We need a Creative risk-o-meter.

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The investment consultants first assess the risk appetite of the consumer before suggesting investment products.

Maybe, advertising needs a similar model as the FIRST STEP in onboarding a new client.

We pitch blind. We flex our creative muscles to the max. We try to ‘sell’ the fact that creativity works. Often without knowing the kind of people we are talking to. Sometimes people are creative and brave. But more often than that, people FEAR creativity. Creativity = uncertainty. Creativity = risk.

And when we lose the pitch, or when we have to go through multiple rounds of work – we complain that the client is not brave enough. At best, we turn team mates into minders in the process – with planners and account management second-guessing what clients might want. Which is terrible for the morale of all involved.

We don’t see investment consultants moaning that their clients aren’t brave enough to put their life savings in F&Os or in innovative quant strategies. They aggressively pitch us shitty products, but they don’t complain righteously when we turn them down. They have a better understanding of their consumers than we do of our consumers.

The shared language of Creative Risk.

Great agency-client relationships have a shared understanding and enthusiasm for creative work.

The first step in starting any such relationship then is to articulate the kind and extent of creativity they are comfortable with. To do this, we need a shared appreciation of risks that introducing creative uncertainties unleashes.

Creative Risk

First, the agencies must realize that creativity is a powerful growth driver, but it isn’t without attendant risks. If we only talk about the growth potential without the risk potential, we prove ourselves to be insincere/ ignorant.

There is a risk in inaction. If you don’t keep up, the brand might become a fuddy-duddy has been. There is a risk of being tone-deaf and outraging communities. There is a risk of ineffective but seemingly safe work that costs millions and does nothing for the brand. Then there is the risk of doing ambitious work that falls flat. There is risk in over-promise. There is risk in under-promise. There is risk in nuance being misunderstood. There is risk in being boring. There is risk in targeting a sharp small segment. There is risk in going too broad. There is risk in being relevant but boring. There is risk in being stand out but not relevant…

We need to appreciate and articulate all of these (and more) possibilities. The truth is marketing is a risky endeavor. What worked yesterday, might not work tomorrow. For one brand a drum-playing gorilla does wonders, for another only a strong performance campaign will do. Marketing then in a sense, is a game where players compete to challenge and change the rules of the game.

When dealing with such uncertainties, it is better for all involved to articulate their fears. Often, these fears remain unspoken. One rationalizes the rejection of the idea. But without knowing the true reason, the agency keeps going round and round in circles.

So perhaps, we should start with the question – what is your worst marketing nightmare?

Asymmetric Risk

The goal is to have an asymmetric risk. A big payoff, with a small risk. You might want a regional brand to go national, without spending on a big TV ad. You might want to become more youthful and enter the cultural zeitgeist with a simple and consistent content strategy. Maybe the client team is OK to raise some measured hackles if it gets them an outsized share of earned media.

Consider Nike taking sides with Colin Kaepernick. It angered conservative Americans but endeared itself to largely younger, global consumers – its source of growth. In the process, it was TOM for all. As Prof. G says – it was a gangster move.

So there’s merit in exploring the tradeoffs. How much risk is the client willing to take to source how much and what kind of growth?

The job then is to build an understanding of the ‘risk to reward ratio’ in marketing campaigns. And then have it acknowledged by the whole team.


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