How Can Strategy & Creative Work Better Together?

July & August 2017 | Andy Palmer & Vic Polkinghorne

Andy Palmer

Strategic Partner | Sell! Sell! London

Andy is an entrepreneurial and creative business leader and strategic heavy hitter with over 25 years experience of making highly impactful, category-defining advertising campaigns. He’s been fortunate enough to work at some of London’s best advertising agencies, including Bates Dorland, Lowe Howard-Spink and St.Luke’s, helping to mastermind many effective and famous campaigns for some of the world’s best brands, including Heineken, Bass Brewers, Stella Artois, HSBC, Heinz, Clarks, IKEA and the COI. In 2005 he teamed up with Vic to form Sell! Sell!

Vic Polkinghorne.jpg
Vic Polkinghorne

Creative Partner | Sell! Sell! London

Vic is a strategically smart and entrepreneurial creative driven by creating powerful and successful ideas. He cut his teeth at some of London’s top ad agencies, including Lowe, Saatchi & Saatchi, St.Luke’s and Karmarama, before founding Sell! Sell! with Andy in 2005. He has created successful campaigns for brands including Boots, Sky, IKEA, BT, Clarks, MTV, Drambuie, Fentimans and the COI. His work has breathed new life into ailing brands, successfully launched new products and turned challengers into serious contenders.

7 July 2017

“The cobbler’s children are always worst shod”

“The carpenter’s home always needs work”

“Physician, heal thyself!”


There are loads of old sayings about people not applying their skills to themselves. This might suggest there’s some kind of universal truth there?


As advertising people, we’re tasked with interrogating other people’s businesses and looking at how we can help them grow or improve what they do.


But like the physician, I think we would benefit from looking at some symptoms a little closer to home…

When CEOs and senior marketers come to talk to us, something we hear over and over again is that they find working with ad agencies painful and laborious.


When we chat to agency people, it’s frightening how many tell us they feel undervalued, overworked and stifled by poor processes.


And when you look at the output of the ad industry – the real work out there in the real world, every day – it’s clear that the poor old punter is mostly faced with advertising that is at best forgettable, and at worst insulting to the intelligence.


To us these are symptoms that indicate there is a real problem.


We think the way agencies organise themselves and work with clients, and the way agencies work to develop strategies, ideas and advertising can be improved. And need to be improved.


Looking at the way that ad agencies work is a bit like finding rock that was once lava. You can tell that it was moving at one time, albeit very slowly. It crept along shifting very slightly (the last major change being the widespread introduction of account planning in the early 70’s). Until one day it just stopped moving and set into stone.


Agencies have a way of working that just sort of happened, rather than being designed, but it is set so hard in stone that challenging it is often received like challenging religious views at a bible convention.


But as we all know from our day jobs – the only way you improve things is by challenging them.


So that’s what we want to do over the next four weeks. We’re going to unpick the way that planning and creative work together (or don’t) in ad agencies, and look at the things that seem to be getting in the way of people being able to do their best work (and are also frustrating the hell out of clients). And we’re going to suggest a different way of doing things.


A different way of doing things, by the way, that has worked very well for us, and our clients, for the last ten years, so it’s not just a theoretical exercise. But we are just a tiny speck on the periphery of the world of advertising. And these kinds of conversations normally only happen on the periphery of the industry, either at the pub or on blogs like our SellSellBlog, Bob Hoffman’s, or Martin Weigel’s.


So I think it’s great that the APG have invited us to be guest editors for a month and challenge things from the ‘inside’.


We hope that you find the next four weeks thought-provoking and challenging. We understand that you might not agree with all of it, and we’re okay with that – we’d love to hear your thoughts and challenges in return.


Most of all we hope it helps stimulate a desire to improve how we work, and most importantly, improve the work we produce.




The Meatpackers Of Advertising

14 July 2017

This story starts not on the hip streets of Soho or Shoreditch but in the shipyards and mills of England and the Chicago meatpacking industry in the 1800s.


These are the earliest recorded examples of linear assembly lines where, for the first time, rather than undertake a task from start to completion, workers would do just a part of the task. When they had completed their part, it would move on to the next person. What we know now as the modern production line.


The Chicago meatpacking factories where the inspiration for the production lines developed at Ford in the early 20th Century, but the practice had already been put in place by Ransom Olds. Henry Ford is often wrongly said to have invented the production line, but it was Olds who used it to build the first mass-produced automobile, the Oldsmobile Curved Dash.


Which all seems a long way from the advertising industry in 2017.


But when you think about it, in 2017 most advertising is produced using an industrial-style, linear production line process.


It’s one of those things that we don’t really notice, because pretty much everywhere operates in the same way, and the process is just taken for granted. We are the fish that don’t notice the sea.


But is the way ad agencies develop advertising the best way to get to great ideas? And does the way they work contribute to some of the problems we’re seeing in the business? The biggest one, in our eyes, being a decline in the quality of advertising being produced by agencies.


A clear sign that something is wrong somewhere, is one of the great contradictions of advertising, which is this:


To clients, the development of advertising seems unbelievably slow and laborious. But, to the creatives who have to come up with the big ideas, there never seems to be enough time.


