How to Manage Your Creative Agency for Great Digital Campaigns

Thanks to my job and my employees’ deep pockets, I’ve had the privilege of working with some of the best creative shops in the world (by the measure of the number of  Cannes Lions awards won or the fee that they get paid). The best-known agencies employ great talent, and I’m often amazed by the clever and creative ideas they bring to the table. But the truth is that creative agencies are best at telling stories, while a key factor in digital creative performance is the ability to effectively get a message across to drive a behavior change. For this reason, the best work of these highly-awarded and highly-paid creative agencies comes across a 60″ TV spot, or through an execution that requires a summary showreel to make it all come together, while the digital creatives of an integrated plan are often less than impressive.

The truth is that creative agencies are best at telling stories, while a large portion of the advertising companies buy is about getting a message across to drive a behavior change

What many CMOs fail to understand, is that unless you are buying a 60-90 seconds Superbowl ad, your target audience will hardly see the entire story come across in the way the agency is pitching it back to you (when talking about a cross-channel production). Without the relevant background context, many creative ideas lose their ability to breakthrough and influence change.

Seamless local OOH campaign in NYC

There is a Dynamic Logic study conducted a few years ago that showed that 70% or any campaign success can be attributed to the creative, and only 30% to the media you buy. If you connect the dots, you can realize that a major contributing factor of TV still getting the lion share of the media budget is that creative agencies (which are great storytellers) do their best work with TV spots.

Until a few days ago, I was convinced that the reason for mediocre digital work when a TV and digital were included in a campaign’s creative production was:

  • Creative teams too snob to put any serious effort/good talent into creating anything different from long-form video.
  • Marketing executives too disconnected from reality to realize that consumers don’t sit through an agency pitch or 60″ video before being exposed to any other piece of content.
  • Lack of real accountability in the marketing industry (from CMOs to agencies): the industry still measures success in terms of visibility and awards won instead of statistically sound ROI analysis.
StreatEasy “Find Your Place” campaign – Washer and Drier

While these may be a factor as well, I’d like to think that I was wrong, and this is an example of how time and experience make us wiser. I am now convinced that there are two deeper causes for mediocre digital work that can also be more easily addressed:

  1. Clients brief their agency in the wrong way
  2. Technology and agency setup get in the way
Seamless OOH NYC Campign – Jersey

Clients brief their agency in the wrong way

The eureka moment came to me by walking around Manhattan. I have been living in new york city for five years and worked in digital marketing for ten years. In the past 2-3 years, I have witnessed startup companies like Seamless or Streateasy driving a breath of fresh air to the advertising industry, by delivering the best creative work I’ve seen in years. The fascinating part, in my opinion, is that although these companies have achieved great success by bringing online industries that were inexplicably still chained to antiquated ways of doing business, they have delivered some remarkable creative work not in digital advertising, but in out-of-home.

StreatEasy “Find Your Place” 2017 campaign – roomates

Looking at the clever ads around Manhattan, that are a perfect combination of contextual relevance and agency creativity, it made me realize that the reason why many creative agencies can’t produce great static work when a long-form video production is also part of the brief, is because TV is the perfect medium to tell a story, creative agencies are great storytellers, and they are going start their work by the TV ad and then try to translate it into banners, spreads, pre-rolls, or bumper ads, through stills, minor iterations, and cut-downs. But when you create for digital or out-of-home, your creative agency needs to exercise an entirely different set of muscles which is getting winning your attention and getting a message succinctly and powerfully.

Seamless OOH campaign – Ketchup

If the creative idea of your campaign verts around a monolithic TV spot, which requires a user’s undivided attention to get the story across, the concept won’t scale to other media, because it’s not built for contextual relevance. By briefing an agency to create a TV (or TV-like) spot, you are asking them to create a story that would be captivating regardless of context, which by definition work against media that rely on context to make an impact.

By briefing an agency to create a TV (or TV-like) spot, you are asking them to create a story that would be captivating regardless of context, which by definition work against media that rely on context to make an impact.

Solution to problem n. 1? Create silos.

It seems crazy to me that that this could be the solution to this kind of problem when for the most of my career the solution to many issues has been breaking down silos. But in the case of an integrated campaign, in order to have good digital creatives, the answer could be in having two separate creative productions: one for the storytelling-focused media (e.g., TV), and another for contextual-focused media (e.g., digital and out-of-home).

