Paul Welsh, Contributing Editor
Close your eyes.
If you’re still reading, you don’t take directions very well.
On the other hand, if your eyes are still closed, you’ll never be able to finish this article.
As a writer, I’ve just created a dilemma for myself. I guess being creative isn’t as easy as it looks. Certainly not as easy as it looked at last month’s Best of NAMA presentation when agencies like Osborn & Barr, Miller Meester, Rhea & Kaiser and Valentine Radford strutted their stuff.
You can learn a lot about the creative process from the ag creative directors at those four agencies if you ask. So we did.
ON FINDING GOOD PEOPLE
A lot of things go into producing good work, but one thing’s for sure: If you don’t have good people, you probably won’t have good work. That’s why the best agencies put a huge emphasis on finding the right people.
"Reviewing portfolios is almost a constant agenda item for me," says Mark Buckley, vice president and creative director at Osborn & Barr Communications Inc., Clayton, Mo. "The best people already have day jobs."
Buckley adds that he is an intent observer of the Best of NAMA presentation because the people who are being honored there are likely to be the kind of people he would want to talk with at one point or another. At the same time, other agencies are observing Osborn & Barr’s work.
Mike Campbell, vice president and executive creative director at Minneapolis-based Miller Meester Advertising Inc., says finding people takes as much time as doing the work itself. He contends agencies have to anticipate the need for people because openings continue to be created by new projects from existing clients, new business and ordinary turnover.
"To find a mid-level writer, we just spent six months, and I reviewed 30 to 40 books and reels," notes Patrick Kronin, creative director at Valentine Radford Advertising on the Bayer account.
Van Kaiser, founder and creative director at Rhea & Kaiser Marketing Communications, Naperville, Ill., says the agency has had good luck using executive recruiters when seeking senior people because just running ads won’t do it. "One reason we have good success with recruiters is that we have a focused job description before we start the search," Kaiser notes.
Kaiser says it’s also important to build a base of young people, so Rhea & Kaiser does a lot at the university level, mostly with land-grant colleges and with portfolio schools.
Miller Meester also spends time talking with the ag journalism departments at universities, but has better luck finding public relations people there than advertising people.
Campbell and Kaiser agree that the best writers and art directors have agri-marketing knowledge and expertise. "We like people with agriculture experience or at least a family farm background," Campbell says.
"We prefer folks from an ag background even if they grew up with corn and soybeans but are working on cotton accounts," Kaiser says. "At a minimum, they have a good work ethic and understand the business of farming because they’ve been part of it."
ON MOTIVATING GOOD PEOPLE
"Once you have good people, they’re self-motivated," Campbell says. "At Miller Meester we just look for opportunities to feed their curiosity. The people who succeed in this business have a passion for it and in that sense are self-selecting."
Not everyone can stay self-motivated all the time, so it’s important to help creatives remain enthusiastic about their jobs. Rhea & Kaiser has a semi-formal mentoring program in which it pairs senior people with younger writers and art directors.
"Our senior people care about the young people," Kaiser says. "They understand that part of their role is to be educational leaders."
One way Osborn & Barr keeps its creative people "jazzed" is by giving them a mixture of accounts. Even though their primary accounts are ag, almost everybody gets to work on some non-ag accounts along with new-business efforts. Variety is a way to keep them fresh, according to Buckley.
Valentine Radford, based in Kansas City, Mo., frequently allows its creatives to concept "off campus" to keep them fresh and motivated. "We don’t think it’s beneficial to lock them in a room and toss in some meat from time to time," Kronin says. "We’re trying to foster a community of creativity, not a sweatshop."
"I don’t tell our creatives how to do their jobs," Buckley says. "I make sure they have good information and solid direction, and then I stand back. They will solve the problem differently than I ever would. But that’s fine, as long as it’s on target."
Kaiser agrees. "I believe a CD needs to be a director, not a dictator. I don’t tell creatives what good work is. I ask them to do good work. I try to be fair in judging their work and help them through the process by asking if they considered other approaches."
"My job as creative director is to lead and nudge them, but give them the opportunity to think," Campbell says. "I give them time, help with direction and let them know they’re appreciated."
Kronin feels the environment and the unusual benefits at Valentine Radford help keep the creative staff motivated. Some benefits are flexible hours, a gym with showers and breakfast every morning. What’s more, once a week the agency brings in a masseuse at a discounted rate.
ON GETTING GOOD INPUT
Good input is important, and there are a lot of ways to get it. One way is with written documents. For instance, Rhea & Kaiser uses a "Strategic Growth Map." It’s a simple two- to three-page document featuring questions with just enough room to get the information yet make the answers to questions concise.
Osborn & Barr uses an input form called the "Creative Blueprint" to supply background on the product and relate the marketing situation. It asks questions about the brand, the objective, the target audience, the competition and what is the one thing the audience needs to know-that single message. Having a single message you want the audience to have "locked solid in their mind" is tricky, according to Buckley.
"If you have too many messages, you can move from persuasive advertising to more of a product brochure," Buckley says. "A brochure has a different purpose and should be approached differently."
Buckley says all good work comes from solid brand stewardship and strategy. And you need to make sure goals are appropriate and achievable.
Campbell emphasizes the critical nature of good input by constantly reinforcing the adage that "Output equals input." Like the other agencies, Miller Meester has an input form, but Campbell says it’s no substitute for other forms of interactive input.
"We are currently upgrading our input form, but it never replaces input discussions, a term I use instead of calling them meetings," Campbell says.
Campbell had just returned to his office from a week of focus group research, which he said helps him look for ideas that will work in the mind of the audience. "It’s important to discuss ideas that go beyond product features like active ingredients or horsepower."
You don’t get information for an input from sitting around the office. All the ag creative directors think a lot can be learned in the field.
"We do a lot of field work, especially with our new people," Kaiser says. "It helps them understand dealers and things such as three-step distribution. We also want them to attend shows like the Commodity Classic and Farm Progress to see what other companies are doing."
Kronin contends the key to getting solid input is to have a good relationship with clients. Equally important is the creatives’ relationship with their "account service partners." Valentine Radford works hard to build communication bridges between creatives and account service.
"The boat steers easier at the production stage when communication is good up front," Kronin says. "That way you don’t find yourself at the photographer only to have someone say, ‘That’s the wrong vegetable’ or something worse."
"Smart marketers identify opportunities," Buckley observes.
And what could say "good people and good input" more succinctly?
You can open your eyes now. AM
Paul Welsh is a freelance copywriter and marketing communications consultant based in Leawood, Kan. AM