Agency process is a balancing act. Too little process, and an agency will eventually fail to deliver and will go broke in the process. Too much process and it kills the creativity of the organization.

Having recently been a fly on the wall during client-led agency reviews, it is easy to spot the winners and losers. The winning agencies tend to lightly dance with their process, intermingling it with their work as evidence that the outcomes were not pure luck.

The losers spend more than half their allotted time banging on about their process, segmenting it from the outcomes and boring the client team to no end.

Good clients expect and respect strong agency process. They are not hiring agencies for their process. But if you question a client about why they are considering switching agencies, 50% of the time they cite poor process as one of the primary reasons…and also the work did not live up to expectations.

Process will not win you the work, but it sure as hell will get you fired.

An agency that over-indexes on process in a client presentation is more than likely also over-indexing on it back at the shop. Nothing will destroy an agency creative culture faster than legions of people armed with process hovering over the creative work.

Process is important. Properly executed, agency process infuses the creativity of the organization with insight, curiosity and a general esprit de corps that has everyone working to produce the best work possible.

If done poorly, agency process become a dividing line between those doing the work and those who believe it is their job to demand the work.

The highest purpose of agency process is to liberate its creativity.

Smart Brand Managers are forever scrutinizing the value they are gaining from their agencies. All too often, this value judgement lands on the desk of the chief creative officer and of course it should; but it needs to land equally on the desks of the head of strategy and the head of account service.

The ad industry has forever been trying to accurately respond to the old quip, attributed to John Wannamaker, “Half of the money I spend on advertising is wasted; the trouble is I don’t know which half.”

Recently, Marc Pritchard of Unilever announced their “People First” initiative. As stated in CampaignLive; “a structure in which talent from roster agencies across holding groups are brought together under one roof to service the FMCG giant’s North American fabric care business.”

This is a client, a great client actually, doing everything he can to unlock value from these relationships for his brands. Multiple agencies, multiple brands, massive media spend, redundancy and not enough of a payoff; or at least that’s what we can infer from the directive.

I don’t know Marc Pritchard, but really appreciate his efforts not to throw the baby out with the bath water. In the article he talks about bringing all the various agency creative together as a new model effort to find value by uniting the agencies in one collaborative effort.

I’ve run huge global brand development sessions with agency partners and client brand teams from all over the world. The largest initiative included participants from 16 countries. The approach can work miracles in ideation and equally important in getting everyone on the same page. Getting everyone on the same page with a big brand idea requires great talent in the room, a hugely collaborative effort, and egos left behind.

Believe it or not, it is rarely the creatives who do not play well with others. The minute the big idea is agreed, it’s the agency business leads who start tearing at the budget like lions on a kill. Unless a client is willing to address the budget and compensation in an equally unilateral manner, it is very tough to make the collaboration and the outcome stick.

I’ve worked on both Unilever and P&G brands and these are smart people with massive resources and still they are struggling to realize the promised value in the age of “new media.”

These initiatives can work but to my mind, the real culprit is the industries’ addiction to its own hype. The ad industry did not invent Google, or Facebook or any of the other super creative things that are reshaping the world; all we do is figure out how to monetize these things to our advantage and now clients are finally asking; How do all these exciting pieces of content you create make me money and build my brand?  Clearly there is benefit; but how much return is in that investment?  Spending less on creative and eliminating this redundancy is helpful to a brand if all the collaboration works out; but this is a client-driven attempt to solve an industry problem. We need to get better; showing and proving our value in context of the media and not just the execution itself. Possibly one of the worst things to have happened in the advertising industry is that media was cleaved off from the agencies and became independent. It is not a matter of church and state; it is a matter of execution of ideas, and ideas cannot be separated from the media that gives voice to their expression.

Long before social media, there were photojournalists whose work was shared across traditional media channels. The right instincts, in the right moment, resulted in an image that captured the imagination, documented an event and told a story. A single image seen across all media channels. In today’s more media savvy environment, we might say it went viral. A single moment, a single image and a single opportunity to capture that image. Guts, instinct, talent, intuition, anticipation and a passion for the story; these are a few of the key ingredients for a successful photojournalist.

