There’s a tell-tale sign of discontent in any big company: bogies, affixed to the washroom walls (usually those of the closet, to preserve anonymity), by aggrieved employees.
Things are at an even lower ebb when the maintenance team, hastily dispatched to the scene by senior management, simply paint over the by now encrusted mucuses, rather than duteously scrape them off with their shave hooks, thus affording them a kind of pure brilliant white immortality.
Big companies can harbour a great deal of discontent, by which I’m mainly referring to the daily dose of destructive politics and oneupmanship in evidence. And it shows in their communications, which are often dull, confused, committee-produced, and vacuous.
When you try to align the basic tenets of creating clear, single-minded communications to what actually happens when a big company briefs its agency, you can see where and how the flaws occur.
Who do big companies think they’re talking to?
Things start promisingly, with judicious (usually overly-so) identification of the target audience.
What soon transpires, though, is that the actual target is less ‘man in his forties, three kids, Mondeo driver, living in Slough’, and more the company’s potentially violent marketing director. Although in self-imposed exile from the project, they will go ape shit six weeks down the line, when they see the creative work for the first time, unless it miraculously hits their hitherto unspecified nails, precisely on their heads.
Worse, there are three other guys before him or her, all of whom have their own pet likes and dislikes about copy, and art direction: favourite colours, forbidden words (I was once prohibited from using the word ‘family’ because it might offend), a love of interrogative headlines, a detestation of interrogative headlines, and so on.
So the project grinds to a start amid fear, uncertainty, and second, third and fourth guesses about what will please, or displease, who. Meanwhile, the agency, the only people who could help steer the project back on course, get sucked in to the mayhem, preferring to pander to, rather than rail against, the client powers that be.
What do they think they’re saying?
To a creative, the most important ten or so words on the brief encapsulate the proposition. A clear, single-minded statement of what it is they are saying to the customer. In fact, often, an incisive proposition is really all creatives need to crack a brief.
The problem is, large companies rarely have the slightest idea what it is they are saying. To obfuscate this embarrassing fact, they attempt to incorporate their entire product portfolio (with ‘great prices’ and ‘excellent service’ added in for good measure), resulting in a quadruple-minded proposition, circa thirty words long. Worse still, is when creatives are confronted by two separate propositions, one to please marketing director A, the other to satisfy marketing director B.
Oddly enough, big companies are quite adept at calls to action. They know what they want the customer to do (usually to buy something before such and such a date, to qualify for a ‘massive 10% off’). It’s just that they lack the empathy to hold their customer’s hand through a straightforward case as to why they should do it.
To them, the customer should do it simply because they are being asked to. In other words, they should be obedient, which of course, most people relish not being, especially to big corporations. For the past three years, a telecoms company has been telling me to come back to them, but not giving me a good enough reason to. So I don’t.
My message to major businesses.
If you want to communicate more effectively, it may sound trite, but try to become a happier outfit. Stop allowing projects to deteriorate into an internal, or company-versus-agency, power struggle.
Create a collaborative atmosphere from the top down. No matter how senior you think you are, get involved, and stay involved with the project from the start. View even the smallest project in the same way a small business would, with no room for wastage of time or money. Believe me, big company bickering wastes both in bucket loads.
Ensure you and your team know your product or service with boffin-like analism. I’ve lost count of the times I’ve asked an agency to request product information from the client, only to be told ‘they don’t know, we need to tell them‘. Boffins are a joy to work with. Ignoramuses aren’t.
Be honest about your proposition. Isolate the simple truth, and tell it clearly to the customer. Even if the truth doesn’t reflect well on your company, being honest does. In a recent project, a client’s main objective was to bury the truth (a price rise), rather than simply communicate it.
And don’t get hung up on ‘tone of voice’. As I recently pleaded with a client, who was agonising over her company’s ‘language’, the language is English, and the tone is clarity.
Lastly, or rather firstly, before your project starts, talk to your legal department about what your work can and can’t say. If you don’t, they’ll eventually get round to telling you, and your project may bite the dust as a result. Legal departments are often viewed as a pain, but that’s only because they are invited to become involved in the project at too late a stage.
Above all, when you communicate, think only about one person. Not yourself, not your company, not your boss, not your shareholder. But your customer. They’ll be happier, and I promise that when the results come in, so will you.