Strategic thinking, strong insights and visual language are key to establishing the connection between a brand and a customer. Traditionally, working design professionals develop these skills on the fly to survive in their jobs. However, many designers don't have the business education to weave company strategy into design execution.
The perfect storm of miscommunication looks like this: when a client asks for creativity but needs strategy, designers don’t know strategy because they weren't taught business, and the in-house MBAs on the team weren’t taught how to inspire creative business solutions. The communication gap resulting from being trained in silos and then entering a team of silos is no surprise.
Bridging the communication gap is not impossible. Douglas Davis, a strategist, professor of design and principal of Brooklyn-based consultancy, The Davis Group, specializes in helping creative teams become more strategic. His Creative Strategy Framework allows designers to organize the chaos in the creative process while weaving business strategy into design execution. In this op-ed, Davis discusses the framework and shows how you can use it to close the gap and answer problems with creativity that’s on brand, on strategy and on message. Individuals or creative teams can use this tool, and to learn more about it and find other tools from Davis, you can read his book Creative Strategy and the Business of Design.
A familiar career arc
My story, like many others, is one of being promoted for doing my job well. What was unusual is that I went from freelancer to Associate Creative Director in one afternoon. I was hired as a freelance art director setting headlines and doing layout work.
As a designer who broke into advertising, it was awesome just going to work and hanging out every day with cool agency people, even though I was bored because they didn’t really need me. One day, a flustered account exec ran into the conference room and said, “The client needs a website!” Not knowing why everyone had gone silent, I responded, “I know how to do that.” An hour later I found myself explaining to the Executive Creative Director and CEO how much money we’d left on the table in the last three months alone, because even though I was bored, I’d been paying attention.—Douglas Davis
Suddenly, I was being invited to more meetings and found myself in a client-facing role, and everything familiar about my role making creative content shifted to a foreign attitude and position of responsibility, where there was a very different discussion taking place.
At some point I hit a wall with my ability to justify my creative or aesthetic decisions in the context of business objectives or marketing goals. Looking back, I flat-out didn’t have the vocabulary or understanding of the language being spoken in the room. So I fell back on my creative vocabulary—and ultimately lost those battles in the communication gap.
No choice but to grow
Creatives, your experience over time will make you a leader whether you want to be or not.
What wasn’t clear to me was that the same skills that made me successful as a designer weren’t the ones I’d need to be a successful leader. Therefore, you’ll need to learn new skills, such as business strategy and marketing objectives. As a creative lead in strategy discussions, you’ll add value by showing how to use creativity to drive the business.—Douglas Davis
It’s a losing battle defending creative work solely on the basis of aesthetics—you’re misunderstanding why you’re in the room. Whether we understand a business or marketing problem or not, we're being asked to solve it with creativity.
Here’s what I believe: as creatives, we’re the spoonful of sugar that makes business and marketing objectives palatable to the public. If we can think how they think to do what we do—in other words, approach our creative roles as strategists—then we can move needles and grow accounts.
The first step is to retrain the way we listen to organize the chaos, and from there, question the answers to see if the environment has shifted. Then, you can turn insights into execution.
Weaving strategy into execution
The Creative Strategy Framework is what I use to organize the chaos. I developed this four-column, three-step alignment exercise to weave strategic thinking into a creative process focused only on relevant information.
In my experience, the quickest way to get utility out of this process is to write down your notes from kickoff meetings directly into this framework, then transition the notes into a brainstorming session on a whiteboard (either by yourself or with designers).
The first column is ‘The Target’: you’ll write these as fragments that give you insight into the demographics, psychographics and behavioral characteristics of who you want to reach. Next is ‘The Facts’ on the brand product or service you’re working on. Then you have ‘Features/Benefits’ written as a one-to-one ratio (each feature enables a corresponding benefit). Lastly you have ‘Message/Objective’ depending on what you’re doing.
So now let’s walk through the steps.
Step 1: Quantity of Information
When creating, we never receive all the information from one place, or, at one time. I’ve often left briefings with either too much information or irrelevant information—but I’ve never left with all the information. That’s where my own research fills in the blanks.
Step 2: Quality of information
All the information you collect must be whittled down to the right information. This is where creatives can question the content and words to revise for clarity. That leads us to the next step.
Step 3: Look across columns
Looking across columns to pull out the unexpected connections that emerge across categories can help you see strategic threads that can be used to pitch new businesses, focus a brief, or find thought starters for creative concepts.
But ultimately, creatives, you can defend any art or copy using the same language as the senior marketers like this: Based on the target’s need or behavior > Let’s start a conversation centered around this fact or truth > Using this Feature/Benefit in any headline or copy > To deliver this Message or accomplish this Objective.—Douglas Davis
You’ll notice this is working in your creative process when you can defend the work without being defensive. If you’re a creative leader, you’ll recognize that I'm speaking about the transition you also had to make from tactical to strategic.
Strategy creativity and our emotions
Our passion for the work is part of the gift of being creative. We are emotional people. We’re trained to channel our emotions into tangible concepts using words and pictures that achieve client objectives. Yet, most of us aren’t actively trained on how to manage those emotions in the context of a presentation. We walk into a room full of people we’ve never met before and present something we’ve poured countless hours of love, creativity and effort into. From the informal internal presentation to the formal new business pitch, every creative knows that this comes with the territory. Knowing that the presentation is coming doesn’t make giving it any easier.
Most of us are juggling the stress and adrenaline of having multiple projects and deadlines. In an instant, the same emotions that enable us to create can become our worst enemy as we try to find the words to articulate what we’ve created. So when someone says, “I don’t like it,” it can sound like, “I don’t like your nose.” It takes active training and experience not to take it personally. On top of all the emotions, at the forefront of our minds is that if the presentation is bad, your idea is going to die.—Douglas Davis
Remember that strategy and creativity are a set of choices, and leaders seek how to think about those choices, rather than looking for a recipe, template or formula. Creative leadership is about developing the discernment needed to listen less for what to do and more for how to take what you’re hearing and turn it into a decision-making process in your situation.