In 1991 my friend and great talent Ira Yoffe, then VP Creative Director at Parade Magazine, invited me to participate in the Eddie Adams Workshop. In 2017 The Eddie Adams Workshop celebrated 30 years of its unique program for photojournalists. This is an intense, four-day gathering of top photography professionals, along with 100 carefully selected students. The workshop is tuition-free, and the students are chosen based on the merit of their portfolios. Nikon has been the workshop’s major sponsor since its inception. I’ve been shooting with Nikon Cameras and lenses most of my life. There is an extraordinary relationship between Nikon and The Eddie Adams Workshop, so I try to support Nikon when I can. I still use many of my original Nikon manual focus lenses for both still and video work, even on other cameras. It’s time-proven quality and in the moment, reliability is key.

During the workshop, I was part of the guest faculty sharing my experience and perspective with these young photojournalists. Also on the faculty was the great Duane Michals, among many other celebrated and talented creatives and editors. I don’t recall exactly what Duane Michals had to say to them, but one can imagine it included trusting their creative instincts. My message to these young professionals was simple. For the rest of their lives they would have two jobs; making the work and promoting the work.

It is the same for brands; make the brand and promote the brand. Photojournalists make great hires to help execute social media campaigns. Social media is a ready-made channel for photojournalists. When aligned to your brand story and the goals you would like to achieve, the skills of a photojournalist are hard to beat. One result: the work will come from a more authentic, investigative place as opposed to some very prescribed idea of your brand. Social media immediacy and authenticity is lost when content becomes an entirely mechanical unfolding of the campaign. To me, social media is most successful when it balances the organic with the highly orchestrated.

When considering how to hire for successful social media, think outside the traditional agency box.

Blockchain could save the media environment for brands. There has been a fair amount written about how blockchain might result in greater transparency in media buying and tracking; if it all works as conceived, it will also be a boon for content creators enabling direct engagement with audiences and direct payment too. This advancement has the potential to put more leverage back on the side of creators like musicians, film makers, photographers, writers and journalists too.

Blockchain has potential to greatly minimize the prevalence of fake news and level set social media networks too. This is particularly important for brands. In the world of robotic ad buys, ads can end up being dropped into the most unsavory of contexts. As a brand manager, if my banner ads were popping up in the social media feeds of people who do not share the same values of the brand, I would be very concerned. How can a brand live its truth when its lived experience is often in direct contrast to the social responsibility ethos it seeks to express? As the old adage goes, “you are the company you keep.”

As an example, racists buy cars, houses and cappuccinos. They have jobs, pay taxes and in general, contribute to society; but some of the values they keep are values most brands would never support.

For legacy media outlets with legitimate journalistic integrity like the NY Times, fake news is rarely, if ever, an issue. Ads served in this context are elevated by the integrity of the enterprise.

For lesser media properties and the robotic ad placements that serve them, brands can end up in context of uncorroborated reporting, fabricated events and misinformation. Corroborated reporting is a hallmark of journalistic integrity. Fake news even fakes corroboration.

Blockchain has the potential to minimize this activity forcing down onto this media a governance of integrity through the use of corroboration across a blockchain ecosystem that would fact check content and give brand managers and media buyers leverage, insight and security in knowing that their brand is not being used to legitimize fake news and in turn be diminished by its participation in the fakery.

This would reward journalistic integrity with greater ad placement and minimize placement in fake news and hopefully, choke-off its source of income. The bigger issue though, is a societal issue; we have a culture that seems to not care if news is fake. As advertisers, we have an obligation to uphold the integrity of the media, without it we risk casting brand reputation to the dogs.

When I first started working in the industry, I had a great experience, or I should say, set of experiences, that really enhanced my technical and artistic understanding of film and photography and storytelling in general.

