of our divisions. It was the third revision and the proposal still wasn’t up to scratch. My colleague gave his feedback detailing the areas that needed to be improved and the gaps that needed to be filled.

It was a very concise, objective response. Unfortunately, towards the end of the letter he started to make personal comments, probably out of frustration, about the abilities of the author of the proposal.

This angered the author and he raised the issue to management. The episode caused a bit of a storm. The way the letter was written deflected attention away from what was written. Which was unfortunate. The subject matter was important in terms of getting the project on the right track and, because of the spat, it was now taking a backseat.


The 4 gates of speech. 

On a visit to India, I was talking to Shanta Kumar, our CEO for the country, about how people communicate with each other. He told me about the 4 gates of speech, a principle his guru had taught him.

It goes like this: There are four gates you must pass through to communicate your message to another person. But to pass through the gates you first need to unlock them. And the only way to unlock them is by delivering your message in the right way. In other words, in a manner that is going to have a positive effect on the situation rather than a negative one.

To unlock the first gate, the message has to be honest.

To unlock the second gate, the message must be said in a kind way.

To unlock the third gate, the message needs to be beneficial to both parties.

To unlock the fourth gate, the message needs to be delivered at the right time. 

Although it’s philosophical in nature, I thought the advice was spot on. If you study people who do well in agencies, they tend to follow these principles instinctively. These are the people who know how to build relationships. And in the ad business that is at least 80% of the game. 


The 4 gates of speech work especially well as a format for giving feedback to creative people.

When a creative team shows you their work, it pays to be honest with your views (gate 1). It’s the only way to improve the work.

At the same time, the feedback should not be rude, derogatory or insulting. It should be encouraging (gate 2). The job of a Creative Director is not to be a bully. It’s to be a mentor and a teacher.

The right feedback motivates and encourages people to raise the bar, which means they learn and grow. As a result, the agency gets great work out into the market place, which can only improve your reputation as a creative leader. So both parties benefit (gate 3).

Finally, giving your feedback at the appropriate moment is vital. For instance, you don’t criticize work five minutes before a pitch presentation. There’s no point. It’s too late to do anything about the work. All you’ll do is demoralize the team who will then be jaded and apprehensive in the presentation. Which is the not the state of mind that wins pitches.

The right time to give your feedback in this instance would be the day after the pitch, once all the adrenalin and excitement has died down. The feedback then becomes constructive rather than destructive (gate 4).


It’s not always possible to be positive with people. Sometimes you come across an art director or copywriter who is too arrogant or obstinate for their own good. The creative types that think they are incredibly talented and have nothing left to learn.

As far as I’m concerned, these people have two choices in an agency. They eat humble pie and start taking advice, or they get booted out.

Monday, July 5, 2010

Can you spot a great idea and one that stinks?

I haven't posted one of these for a while (been too busy pitching). Anyway, we're now on the subject of creative. And I get to use one of my favourite cartoons...

Judging work is the essential part of the Creative Director’s job. The quality of an agency’s output relies on the Creative Director’s ability to perform this one task.

A good Creative Director judges work on his gut. He knows instinctively what’s good, average or downright bad. 

However, there are those that find it hard to give feedback to their creative teams. They struggle to translate their gut feel into a clear explanation of what’s right or wrong with the work. Which means they resort to feedback like, “It’s crap. Do something better”. Which is not exactly the best way to advise a team that might be struggling to understand where they need to go. 

So what are the tricks to giving better, clearer and more productive feedback. Here are four techniques that I find useful: 

1. Revisiting the brief 

Before you give any comments on the work, always ask to see the brief. The work, whether it’s good or bad, should have some relation to the “single most important promise”. 

Many times, you will find that the creative team have veered away from what has been asked of them. In that case, it is your job to get them back on track. Perhaps outline some areas they could explore. 

Alternatively, you may find that the brief is off and it is that which is causing the creative team to struggle. If that is indeed the reason, you need to bring the account service team back into the loop in order to iron out any issues. 

