Subverting Expectations: What We Get Wrong

Subvert Expectations

“Your brief is showing.”

A phrase I heard quite a bit in the ad strategy world, which would often be used to demean “obvious” creative work. I.e. the work that might not win awards, but clearly demonstrates a clear call to action and for lack of a better term just “works”. Think copious food shots for restaurants, showcasing price as the main feature/selling point for a car dealership or just showing a demonstration of product.

Too often, those of us in marketing look at the grand slam, rather than the simpler more effective ways of marketing. There is a reason a lot of creative is boring…after all it’s designed to work at scale. “True” creativity often is the impossible goal we all strive for, often is a result of being handicapped. Whether it’s a low budget, a niche product or a new category, sometimes the most creative work comes from a place of lack of resources, not more of them.

Now, there are exceptions for this situation. After all, any brand that has been able to push forward a narrative focused approach will immediately lend itself to successful marketing. Think Apple, Volkswagen, Tesla, etc. as they’ve established a clear feeling and story to follow along with.

The trouble is that creatives by nature want to shoot for the moon (or further). They press to the edges of a brief and use as much license as possible to create something they can be proud of. This usually ends up with one of three things happening:

  1. Lots of rounds of rejected work. Annoyed clients & frustrated creatives
  2. Ineffective work that is “cool” but misses the mark of actual material success
  3. Passable to great work. (Mostly trending toward passable)

Almost all of the above, can be attributed to a subpar brief or a crap insight. After all, as the voice of the consumer planners should strive to deliver clear guidance, useful information, and above all an actual insight based on consumer behavior. Briefs aren’t cute – they’re factual, brutally efficient and should be unwavering with their point of view. I’ve gotten cute with this before trying to stretch the creatives’ thinking and it has never turned out well.  I now understand why because I’m the client now.

Nothing beats a behavioral insight based on a need. Nothing. Subverting expectations can be fun – but if they don’t come from an actual insight, they’re meaningless. The creative and marketing will far under perform you or your clients’ expectations.

If a creatives’ job is to push, yours as a planner is to constrain and ground in consumer behavior (even more so than the account folks). I know this runs counter to the “fun” of working in marketing, but sometimes fun just isn’t that effective.

So, how do you take these thoughts to heart and implement them in your process as a lead strategist or client? Follow these three rules:

  1. Do the research (both on the product & your market).
  2. Understand your consumer
  3. Call bullshit when appropriate

The rest is up to you. I’m still learning how to stick to these rules myself. But the closer I get, the better the results have been. 

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