I was fresh out of Parsons School of Design and met my friend Kevin O’Callaghan. Kevin is now a prominent instructor at the School of Visual Arts and an industry legend, not only for his excellence as an instructor, but also for his amazing work in 3D illustration, sculpture and art installations. Kevin is what he has always been, a creative genius.

With Kevin I began working creating props and special effects for film and TV. Together we worked on a number of projects, some in conjunction with Dale Malley, at the time one of the country’s leading independent prop makers.

We worked on television spots for Atari, making 3D live-action TV sets that played video games with each other. We crafted giant ice cubes, a giant glass and a giant can for 7Up and built colorful, moving props for BonJour Jeans. We made props for the Rodney Dangerfield film Easy Money and recreated aspects of the Oval office for a film about JF Kennedy with Martin Sheen; we made props for a Mid-Summer Night’s Sex Comedy with Woody Allen, the Flamingo Scooter for the Flamingo Kid with Matt Dillon…the list goes on.

The Flamingo Scooter

O’Callaghan; genius at work

Everything we built, no matter how fantastic, needed to fool the eye, to be real…enough. We had to be convincing in our execution of these props and effects. Some were incredibly authentic to original objects we had been asked to reproduce, others were pure fantasy writ large. This was fun, exciting and interesting work during which I learned a great deal about what the camera will see, or more specifically, what we see and what looks convincing on film. The understanding of how light interacts with various colors, surfaces and structures remain invaluable. The most important aspect of course is that all these aspects are delivering on the intention of the scene and the film as a whole.

The demand for video content and the need to tell brand stories in interesting ways requires first and foremost a great insightful story and then the ability to tell it effectively.

Photography and film is a science of both light and time, the manipulation of these fundamental elements can make or break a piece of content. It’s about what you are filming and how you film it. Where you place the camera and how you light the subject are two of the most important decisions that need to be made.

From my perspective (pun intended), not enough thought and creativity is put into this aspect of video content creation. There is a great deal of stylistic sameness; the industry repeating itself.  This works against the differentiation of your brand. The execution of the story should be anchored in the uniqueness of your brand story, not in the latest trend or enabling technology. If you’ve ever watched a video and the production techniques end up being more interesting than the story, you understand the problem.

If the idea is not crystal clear and interesting, then all the slick execution in the world will not make it better.

Brand marks and symbols are invested with symbolism; meaning derived from perceived value, ambition and aspiration too. On this 4th of July I thought it would be interesting to start with a consideration of Uncle Sam; a representation of the U.S. Government. The creation and evolution of Uncle Sam is an interesting story about which much has been written. It’s hard to separate fact from fiction but one thing is certain, the illustration created by artist Montgomery Flagg is a hit. This rendering was used to promote the idea of being ready and prepared for war. World War I was supposed to be the war to end all wars. Sadly, there is never really an end to war and persecution and the excuses used to justify it all. Right or wrong, the symbol of Uncle Sam became a call-to-arms which found its inspiration in the 1914 Alfred Leete illustration from England used in a WW I recruitment poster.

openness, compassion

Columbia, symbol of the people of the America

Uncle Sam’s better half, known as Columbia, famously depicted by Paul Stahr ca. 1917-18, named to honor the legacy of Columbus, went on to inspire the naming of countless organization, including Columbia University as well as Columbia pictures, which later took the lovely lady as a symbol of its own. You’ll notice a strong resemblance to Lady Liberty, the grand statue itself a gift to the people of the U.S. from the people of France. The Statue was designed by sculptor Frederic Auguste Bartholdi and built by Gustave Eiffel and dedicated on October 28, 1886.

In the painting of Columbia, we are quite literally taken in by her open arms and compassionate and sincere expression. Columbia was said to represent the people of the Americas. The Statue of Liberty holds a tablet with the Roman inscription of July 4, 1776; testament to our declaration of independence. Broken chains lay at her feet, a beacon for all the world to see, a symbol of independence and freedom at the entrance to NY Harbor. Her torch held high, welcoming immigrants from all over the world. The statue was also inspired by the Roman Goddess, Libertas.