2. The Overnight Test 

Quite often, you’ll find a creative team presents some pretty interesting ideas you’re just not sure about. The temptation is to give instant feedback and make a decision for or against. 

This can lead to a rash judgement that you may regret later on. One way around this is to do the Overnight Test. 

Get the team to scamp up their ideas and pin them to the wall. Then leave them there, without further comment, until the next morning. 

If the next day the ideas still feel good, then they have merit and you should approve them. However, if you don’t feel good about them, then the ideas probably don’t make the cut and they have to either be pushed further or canned altogether. 

3. Buying Yourself Thinking Time 

Many times, a creative team will present an idea that you feel is intrinsically good, but needs tweaking here and there to make it perfect. In instances like this, you need time to collect your thoughts and work out the feedback you need to give to help the creative team move forward. 

Some Creative Directors use the ‘balcony break’ to give them the time they need. In other words, they go to the balcony for a smoke and a chat before they come back in to give their feedback. 

Others use more subtle techniques. One particular Creative Director, who was famous back in the 80’s, used to buy time by taking his glasses off and cleaning them. In the 5 or 10 minutes it took him to do this, he’d formulate his feedback. Interestingly, there was a time when this Creative Director started dating a new girlfriend and switched to contact lenses. It was a mere 2 weeks before he changed back to his old look. A friend asked him why he’d gone back to his glasses. “Because I can’t do my job without them,” he replied. 

But what you do if you don’t smoke or wear glasses? 

I’ve quite often used the coffee break. In other words, when a team shows me their work, and I want to think about it, I excuse myself for five minutes to make a coffee. By the time I get back, I usually have some thoughts in my head as to where the ideas need to be taken. 

Of course, many Creative Directors don’t feel the need to buy time at all. They just sit in their chair for 10 or 15 minutes staring quietly at the work, a method which works, but can be a bit unnerving for the anxious team sitting in front of him. 

4. The CD on the wall 

When you reject an idea, creative teams usually want to know why. You can always say it’s not good enough and send them on their way, but it’s not exactly the best way to teach and mentor young creative people. 

So many years ago, I concocted a little evaluation device. When a team came to see me, I would use it to judge their work. It was a great way to give instant feedback and at the same time give creative teams a way to evaluate their own ideas. 

Here’s the checklist I used. 

Interestingly, I used this device to evaluate the award-winning potential of campaigns. It was very accurate. If a campaign scored positively in all six areas, it invariably won. 

Many of my CDs and senior creative guys have used the tool, too. In fact, quite a few of them have pinned it on the wall of their office and have fondly dubbed it, “The CD on the wall”.

5. How the CD on the wall has changed with the rise of social media 

The original “CD on the wall” was great if you were just judging print ads or TV spots, but in today’s world it needs to go a bit further. I’ve added one more criteria to the list above.

Over the last two to three years, we have all witnessed the power of dialogue over monlogue. The campaigns we produce that allow high levels of involvement have far more impact than those that don’t. Not just in terms of engagement but also in terms of sales, too. Our work for HP in China helped them grab a 1.5% market share away from Lenovo in just 6 months. Our campaign for Sony Ericsson took them out of a loss making position in 2009 to profit in 2010. And our thinking on Tiger Biscuat helped Kraft increase their sales by 12% in Indonesia. (You can see all these on my Youtube channel:

All these campaigns allowed high levels of participation. It is a well known fact that participation releases endorphins in the body and stimulates the part of the brain which recognizes pleasure and love.

So the new list would look like this: 

Other stuff by the author:

Saturday, June 19, 2010

How to hire the right people (because there's far too many wrong ones out there).

A Creative Director lives or dies by the people he hires. I'd love to here some of the horror stories you've encountered....


Hiring people is a key aspect of the Creative Director’s job. Hiring the right people is essential for you to achieve the objective of creating Great Ideas. 

In order to run a department smoothly - and in a way which accommodates both the pursuit of creative fame and the production of bread and butter work – you need to fill your department with four types of people: Conceptualisers, Beautyfiers, Connectors and Doers. 

