What It Takes To Make ‘Great’

Among the more than 1.5 million species in the animal kingdom, the camel is one of the strangest. You could argue that the camel was assembled from leftover parts of a number of unrelated mammals. Some have even justified the camel’s odd appearance by suggesting that it was designed by a committee.

It’s a decent metaphor for why great work is so hard to do, because all marketing efforts are, for better or worse, the product of committees. And even though Team Creative and Team Client are supposed to be playing on the same side and moving the ball toward a common goal, more often than not they are working at cross purposes, and the output is frequently as strange as the aforementioned critter with the hump on his back.

Microsoft made a video for internal consumption almost twenty years ago that illustrates the difficulty in producing really good work. The premise of the piece is “If Microsoft Designed the iPod Package.” We first see images of the pristine iPod packaging from Apple. What follows is a series of well-meaning “tweaks” from imaginary team members being applied to a simple design idea. Slowly but surely, the iPod package is transformed from simple elegance into being copy-heavy and visually overloaded in order to satisfy all the constituencies who need to have a say in how it looks and sounds. What started out as a simple, beautiful package now looks like a box some lower-tier pharmaceutical company would design for a nasal decongestant. You could argue that two decades later, Microsoft has yet to take the hint. However, the video proves that at one time, at least one person in the company had a sense of humor about it.

Equally telling is another video parody called “The Process—Designing the Stop Sign.” This piece asks (and answers) the question, “What if a major corporation was tasked with designing a simple stop sign?” Like the iPod package, it starts out so simply—bold white letters spelling “STOP” in a red circle. Everyone on the team loves it! But wait a minute… they have to give feedback. How could they not? With contributions from three different parties on the client side—one who appears quite randomly as if she was beamed into the meeting a la Star Trek, the stop sign devolves into something unrecognizable as logos and photos are added along with additional copy. Even the word “STOP” gets rewritten in favor of other copy options. Only when they test market the sign and drivers fail to get the message and collide with each other at intersections where they were supposed to stop does the team see their catastrophic failure against a very simple objective.

For clients in the marketing game, one of the biggest challenges is to think like their consumers. Consumers just want a sign in the appropriate place that tells them to stop. Beyond what folks on the client side care about internally—essentially making points with superiors and not taking too many risks so everybody can keep our jobs—what do “they” care about, the living, breathing people who buy their stuff? If your approach to marketing is not grounded in a real consumer need, it’s destined to fail. Doing what’s “safe” is pretty much the same as doing nothing at all. The good news that you get to stay in your foxhole and out of your boss’s office and you’ll keep your insurance and your 401K. The bad news is that the people who really should notice—your consumers—won’t.

On the creative side, it can be discouraging. Often you have to stand up against a tidal wave of client feedback. In the stop sign video, you watch the creative guy go from being engaged and invested in the project to becoming a doormat who really doesn’t give a damn—because life’s too short, right? But that’s the key. If you want to do great work, you have to stay engaged. You have to keep coming back at the client with great stuff, time after time. It’s so much easier to give up than to use your creative prowess to find a solution that doesn’t suck.

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