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What Covid-19 can teach marketing leaders about big agency “Creative Distancing.”

Updated: Apr 21

When to bring client decision-makers into the creative process.


BY JOE BURKE -HEAD OF CREATIVE-GENERATOR APRIL 14, 2020


This virus is causing all of us to mutate. We’re changing—discovering things about ourselves, inventing new ways of working together, and in my case, reflecting on what I’ve found to be the best way to work alongside some pretty inspired marketers. In my thirty plus years as a creative director, I’ve had client relationships ranging from conjoined twinning, to the offering of burnt brooms at the altar of Oz. As a creative person coming up in big agency settings, it was broadly held that we should build a castle of mystery around our magical process, keeping the client out of the creative process with boiling oil and arrows. The thinking being, that they will force everything to be myopically product focused and painfully boring. Leaving no room for inspiration, surprise, or our charming ability to sell them on work that would surely have us drinking until dawn at The Gutter Bar in Cannes. It was as if we were magicians building to the ultimate “Ta-Da”. Well, the Ta-Da is Ta-Done. All too often the game of telephone from the CMO to her or his team, passed down to agency account management, passed down and through the planning department, and ultimately passed down to the creative folks charged with brilliantly deciphering the code, led to far too many opportunities for the original intent to be lost in translation. Keeping the client at bay, we went about our business, building toward that big reveal. Surely the client will be in awe of our creative genius. Surely, they’ll leap to their feet at the unveiling with thunderous applause, buy what we’re selling in that moment, sending us all on a fabulous, fun-filled, two-week trip to LA, New York, Ontario, Capetown, Prague, or Orlando. But…that’s not how it played— the rabbit was finally pulled from the hat only to drop a hearty batch of pungent cocoa puffs on the table before them. And so, the process would start all over again. Time spent. Money spent. Both wasted. As I reflect on my past experience, sitting here in my home office in this all too disconcerting present, I realize that the most inspiring, magical, and surprisingly effective work that I’ve been a part of has come from a close, collaborative, trusting relationship with my client. One that embraced them as part of our creative team from the start. And in the end, required no arm-twisting to produce work that not only landed us creative awards, but brought home Effie Gold as well. Bringing the decision-maker clients in to the “Writers’ Room” at the start of the creative process doesn’t require that they be creative thinkers by nature, there’s never a shortage of creative minds in the room. Rather, it embraces what they bring into the room—the knowledge and unique understanding of their brand, its tone and voice, their audience, the competitive landscape, and far too many more subtleties to mention. Yes, this virus has changed many things. I believe that after this time apart, it will be time for creative thinkers and inspired clients to start and stay together in the creative process. If we’ve learned anything about how best to work together in the future, it’s that we should no longer practice this creative distancing. Success is no longer about “us creative folks vs them pesky clients.” That old model wastes everyone’s time, and the clients’ marketing budget. And that’s enough to make anyone sick. No, the new model I suggest is designed to put the decision-makers in the room side-by-side from the start, eliminate the guesswork, the redundant roles, the months and months of revisions and associated meetings and emails. It really doesn’t have to be harder than that. When we can all finally get back together, let’s stay that way.



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