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Paying 2X and Getting Less Than ½

By Paulo Ribeiro

Internal Agency + External Agency and the work still needs work.

Why do many clients literally pay TWICE for creative marketing that should be provocative and effective but is often uninspired and category-generic?  


It is rare to find a client side marketing team that doesn’t have internal creative staffing. At the same time most of those companies ALSO pay for new ideas or execution from an outside agency. Bean counters would expect that double the resources should create at least double the benefit. But the opposite is more often true.


A Tired Brief


A business goal is a business goal. An inspiring creative brief that is going to lead to interesting, novel ideas that deliver on that business goal is a totally different thing. So many internal creative teams are briefed on business goals like: “We need people to understand our new technology. So let’s tell them about it.” And that habit extends to the brief that they deliver to the outside agency. This kind of brief hampers thinking right from the jump.

A powerful creative brief is built on TENSIONS. Unresolved and contrasting issues give creative people space to play. Things like: 


The disconnect between a brand that is all about travel and exploration but constantly showcases its home turf. 


Or a brand built on the notion of innovation when the bulk of its sales come from a single product. 


Or the desire to build community while bots are plucking up all the limited edition drops. 


Yes these are real examples which is why they are so specific. Unpacking a very specific problem and then asking creative teams to solve for them is guaranteed to deliver ideas that at the very least don’t look, feel and sound like what your competitor is doing. 


An uncomfortable truth: your marketing challenges almost exactly match your competitors’. Every footwear company is working on the same problems: fit, traction, cushioning… This consistency of marketing challenge is true in most established consumer categories.  It just is. To break through, you’ve got to solve for those challenges in a differentiated way. Leaning into unresolved tension is the best starting point to unlock a breakthrough.

Not Enough Contrast in the Team


Internal agencies don’t cut costs, but they institutionalize critical product expertise and this tradeoff is worth it. BUT, these internal teams are often made up of the brand’s hardcore fans. And this leads to organizations filled with people that have the same deep, but narrow worldviews values and ideas. They are too close to the thing to have unique or divergent ideas.

The formula for interesting ideas in terms of staffing is that you need contrasts in all the ways. Different backgrounds, skill sets, interests and then you mash these people up because they will challenge one another and build different kinds of ideas, tools and stories.

Blurred Lines


This is the big one. Great creative talent is great creative talent. It’s real and let’s just call that a given. Some people are significantly better at creative ideas than others. 


But this is also true. The way to get to breakthrough creative ideas isn’t by having a single expert develop the one idea. It is…. By having many ideas. Great ideas are developed by generating tons of ideas and throwing away most of them. Every great creative director, inventor or storyteller will explain this in their own way. Ok, so what does this have to do with this post?

There is a proven setup that enables this to happen. A team of idea generators and a smaller group (sometimes just a single Creative Director) to edit and shape the best work from the options on the table. And when there are no good ideas on the table to redirect the idea generators. 


This is a solved problem! It has been solved for literally hundreds of years. Renaissance masters used this setup in their workshops, The editorial department of every great magazine did. Film studios have always sourced script ideas this way. From Pixar to Wieden+Kennedy to Lego the organizations that consistently spit out novel ideas use a version of this system. 


But a funny thing can happen when agency teams and client-side creatives mix and no one addresses the question. Who is generating and who is shaping? This shouldn’t be a controversy or uncomfortable discussion but if it doesn’t happen early it ends up being uncomfortable and often political. And the work suffers.


It can work to mix teams from the agency and client side or have them each play a specific role. But it is critical that the person or team doing the creative directing is assigned and that it is assigned to people with the experience to do that. Too often hierarchy between the buyer and seller gets in the way of the buyer getting what they paid for. It’s ok to let the agency do the creative direction if they are best equipped to do it. It’s also ok for an internal creative director to do it. But have this conversation and have it early. 


There might be other reasons for stale marketing when there is serious investment being made but these stand out to us. While the playing field has shifted, the rules of the game haven’t. There are ways to make sure you get a solid return on your marketing investment. It's a simple conversation if you have it early.

Two things that sum up what we are talking about.

“You’ll never stumble upon the unexpected if you stick only to the familiar.”


“When it comes to creative endeavors, the concept of zero failures is worse than useless. It’s counterproductive.”

Ed Catmull, Creativity Inc

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