* The Conceptualisers are the essential people to find. They can be copywriters or art directors and their key skill is generating a high volume of big ideas. If they can art direct or write, that’s an added bonus, but it is not essential. These people are literally the cornerstones of the creative department. They will lead you to honour and glory.

* The Beautyfiers are art directors. They don’t necessarily have to be good at coming up with the big idea (although many of them are). But once they have a big idea in front of them, they will make it look stunning. And that is why they are essential. I’ve seen many a great campaign destroyed by an overzealous art director who thought it his duty to stamp his unique personality on it (pretty borders, trendy photography and funky type, for example). The Beautyfier, on the other hand, has the ability to make a great idea shine by honing down the elements to their purest form. He understands the role of the art direction is to enhance the idea, not to overshadow it.

* The Connectors are writers or art directors with a deep understanding of the digital space. They know how to take a big idea and spread it through the Internet. They get blogging, Facebook, twitter and Youtube. These guys fundamentally understand the power of involvement. They can take a broadcast idea and turn it into a participation piece that infects communities online. These guys play a relatively small role now, but are the future of our business.

* The Doers are the people that get things done. Eighty percent of the work, in most agencies, is run of the mill. But it is also the very same work that pays the bills. So it needs to be treated seriously. And with absolute professionalism. That is not to say that these people should be boxed away and not allowed to take part in creative opportunities. If anything, it is a given that they need to pursue creative opportunities at every turn. But at the same time, they must have total dedication to servicing their designated accounts through thick and thin.


Aptitude vs attitude. The good thing about hiring creative people is that their abilities can mostly be judged by what’s in their book. But there is one more factor that is important to bear in mind. And that is attitude. I’ve seen some wonderfully talented creative people who have great aptitude, but not the right attitude.

An Art Director that worked for me in Hong Kong was a great example of this type of person. His own natural talent often let him down. He didn’t have the attitude that drives you to go further than the average person. In fact, he believed in his own abilities so much, he didn’t believe he could fail. And that led to complacency.

One time, for example, a group of creative people, including our Art Director, were working on a banking project. They started brainstorming ideas and after about two hours stumbled across an idea that had some merit. The Art Director in question suddenly announced to the team “Well that’s it. We’ve cracked it. Let’s go to the pub”. Which he promptly did with his partner.

The idea was good but not ‘Great’. The Art Director had been a little too hasty. He needed a little more insecurity about his abilities. He needed that mindset that makes you think, “That might be the solution, but I’m not sure. I better carry on for a while longer.”

Which is exactly what the rest of the team did and eventually arrived at a great campaign idea.

On the other hand, I’ve known many creative people (most of whom are famous now) who had little raw talent, but made up for it with attitude. They always worked harder. They always worked longer. And they were all frightened of failure. And perhaps that’s why they succeeded.

So if I had a choice between someone with aptitude and someone with attitude, I would always go for the person with attitude. If you can find a person with both attributes, you have a superstar in the making.


The interview. As we’ve already mentioned, a good portfolio is only part of the equation when it comes to interviewing people. Raw talent is easy to spot. Mental attitude, however, is a bit harder to gauge. Here are some questions to ask that may help you understand whether the person in front of you is the right fit for your company.

Question 1: When you arrive at an idea, how do you know it’s good or bad? 

What you’re looking for here is the person who shares his ideas with other people, gets opinions from them. The kind of person that understands that feedback from others can help with his own perspective on whether the idea’s good or not. The best creative people are always unsure of their ideas. They seek reassurance. They want to pull the idea apart, with the opinions of others if necessary, before they settle on it.

If you meet a person who’s dead-sure cocky about the brilliance of his ideas, be weary. Unless of course, that person has 10 campaigns in their book that just blow you away. Then they’re probably a genius and know exactly what they’re talking about.

Question 2: How do you react to client feedback? 

The person you’re looking for is someone who can debate with the client. Someone who uses their powers of persuasion. Someone who can collaborate with the client and gain their trust. If the client eventually rejects their idea, they don’t give up. They bounce right back with an equally good, or even better, idea second time round.