The fabric of America

“Give me your tired, your poor, Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.”
— Emma Lazarus

It should not be surprising that women are used to represent openness, liberty and freedom while men are depicted as aggressive, directive and controlling. We are ourselves symbols. Of course, not all women and men possess these qualities as distinct characteristics. Check out the early illustration by Thomas Nast from Harpers Weekly of Uncle Sam having Thanksgiving dinner with immigrants from all over the world, this tells the story of America at its best. The world at its best.

At a time when the U.S. and perhaps much of the rest of the world seem on a path of isolationism, it would do us good to remember the power of symbols and icons as representations of our beliefs.

The U.S. welcomes immigrants from all over the world

Uncle Sam, having dinner with immigrants

America’s most important and invaluable export is our culture. For centuries, America and the promise of America has inspired countless millions to risk it all in pursuit of freedom, openness and inclusiveness. We seem to be forgetting, the meaning of America, of liberte’.

What will you export today? Perhaps you can start with a welcoming smile.

Start your day smiley

The originally smiley face, created by graphic artist Harvey Ball made legend by millions of buttons and now emoji too

Block, Light, Rehearse, Shoot…your brand story.

It’s happened before, technology democratizes an industry and craft suffers before it rises again. I’m advocating for a conscious return of what I feel is a progressive loss to the level of craft in commercial content production.

The art of your brand story is one part and the art of the production of your brand story is the other. Thanks to the internet, there exists an insatiable desire for content. And thanks to the democratization of the technologies of content creation, everyone with a camera and a zoom recorder is suddenly a producer or director or director of photography or all of the above. Yikes.

Potential clients call Brandforming and ask us for an assessment of why their content is not delivering the anticipated results. They invested in, yada, yada, yada…

There is a lot of crappy content on the web; I hope it’s not yours.

Just because you can produce content with your smart phone does not mean you should. Just because you can fry an egg on your car engine does not mean you should. If Annie Leibovitz takes your portrait with a smart phone, it will be an amazing story of you. If Martin Scorsese wants to make a cinematic production with a DSLR, it’ll be an amazing tale. If Bobby Flay decides to cook you brunch on the engine of his SUV, it’ll be one of the best meals of your life.

The skill and creativity of the story teller, not necessarily the gear involved, is the point. Great gear in the right hands has the potential to make a great story or idea that much stronger in execution. But in and of itself it is an empty shell.

This does not mean you shouldn’t create and produce. It means if you don’t have the skills, you need to practice and hone the craft before you degrade your brand with crappy content. And the first skill you need to master is the story. If you don’t have the skills in-house, then hire the right people. All the tech expertise in the world will not make a bad story better.

Most production companies are not built like marketing agencies; most of them are built for episodic engagements, not brand stewardship. Building and safeguarding your brand story takes a long-term view, it takes insight and planning and strategy and great creative ideas, smartly executed. This is the work of brand agencies.

Today there is a profusion of production companies that have technical skill because the technology has made it much easier to look and sound good, but that does not make them effective at decoding your story. A direct engagement with a production company may make the cost to your marketing budget look cheaper on paper but the long-term cost is significant. Vacuous content.

Content without brand strategy is death by a thousand cuts.

Really good agencies know this, and really good clients know this too. And really good production companies know this and expect to partner with brand agencies. A great commercial director wants to understand your brand and its audience.  This is where your brand agency insight and executional expertise will guide the production team and help them tell your brand idea with the correct intention.

This is the work of producing content; to tell your brand idea, and it is why brand agencies employ creative directors, writers, art directors, strategists and producers, to define your brand idea.  And then, shot by shot, adding and building, intention upon intention, the entire production design is aligned with the purpose of your brand.

This is the craft.

As humans we are hard wired to see and appreciate beauty. This has been studied and proven countless times. There is nothing like a beautiful face to garner our attention; one look online or on TV or in a print publication will prove that beauty is an effective tool of advertisers.