StreatEasy find your Place 2018 campaign

Technology and agency setup get in the way

While creating for out-of-home is relatively easy due to the straightforward nature of this medium and how creatives can relate to its enviromnment (all the examples in this post have been developed by NY-based agencies for NYC-focused OOH campaigns), creatives don’t understand how to leverage the enormous potential digital advertising has to offer due to the incredible complexity of this channel. To fully understand how to be contextually relevant in digital, a creative team should be extremely familiar with the myriad of ever-changing ad formats, targeting options, and dynamic programmatic permutations.

While it’s hard enough to get a digital media agency that understands all of this, there is hardly any effort to bring the creative counterparts up to speed. Typically, what happens is that the media agency will develop the best media plan according to the brief, will share some details on formats required with the creative agency, and they will work in parallel for weeks and months. Even when the media agency shares details on the targeting or placements that are going to be used, the two teams don’t spend time visualizing the different situations where a user could come across a specific ad, or if that message in isolation could be powerful enough to drive the desired behavior change.

Streateasy find your Place 2018 campaign – Park

Sometimes it would happen that the creative agency will zero-in on a placement/format to develop a creative idea (maybe due to the client’s request), and while it sounds great, this may not be leveraged at scale by the media team. For example, maybe they’ll have some clever ideas on how to tap into the trending conversation on Twitter so the company will get some additional earned media, but without connecting the fact that the Twitter budget is only 2% of your overall media buy. The other downside of this situation is that so much energy and time was put to develop assets for a specific situation, the rest of the work is often rushed, dull, and will likely not perform.

In my opinion, media agencies should act as the digital sherpa of their creative counterparts (helping them navigate the everchanging number of formats and targeting options), but their creative feedback hardly ever goes beyond “make sure the Facebook or Youtube video is 15 seconds or shorter”. I know from personal experience that when you want to have a say in something, then that something becomes also your problem, and agencies are not paid or structured to take on that extra amount of work. At the same time, media agencies are not even held accountable for putting together a media recommendation that is in line with the capacity of the creative production. Having a video doesn’t mean that you can go out and buy any kind of inventory available that will accept that length. If the targeting criteria or the content against which is served is radically different (news vs. comedy), your creative may be more or less relevant, and therefore change in effectiveness.

StreatEasy OOH Find your Place 2018 campaign – Mom & Dad
Solution to problem n. 2? Break down silos.

Force your creative and media agencies to work together. It requires skills and experience to recognize if they are indeed doing it, but if you are concerned that you and your team may not be capable of doing so (for various reasons: staffing, experience, etc.), here’s a simple trick to help you recognize if the magic is happening:

  • In the next creative review, separate TV and all the storytelling-focused production from the contextual production (reminder: all digital media is contextual because it lives in an on-demand environment called “the internet”)
  • Ask your media agency to break down the budget allocation by targeting, format, and context/ publisher (e.g. programmatic video targeted to X demographic served against news content should be separated by the video inventory targeted to the same demographic against different content). You can make exceptions, but it’s good practice to be granular.
  • Starting from the larger budget-allocation bucket, review the production in a simulated environment (mock-up of the CNN page, Facebook feed, Instagram story, etc.).
  • [now the most critical part] make sure there is absolutely no explanation from the creative team/director about what you are about to see. Your consumers won’t have the creative agency team explaining to them what they are looking at, so if it doesn’t make sense for you at that moment, it definitely won’t make sense for them.
  • Take note of your feedback, but don’t share it. Move to the next bucket/piece of content until you have reviewed all the work. By starting a conversation mid-review, you may get some context that influences the way you interpret the rest of the review.
StreatEasy OOH Find Your Place 2018 campaign – Tribeca

If the agencies have truly worked together and done a good job, you are going to see the quality of their work even without a lengthy explanation (the same way your consumers will likely going to experience them). If your users need have been exposed to another ad (like the TV film), to ‘get’ any other piece of creative your agency is showing you, that ad is not going to perform unless there is excellent coordination with the media agency to masterfully execute sequential messaging.

I believe most creative and media agencies can deliver good digital marketing campaigns, but they need to be managed the right way. Like a good brief, a good interaction framework is a requirement that any client needs to provide to allow them to deliver their best work.

Author: Paolo

Economist by education, marketer by profession, coffee roaster by hobby.