The people you should be weary of are those creative types that throw tantrums, insult the client, walk out and say: “Obviously there’s no point in me being in this meeting.” These are the people that may be able to create big ideas, but rarely sell them through. They don’t have the temperament or people skills to navigate the difficult obstacles that every great idea has to endure. Worse still, they’ll probably upset the client so much that they’ll be thrown off the account.

Question 3: When you go to your Creative Director with ideas, how many do you show him?

You’re looking for people who go to their Creative Director with lots of ideas. They understand that producing a high volume of ideas can help you get past the expected and start opening new creative territories.

Be weary of the people who go to their creative director with only one idea. These types are either lazy, obstinate or limited in talent.

Question 4: What do you do if your Creative Director doesn’t buy your ideas?

The people you’re looking for are those that say: “I take it on the chin and go back to the drawing board.” That’s not to say they don’t debate the idea with their CD, but they don’t dig their heels in at all costs.

Beware of those people that obstinately resist. They’re probably the ones that think they are better than they actually are. They’re the ones that will fight for mediocre ideas. They’re also the ones that will be reluctant to explore new routes and will invariably come back with the idea you rejected repackaged to look slightly different.

Question 5: If you’re given a job for an uncreative account, how do you approach the project?

The people you’re looking for are those that understand what is required for the job and go about their business with absolute professionalism. They know they won’t win an award with their work, but they won’t be disrespectful and sloppy in their approach to it. They will write an effective ad that works as hard as it can in the marketplace.

Be weary of the people who say they will produce great work for the client at any cost. They obviously don’t understand the realities of the world. Also be weary of those that say they will just crank the work out. People who are happy to let standards slip don’t have enough professional pride. In the long run, they will have a negative impact on the agency.

Other stuff from the author:

Man from Zork

A crash course in surviving the future of advertising

Sunday, June 13, 2010

The importance of creative gardening

The creative department of an agency is like a big garden. You plant different species of flora depending on the requirements. Where the soil is gritty and dry, you plant a hardy species like a cactus. At the entrance of the garden, where you want to make an impression, you plant roses. And in the pond you plant water lilies.

Some Creative Directors make the mistake of just planting roses. That is to say, they hire creative stars whose main objective in life is to produce award-winning work. As I’ve mentioned earlier, building and maintaining your reputation is important. And awards are one way of doing that. You need roses to help you create an attractive image. But when you plant a rose in dry, gritty soil, it shrivels up and starts to die. The same is true when you put a rose in a pond. The excess water drowns the poor thing.

The fact is, it’s no use hiring someone to help you create award-winning work and then put him on a retail account. He will do exactly what you hired him for. He will produce award-winning work. The client will reject all this work and your creative person will become frustrated. The client will become frustrated, too, because she’s not getting the kind of work she expects. And eventually one of two things is likely to happen. Either your client will ask for the person to be taken off her account. Or she will fire the agency.

But that’s not all. Even if you do take the creative star off the account, where do you put him?

You start to see the problem, don’t you. Before you know it, you have a whole lot of creative people in the department who have no accounts to work on.

Your staff costs will start to go through the roof. And at some point you are going to have to start firing good people. Nothing is more demoralizing to a Creative Department than seeing its stars being forced to leave.

My first agency faced this very problem. The Creative Director at the time had put a bunch of star creative people on a retail account that didn’t appreciate, or want, ‘great’ creative work. This account was the biggest revenue earner in the agency – and was essential to keep in order for the agency to make its numbers at the end of the year.

However, the account was nearly lost because of the terrible friction that was caused between the client and the creative stars. The creative people were desperately trying to force work on a Marketing Director that simply didn’t want to buy it (sounds familiar to our physician story, doesn’t it?).

If the account had walked out the door, fifteen people would have had to be laid off.