Our fundamental appreciation of beauty has also been studied by neuroscience. As creatures, we are inclined to beauty and increasingly, that appreciation of beauty is being understood to go well beyond a pretty face.

The appreciation of beauty in everyday life, from landscapes to sunsets to kittens, puppy dogs and the astral skies, all hold common appeal. Beauty amazes us in nature and in the products and services we enjoy as well.

Manufacturers that understand the power of beauty use great design from end-to-end; from the simplicity and elegance of a well-conceived user experience to the shape and form of a physical product and how it functions, to the design of their brand mark and print materials too. This appreciation of beauty extends to all manner of content creation from the quality of the images they create to the voice, tonality and simplicity of the written and spoken word.

Nothing extraneous that will diminish the beauty of their conception is allowed. By example, think Apple, think Dyson, think Boeing, think Audi, think 3M.

Beautiful design works. Period.

Ugly, poorly designed products and services end up in the dollar store of our appreciation. Well-conceived, imaginative and well-executed design work elevates all aspects of a brand, the most important of which is consumer appreciation.

Defining this beauty means starting with insight into the desires and needs of the intended users. It also means establishing a beauty language for your brand, a unique and appealing design vernacular that informs all that you produce.

Beautiful ideas, beautifully executed. These ideas Head for The Heart.

Smart clients get smart work. We like smart clients and Habitat Clothes is a great client. Hard working, hands-on, head in the clouds with feet on the ground. Visionary and driven with a keen curiosity and willingness to learn and adapt to the changing demands of her business, Suzanne Williams is a restless warrior in the battle of building her brand.  From our initial conversations about the needs of her business and the impact on the brand, down to the last detail of execution in planning her product line shoot, she never loses sight of the larger strategic goals she has set out for the Habitat brand.

The past nine months have been an exercise in constraint. Adding the role of The F. William Harder Chair Professor of Business Administration at Skidmore College to my life’s work has taken some adjustment. All positive. This work will be the subject of its own blog post because it deserves the airtime.

Here at Brandforming, we’ve been aggressively moving the nature and scope of our engagements to be primarily defined by brand idea and strategy development. With a few exceptions, we’ve dialed down on tactical execution.

We’ve enjoyed some very nice engagements that have resulted in perspective-shifting, business-altering ideas for our clients. This is enormously satisfying as we’ve significantly and positively impacted the businesses of our clients. It has also allowed us to engage effectively and precisely with these clients, giving them the attention they deserve while I work at the very serious and seriously gratifying job of being a Professor.

There have been some interesting knock-on effects of this constraint. We prepare and execute a very thorough engagement for our clients and send them off with a simple, powerful brand idea. They move forward happy and excited. Nice. As of this writing, a full 75% of these clients are returning to us with additional work.

The reality is that they are returning because they do not feel the idea is being fully realized. Why? As we re-engage it becomes clear that the client has gotten bogged down in execution. Bogged down, often with their own internal constraints, often in conjunction with the failure of the client-agency relationship. And in two instances the client’s AOR did not fully deliver on the power and potential of the idea despite everyone getting along just swimmingly.

Of course, we are always delighted when the phone rings again with clients seeking our council because they trust the work we’ve done together. On the other hand, we would be equally happy to see the ideas take flight without the need for us to re-engage. Our shift in scope forgives us most of the burden of these misfires. Still, we are upset by the sounds of frustration on the other end of the phone. And because we know that being an AOR is often a compromised existence, we do everything in our capability to help re-focus and re-energize these relationships.

Execution is no little thing and it is often the first thing that gets compromised. We are working in an age of such downward price pressure that many agencies are struggling to survive. The evidence is all around us: talent flight, collapsing margins, and bad media. Clients need to invest in execution and the most important part of this investment is in a partner that can make things happen without a lot of wasted effort. Big ideas don’t always need to cost a fortune to execute, but they must always be smartly — effectively and efficiently — rendered.