How can these two contradictory things both be true? The answer has to lie in between those two people doesn’t it?


And what is between them? Ad agencies and agency process.


They have become these huge, complicated and bureaucratic organisations. Which brings us back to the beginning. To deal with the scale, they’ve forced creative thinking into a production line process. It’s been industrialized.


We all know how it currently works right? Some people meet the client, they look at the targets, and the problems, and the competitors and market. Then they go off for weeks, or even months to work out the strategy.


They go back to the client with the strategy, and then there’s a lot of charts and presentations and then...  They get to a brief – which is the result of possibly hundreds of hours, and many, many thousands of pounds-worth of budget.


And then the brief gets passed on to the next people in the production line. This is often the time when creatives are given their first glimpse of the client’s problem. And that’s a problem.


Industrial processes don’t produce individual pieces of brilliance. Production lines were designed to very efficiently churn out identical products.


Exactly the same, every time.


That’s the opposite of creativity. Creative solutions are, by their very nature, different to what was right last time.




A client came to us a few years back. They were smart people, and had been working with a big, well-regarded London agency.


They’d gone through the usual planning and strategic process, you know, months in the making. The only problem was, the agency were struggling to come up with any good creative ideas.


The agency had some talented, creative people working there. But they were, struggling. So in the end the client came to see us…


Well, it didn’t take long to unpick what the real problem was.


It was the brief that was causing the problems – it might have looked watertight and logical. But it wasn’t a start point for great work.


But the agency had spent so much time and budget getting to this point, the brief was probably a hundred grand piece of paper – do you think that agency was ever going to turn round and tell the client they have to start the process again from the beginning?


That’s the problem with the production-line process.


And the bigger the brief – the bigger the problem, because the greater time there tends to be between the client coming to the agency and creatives getting anywhere near the problem.


Let’s think about what happens when an agency had to solve some crisis, or it’s trying to win a very important piece of business, what do they do?


They tend to get their best people in the room and say ‘Okay, what should we do?’ And then those people will work out what to do. (Although these days at large agencies, the process of pitching is starting to resemble the production-line process.)


There’s a clue here. What if we just got the team together from the very beginning of the process, from the very first meeting?


Why don’t we get creatives involved up-front working with planners, as soon as possible in the process?


We think you need creative and strategy working side-by-side from the beginning. Working out together how best to solve the problem from that first meeting with the client. Discussing thoughts, questions, observations, insights, potential challenges from the moment the client brief is issued.


Let’s get rid of the production line that keeps creatives at arm’s-length from the real problems and give them some responsibility for authoring a brief alongside a planner rather than seeing them primarily as a resource to execute an idea from a creative brief.


Clients, creatives, account people and planners, we’re all wired differently. And this is a great thing – because we think differently – and we ask different kinds of questions.


Sometimes creatives ask the kind of stupid or difficult questions that make everyone else in the room groan – we know, we’ve been there. But sometimes those questions, can lead you to somewhere different.


We think there’s huge value in getting people working together properly more as a team from the beginning.


By the way, this is not about the dreaded C-word: ‘collaboration’. It’s not about those horrible gang-bang brainstorm sessions. People still have to go away and do their specialism, and should be given the space to do that. But we think that the start points for work will be better, and the end ideas better, when the people on the project are all discussing it and interrogating it together from the beginning.


We stumbled upon this way of working by the way. It wasn’t a grand plan. Although we set-up Sell! Sell! to get rid of the things that were getting in the way of good ideas, we didn’t necessarily sit down and painstakingly design a process. We were just people who respected each other’s skills and thinking and wanted to work together, we just started working on stuff, and this was how it evolved.


We know we’re not the only example of this. There are other people we’ve spoken to in advertising who have said their most productive times and best work has been when they’ve found a planner or creative who they just work well and closely with to get to the most interesting solutions.


By now, you’ll have clocked that we believe that tighter planner/creative partnerships lead to better work.  It’s a shame that most agencies are so conservative and stuck in their ways. We’d certainly advocate experimenting with a way of working that encourages these partnerships and challenges the baton-passing approach that invariably always end up with a brief falling in the lap of a creative team. It seems bonkers that this approach hasn’t changed for years.


We totally appreciate that there may be some immovable cultural or organisational barriers that may prevent this kind of revolution from within happening. Nevertheless, we’d encourage all smart strategists to find a way of bucking the system.


Spend as much time with the creatives as you can discussing the business problems as early as you can. Seek them out on a regular basis. In their office (if they still have one), in the pub, in the queue for lunch. Don’t leave the big conversations until set piece meetings. Make sure there’s a constant dialogue about the client business, the brief, the work. Swap ideas about different ways to solve the problem. Challenge each other. Inspire each other.


It’s certainly true that great ideas can come from anywhere and that ‘creative’ is not a department.


However, it’s equally true that strategy isn’t a department.


An ad agency should be a group of smart people, not a process. And smart people should be able to have the freedom to explore many different ways of solving a client’s business problem without feeling constrained by the tyrannical straitjacket of a traditional creative brief. Which, as it happens, is the topic we’ll be expanding upon next week…