When I took over the CD role, I pulled these people off the account straight away and brought in a very senior art director who was happy to do the kind of work that was required. The client was happy (because she got what she wanted), the creative department was happy (because they could concentrate on accounts that did want creative solutions), the person we hired on the account was happy (because we gave her a huge wad of money every month). And I was happy (because the department could get back to the business of creating ‘Great’ ideas without having to worry too much about the financials).

Next week, we'll talk more about the types of people you need to hire.

More by the author:

A crash course in surviving the future of advertising

Man from Zork

Saturday, June 5, 2010

Part 4: Setting a vision that will inspire people

As a Creative Director, it is important that you have a clear idea of where you want to take the agency - and to disseminate that vision amongst the troops.

A vision will help bring focus to the whole department.

More importantly, a vision allows you to impart your beliefs and expectations to the whole team. It is extremely important in terms of setting the groundwork for how people should work together – and also in building a culture which will bind your people as a single unit.

It is imperative you set your team objectives so that they have a clear target to aim for. And if the objectives are tough, and even beyond what they think is possible, you will create such a buzz in the department, the momentum will keep the agency going for years.

One of Leo Burnett’s quotes has always struck me as a good example of this philosophy. It reads: “Always aim for the stars. You may not quite get there, but you’ll never come up with a handful of mud.”

It is the Creative Director’s job to make the creative people feel as if they can actually reach those stars.

Here are some questions to ask yourself when setting a vision:

1. Where is the agency now? 

Is it performing well or performing badly? How well does it do in new business? How many awards does it win? Does it have a good reputation? Is the morale high or low? Does it have the best talent in town? What’s its relationship with clients? Do people feel proud working there?

It’s important to work out where the agency is currently so that you can keep the positive aspects intact and then understand what negative elements you need to change or eliminate.

An agency I took over was rife with politics, had underperformed at the award shows, was losing clients at an alarming rate and had a bucket shop culture. By putting these issues down on paper, I was able to get everyone to agree that this wasn’t where we wanted to be as an agency.

2. Where do we want the agency to be? 

Now that we’ve worked out where we don’t want the agency to be, we can start to work out where we do want it to be.

Do you want it to be the No. 1 agency in town? In the region? In the network? Do you want the best creative profile? The best talent? Do you want to have a better new business record? Do you want to improve the work on bread and butter accounts? Or focus on the two or three clients that are more creatively oriented? Do you want it to be seen as the agency that is leading the way in social network marketing?

Once you’ve worked out where you want the agency to be you have a plan. Having a plan gives you more than half a chance of succeeding. It gives you a direction. And when there’s a direction, there’s a much better chance of reaching your destination and achieving your goals.

3. How do you get there? 

Having worked out what you want to achieve, it’s now critical you put in place action points that will help you get there.

For instance, if you want to get the best talent in town working for your agency, you need to fire people who are under-performing to make way for them. If you want to create the best profile in the business, you need to put a PR strategy in place that gives you exposure in the press. It may even require you hiring a full time communications manager. And if you want to be seen as a leader in social network marketing, then you need to hire people who can help you make that happen – and retool the best of your existing people with the relevant skills.

What’s more, when it comes to writing your action points, be clear and concise. Don’t write: “We need to improve our creative talent.” That’s too wishy washy.

Instead write: “We need to fire our mediocre talent and hire the best talent in the market.”

There’s no escaping what you need to do with an action point like that.

4. What culture do you want for the agency? 

It’s important to let people know how you want to work and the practices you expect people to follow. Some Creative Directors like a culture of individualism. Others prefer a culture of teamwork.

Here is the culture and ideals I have tried to instill as a Creative Director.

1. We don’t tolerate politics

2. We encourage transparency, honesty and integrity

3. We share ideas with others and expect them to share their ideas with us

4. We accept criticism in order to improve our work

5. We approach every job with optimism, enthusiasm and passion

6. We chase big ideas. And never give up until we’ve caught them

7. We promote team work over individualism

8. We engage in constructive competition within the department

9. We create big ideas

When the right attitude and work ethic permeates through an agency, there’s no ceiling to the heights it can reach.