Why a Little Discipline Is Good for the Creative Process

Borrow From Six Sigma for Greater Effectiveness and Efficiency

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Avi Dan
Avi Dan
Call it the "Goldilocks" approach to getting the best out of your agency. As agencies converge on Cannes next week to celebrate creative excellence, the relationship between process and creativity is not likely to be on the agenda. And yet, process is more critical than ever. Companies that implement a methodical process, such as Procter & Gamble or Microsoft, tend to deliver consistently better communications and business results, and their brands enjoy greater value. They tend to beat competitors on such key attributes as "cycle time" and "speed to market," and have a higher degree of success when it comes to new-product launches. Most important, a meticulously executed process can deliver savings of more than 30% and improve productivity, as the need for redirects and errors is minimized. In fact, much of the angst caused by contract renegotiations and the squeeze on agency fees could have been mitigated had marketers focused on fixing what's "broken" (the process) and not what's "convenient" (agency compensation).

The most serious attempt to codify a process was made by Y&R earlier this decade, when it implemented Six Sigma. Six Sigma is a manufacturing measurement philosophy that reduces task variance and limits errors to three per million by emphasizing repetitiveness. Developed by Motorola and brought to prominence by Jack Welch and GE, marketing was one of the very last areas of operations in which manufacturers implemented Six Sigma. There are varying opinions as to whether the Y&R experiment was successful. Some people argue Six Sigma cannot work in an agency or any organization that depends on innovation. These people believe that creative organizations are often built on the principle of trial and error, and the rigorous confinement to the norm is too stifling. Yet others believe that a disciplined process is essential to optimize the client-agency relationship. I tend to agree with the latter view. Marketing spend is the No. 1 investment for most companies -- more even than IT or training. It behooves CMOs to install a precise process to insure that creative development is as effective and efficient as it can be. Yet I believe that while CMOs should adopt the spirit and attitude of Six Sigma, it should be applied with a light hand.

Call it Three Sigma.

Here are some suggestions on how to apply more discipline to the creative process intelligently:

Prioritize accuracy. Most waste during the process occurs as a result of creative briefs that are too off-the-mark or diluted. CMOs should be very tough and uncompromising on this issue. Without an accurate navigation system, the process will be off course from the get-go.

Move fast. Speed to market is a strategic asset, and the program needs to be built around this aspect as well. Defining which marketer will approve the creative and in what way will set the foundation for a healthy process.

Avoid the iterative process. The common practice of separating creation from production is unsound. Upstream production involvement in the process is necessary to avoid flawed hand-off, and budget boundaries must be defined upfront.

Integrate effectively. Given that brand communication can now easily mean the combined effort of a dozen or more communications companies, the creative process needs to include a clear architecture, identifying lead agencies, who creates the work and what the adaptation process will be.

Get involved early. One of the most wasteful elements of the creative process is the siloed system, where much effort and labor hours are invested before the client ever sees the work, only to then often kill it. Instead, early client involvement in developing ideas and participating in "tissue sessions" is critical for improved efficiency.

Engage senior executives. The involvement of senior people in the process, especially the CMO and even the CEO, is essential to eliminate waste. The marketer who is empowered to say "yes" to the work should lead the process directly and avoid managing it by proxies. When the interface is turned over to people who are not empowered, the process often gets more layered and bureaucratic than necessary.

Speed up cycle time. This is one of the most important areas of the approach. Cycle time needs to be measured, and by analyzing each task in the process and comparing the results to benchmarked data, one can determine areas that need improvement.

Codify standards. An important way to help speed up the cycle time is to codify work standards and elements that are to be included in new communications. While still broad enough to insure creative experimentation, a standards document avoids a zero-based approach.

Improve continuously. The process is not linear, and it is not close-ended. The process should include client feedback, brand reviews and 360-degree audits, all providing the foundation for continuous improvement.

Measure ROI. At the core of an effective client-agency creative process are effective, relevant measurements. Measuring labor hours by project and calculating fully loaded costs for common types of projects can give a measure of efficiency (as well as a comparison against other agencies on the client roster).

A process intended to improve quality can also improve collaboration and teamwork. Yet linking the creative development process to GE manufacturing and Jack Welch is not going to win it fans in the agency creative department. So do what agencies often do with controversial products, or when a client faces a PR nightmare: rebrand. Rebranding it as a more user-friendly process, emphasizing areas that are important to the agency, like better briefs and improved, faster client buy-in, will make for a more pleasing reception when implementing Three Sigma.

Avi Dan is CEO of Avidan Strategies, a marketing consulting firm that specializes in client-agency optimization and agency search. He can be reached at [email protected].
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