Be Fierce learning from a top creative agency.jpg

There are over 25k creative agencies in the UK. Wow. So, when you get the chance to visit the number one independent agency in Birmingham, and number 66 independent agency in the UK, that’s a rich learning opportunity.

by Darren Caveney

Future Leaders is a brilliant initiative which I have supported since it was first created by LGcomms some eight of nine years ago. If you’re not aware of it it identifies talented communicators from across the public sector and offers them a tailored annual programme to support their ambitions to become the future heads and directors of communications.

When I was leading in-house comms teams I would send colleagues on to Future Leaders, and I have enjoyed mentoring a new Future Leader each year since. It’s a great idea and a real credit to people like Eleri Roberts and Kim Patterson who did so much work on it in the early days to bring the idea to life and to Emma Rodgers who now leads the programme.

Getting creative

You know when you have one of those great chats with industry pals after a couple of glasses of wine? Thought as much. The ones where you really get to chew the fat on the big issues and opportunities within our industry. Well I did this back in October after Comms Academy and a couple of us got on to the subject of working with creative agencies.

Now I have always said that you should find yourself a brilliant creative agency and treat them like gold. They can help you deliver outstanding work. They can provide the skills and experience which you won’t always have in your teams. And they can provide brilliant creative solutions when in-house you’re being pulled from pillar to post and can’t see the (comms) wood for the (demand) trees.

I was fortunate – many, many years ago – to find such an agency called One Black Bear and I worked with them on everything from an award-winning national NHS ‘Come Back to Nursing’ recruitment campaigns, through to big corporate identity relaunches. I learned so much from working with them and more recently agencies like Alive with Ideas – I always felt it added to my learning curve back in the day.

But one of my concerns is that with budget cuts going the way they have many in-house comms pros now miss out on the chance to work with a top agency and benefit from this learning experience.

Now of course there will be duff agencies out there – more on that later. Hence when you find a good one, look after them. It sounds cheesy but to me the creative agency was always an extension of the in-house comms team. I saw others treat agencies like any old supplier and someone to bark orders at. That won’t end well.

World’s collide

So, back to the point of this post – two world’s collided and I asked the guys at One Black Bear if we could bring the Future Leaders to Birmingham to hear about the inner workings of a creative agency. And what a fun, informative and fascinating day we had with them.

So much so I thought it would be worth sharing the (28) lessons we heard on the day. Here goes…

1.      Don’t believe everything that some agencies will tell you

2.      Watch out for the agencies who will wheel out the big guns for a pitch only to then give you a much more junior person as your contact once the pitch is won

3.      Budget creep – tie down all contracts via your legal team

4.      Sticking to your guns on ideas – so often great ideas get watered down internally. A good agency will fight to stop this from happening and you should too

5.      Things can move slowly in the public sector – make sure your agency is aware of this if they are new to the public sector

6.      Clear objectives lead to better work and outcomes – insist on getting business plans with business objectives from your internal services (this has been such a theme of recent conversations with teams I have worked with lately)

7.      Timescales – agencies get frustrated when they’re told they have to turn something around in 3 days only for the work to then sit on a desk for 3 weeks. Better work may have been possible if that time had been used differently

8.      VFM – cheap doesn’t always mean better

9.      Budget justification – 2 coffees of thinking time vs 30 coffees of thinking time is a good way to consider what your resources might generate for you in terms of end product   

10.  How much do we need to spend? Is a an oft recurring question. And we all know it depends on many, many factors.

11.  What does a good brief look like? Well for a start it must be crafted internally and with a clear link to a business plan and business objectives

12.  All objectives must be SMART

13.  What insight exists? Challenge and push back if insufficient intel exists to inform the work (if Brexit teaches us anything it’s that we must have facts, data, insight and evidence and NOT just opinion and beliefs)

14.  Key message nailed – if you’re struggling here then push it back to the internal service and ask them this: What would you put on a poster? Sometimes they will themselves come up with the answer

15.  You must have your metrics and intel in place as this will contribute to shaping the tactics

16.  ROI must be demonstrable to a Finance director who won’t be interested in video view stats

17.  Be clear and tell agency what the internal sign off process is

18.  Share background info on previous work, similar sector campaigns and competitor activity

19.  It’s good to feel uncomfortable when you see creative ideas pitched – it’s a sign that the work isn’t just a safe solution

20.  It’s easier to pull a creative agency back than push them forward

21.  In research testing, most people don’t really like ads or are bothered by them

22.  The UK ad industry is worth £25billion a year and in research only 4per cent of ads are actually liked

23.  Don’t pick the safe option – on the set of the now famous Marmite advert (you know the strapline) the client was physically sick with nerves

24.  A creative would always choose a shiny trophy for an award win over a £5k pay rise

25.  How to be creative on down days – ensure a genuinely great team culture exists with no forced or organised activities like paint balling or other team building antics. It’s all about the work. Love the work and truly care about it. Good things will follow.

26.  Being creative in a sterile environment and open plan office. You almost certainly won’t be. Get out of that space and to somewhere which suits you – a library or art gallery if you like quiet, a coffee shop or pub if you like noise. But either way make the time

27.  What happens when a good idea won’t come? Park it and stop thinking about it. Go for a walk, grab some fresh air, do something else. A good idea will often then land the following day, and will then seem really obvious – it’s important to sometimes take the pressure off yourself.

And finally…

28.  The One Black Bear ethos is: Be fierce (and never mediocre) Now there’s a value and a call to action we communicators can get behind

One Black Bear was set up by Jon Harrison and Rich Elwell 16 years ago.

If you would like to know more about them and talk to Jon and Rich about how and where they may be able to help you you’ll get them at

Special thanks to Jon and Kate Hartshorn for making time for the Future Leaders group. And for treating us to a rather nice lunch too.

Darren Caveney is creator of comms2point0 and owner of creative communicators ltd

image via mackenzie and john

Original source – comms2point0 free online resource for creative comms people – comms2point0

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