The advantages and disadvantages of showing ideas in progress
I recently worked on a project that, like so many in advertising and marketing, ended up not resembling what it set out to be. Sometimes those projects turn out better than intended, sometimes they don’t.
But as I was halfway into the work, I heard from the project manager one of the most godawful phrases that’s ever seeped into our business:
“We just need to give the clients something to react to.”
So is working this way representative of a more collaborative approach? Or have we lost confidence in the ability to actually take our time and produce something amazing? Is it better to show where we’re headed, even if that means revealing an idea before we’re happy with it?
A few years ago, in season two of the wretched advertising-based reality show “The Pitch,” producers tried to inject a little drama by allowing clients to see agencies’ thought processes just two days after getting the assignment. And invariably, the clients saw half-assed ideas and vague notions of concepts they couldn’t fully understand. Which made both the client and agencies look bad.
“Let’s open up the kimono.” “Give ‘em a peek under the tent.” Whatever cheesy cliché you use, it doesn’t hide the fact that this isn’t always a good idea.
Like so many other aspects of modern advertising, this is all made possible by technology. We can write and rewrite copy, make infinite tweaks to a layout, or edit a video 1,000 different ways before we ever need to commit to it. I wasn’t around in the “old days” (25 years ago, really) but yes, it sounds like it was much more time- and labor-intensive to make iterations of work. All of it needed to be fairly buttoned up before a client ever saw it, or at least resemble a fully fleshed-out concept ready to be produced.
But those days are long gone. The current line of thinking is that clients tend to like, and approve, creative work more if they feel some sense of ownership over it. That often includes seeing work in its gestational stages. And it can succeed when there’s a truly a give-and-take, back-and-forth creative process. But there needs to be expectations set on both sides beforehand. The proper ways to critique, give feedback, and set firm plans to improve the work need to be mutually agreed on. That’s where most projects fall short. That crucial groundwork of mutual understanding never gets laid.
It’s also an agency’s prevent defense against a mad client. If the strategy appears off, or it leads the work down the wrong path, then both clients and agencies have the ability to change direction on a moment’s notice without too much damage. “That’s not quite what we’re looking for” becomes a common response, even if someone doesn’t really know what they’re looking for.
Part of the issue is simply an occupational difference. Most clients don’t think of marketing or advertising the way their agencies do. Some marketing directors don’t understand the difference between a work in progress and finished work. Often, they don’t have a clue what they’re looking at unless it’s a familiar (read: tired) format. Hell, I’ve been to many client meetings where the client starts off by saying, “So, why are we here?” That never bodes well for a successful outcome.
But that’s the way we work these days. So with an eye towards getting the client “something to react to,” everything becomes a rush. Everything goes through too many rounds and layers of approval. The ability to mindlessly cc: 10 or 12 people on emails for even a small project gives a chance for a whole bunch of people to justify their salaries by giving an opinion.
Even in a time when we can easily test variants of ads to see what works and what doesn’t, getting to those tested options can be laborious. Now, there’s nothing wrong with doing multiple versions of an ad for testing purposes. Or rounds of work presented and killed internally. But the reality is that technology has both empowered us to bring great work to life faster and enslaved us to the cumbersome process of getting there.
Smart agencies and savvy project managers know how to keep the wheels turning. Others let the wheels come off because that’s the way it always seems to go. But truly great work takes some time to get right. And when there’s a constant clamor to see work in progress, it can be a huge barrier to real progress.
So if you decide to open up your kimono, make sure everyone is ready to see what’s inside. Because in our hurry-to-get-it-done age, few people appreciate the anatomy of really great work.
Since 2002, Dan Goldgeier has been writing the most provocative advertising columns about advertising and marketing -- over 170 of them, covering every related topic you can think of. Now based in Seattle, Dan is a copywriter and ad school graduate who's worked at shops big and small.
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