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Smart Thinking blog

Insights and expert advice on the key issues facing today’s pharma marketer

Calling the Tune?

It was the day Phil Bartlett learnt to step off the podium, to put the batten down and allow others to think through the challenges…

It was the day I became A Nightmare Client. All agency folk will have their stories of their “Nightmare Client”.  It's the one who employs the agency, pays them a not-insignificant amount of money, asks for their opinion and then tells THEM exactly what to do. Change the copy to this, change the visual like this, and (lest we forget) MAKE THE LOGO BIGGER.

The feedback is prescriptive, creative input is brushed aside, and at the end of what has been a frustrating process for both sides they complain that, “I had to tell you what to do all the way along and feel like I've virtually done it all myself”.

It doesn't happen every day, and it's often in the early teething stages of a working relationship, but why does this happen? Why is this is a scenario all too familiar to agency folk (and probably quite a lot of frustrated marketers) all over the world?

I can tell you why, because I've done it. I have been the Nightmare Client, and I did it with the best possible intentions.

Picture the scene. We've been working on a short brand film for one of our clients, and this film, shot beautifully and produced to within an inch of its life, needs a suitable piece of music. The producer finds a perfect reference track, and we go to the McCann music experts with a brief to find something that will fit just as well.

Several composers are briefed, and when the first round of music comes back there are various tracks quite similar to the reference track but not quite right. So we start to give our feedback. Can we change the guitar for strings? Can we make it a bit pacier? Can we change the rhythm? Can we lose the cymbal? Can it build more?  Any chance of putting a cowbell in there?…

We thought we were giving detailed, specific, useful feedback. But, bit by bit, we changed everything. We massaged and tweaked and adjusted levels, and we ended up with what we wanted. But what we wanted didn't feel right. It felt like we'd changed everything ourselves. It felt like if we'd asked for a kazoo, we'd have a kazoo (which, in case you're wondering, would have been 'off brand'). So we complained and said we felt like we'd virtually done it all ourselves.

Sound familiar? It did to us too. And it was the wake-up call we needed.

By giving the composer a reference track, we'd effectively said, “we want something like this, but different” – we'd never given them a blank sheet of paper we would expect ourselves. Then, despite not being music experts, throughout the feedback process we'd done the musical equivalent of changing the visual, tweaking the copy, adjusting the colours. And we'd made the logo MASSIVE. No wonder it didn't feel right.

So we went back to basics. We rebriefed the composers to ignore the reference track and just do what they felt was right for the film. We brought the director back in to get his point of view. We stopped telling, and started listening to the advice of the experts.

Guess what? It worked. We got work that was challenging, and surprising – and something that just felt right. And next time we'll ask for the experts' opinions instead of (in the words of my Dad) “buying a dog and barking yourself”.

So I have newfound respect for what we expect our clients to do in judging and commenting on creative work. It ain't easy. But fundamentally it's about something really simple: giving people a problem to solve rather than a task to complete. By doing that you ask them to think, not just do, and that's when you get engaging, impactful and well-thought-through work.

Having said that, I still think the cowbell would have added something…

Article by
Phil Bartlett

managing director at Torre Lazur McCann London and can be reached at
Follow TLM at @TLMLondon

23rd April 2012


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