Joe Talcott is a speaker, a mentor and a marketer, who has held major marketing roles in many major brands. But more particularly, Joe is a champion of the importance of creativity in marketing and advertising and has a passion for providing marketers with the skills and practical tools they need to succeed through the business he partners in, Creatism. He is also an invaluable Mentor in the Marketing Mentor program.
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Welcome to Managing Marketing, a weekly podcast where we discuss the issues and opportunities, facing marketing, media and advertising with industry thought leaders and practitioners.
Today, I’m sitting down with Joe Talcott, a truly entertaining public speaker, a marvellous mentor, and a world-renowned marketer. But more importantly, Joe is a champion of creativity in marketing and advertising. It’s his passion for providing marketers with the skills and practical tools they need to succeed that led him to co-found the business, CREATISM. Welcome, Joe Talcott.
Thank you, Darren. It’s fun to be on your platform here.
Well look, Joe, we’ve known each other a number of years. Let’s not go into the exact amount, because I think it’ll do neither of us justice, but terrific to have you on. And the reason that I contacted you was because of an article I read in a lot of the trade media about the briefing. And I know because of your passion for the role and value of creativity, that briefing was so important. What are your thoughts on that?
Well, I think one of the motivations for me, being passionate about the briefing, is that my first job in marketing was as a copywriter, working for a small agency in the Midwestern part of the US. I quite enjoyed doing that, but as I went beyond and looked back at that time, I realised that when I figured out what a creative brief actually was, I found that I’d been writing my own, I wasn’t getting one from the client.
And I discovered later that that wasn’t uncommon. What inspired me after that is that my view is that to get the best work out of the creative person is to give them a pretty tight brief on what you’re trying to achieve. And when done correctly, that ends up being very positive for the person responding to the brief and to the marketer who’s trying to obviously build their business based on marketing communications.
Regrettably, what I found as time went on, and I worked in a number of different places and saw different people addressing this brief in different ways — I found that there were a lot of potholes that were just popping up all over the place that prevented great work from eventuating out of the process that they had in place. And I think that’s still going on today.
But I’ve always had a fond spot for writing briefs and for responding to them. I think it’s not a difficult process to explain, however getting it right can be quite difficult. And I’m sure that’s one of the reasons that we see that many people just aren’t bothering with it.
Joe, it’s interesting that you say you enjoy the process because I do know a lot of marketers struggle with briefs. And they really struggle with, well, what’s the purpose and what should I include and what shouldn’t I include? And I think a little bit is they feel that they’re going to be judged on their brand. And so, to be judged by someone else can be incredibly intimidating.
What is it about the briefing process that you particularly enjoy or what’s the mindset that helps you enjoy it?
Well, I suppose the part of the brief, which oftentimes is missing in ones that I’ve read, is in a sense a detective’s work. And what I mean is that you look at all the things that are affecting your business and the project that you are in the middle of trying to brief somebody on. And I think that the most exciting part for me is discovering an insight that leads to a great piece of work in the end, because you hit on what was driving your potential customers either to use you or not use you and giving a creative team, something that is really meaty that they can get their heads around and then execute, hopefully, in a wonderful way that taps into that insight, that results in people agreeing with the communications to act in the way that you wanted them to.
And look, when I started out like most other people, I didn’t even know what an insight was. And that to figure out how to find them was a process. And oftentimes, in some of the accounts that I worked for, there wasn’t an insight. You’d just get a ream of data and expect that somehow that was going to end up in a good piece of creative work.
And oftentimes, it didn’t. So, that’s the part, which I enjoy the most, Darren, the sifting through things and seeing what is it in there that we could use and that would be powerful at the end because people may not even realise that that’s how they’re responding to your communications, but you’ve nailed something.
I mean, I’m reminded of an old campaign going back now, probably over 20 years, created by Goodby, Silverstein & Partners for the California Milk Processor Board.
And the insight that the work ended up being based on, was the fact that in California, people in their cars, driving home, and oftentimes, finding that they do not have any milk at home.
And so, they did a great, at least initially, outdoor campaign with just two words; Got milk? Now, I think a lot of people would look at it and say, “what kind of creative is that?”. Well it, was a very powerful creative message based on the simple insight that people driving home, oftentimes don’t have milk in the fridge. I think that the campaign is still running in some places.
So, I recognise the power of an insight if you get it right.
Yes. There was an element to that too, Joe, and I remember it so well, which was the milk moustache. That thing that when you have a glass of milk, it leaves your top lip covered in the remnants of the milk, which is such a memory of childhood for most people.
I think in California, in the US, in most Western countries, milk is an essential part; it’d be interesting to see how that campaign would run in Asia, where of course milk is not traditionally part of the diet. And so, I think that’s the other thing because people struggle with this idea of insights, but insights are often something that can be deeply embedded in the culture of your audience or in the psyche of the audience, can’t they?
Absolutely, and I think I remind people that I talk to that an insight is almost always out of sight, at least on the surface. And that’s why I describe it as detective work, to figure out what’s really going on in your potential customer’s mind or in the way that they act or behave or believe that you could tap into. With your product or service, providing a solution that comes from that. That doesn’t just come from the fact that 35% of people don’t use our product or another dry statistic, which really doesn’t answer the question why.
Briefs very often contain all kinds of data on the what question, but the why question is really the most important and the question that is often missing in a brief. So, I think that for marketers and for creatives, you can get it right. It’s exciting to work on because you’re trying to solve the mystery. And if you get it right and solve the mystery, the results can be beneficial to your own career and to your client’s business.
So, Joe, I’m sitting here listening to you and I’m stuck on this vision of you as a detective, and I’m not quite sure which detective you are; are you Sherlock Holmes with the deerstalker and the pipe, or are you Colombo in the rumpled rain jacket? Do you have a particular detective persona that you embrace when you’re looking for these insights?
I haven’t, but I appreciate the question. It’s interesting that you mentioned that. First of all, I’ll answer quickly. I would probably be more of the Colombo than I’d be Sherlock. But I recently started reading some books and I’m a person that actually reads books by listening to them, I’m a great Audible fan.
And they came out with a particular offer that had all the Sherlock Holmes stories for basically one credit on audible. And so, I listened to all of them, and I always knew about Sherlock, the most referenced kind of detective and used across the world in so many different ways, but to read the actual stories for the first time for me, was just marvelous because the author was incredible at spinning these tales out.
And I didn’t make the connection to writing a creative brief as I read them, but I probably will now that you’ve mentioned that because that’s the fun part.
Now, Joe, because I imagine there are quite a few marketers that don’t have that sort of passion, desire, interest in being a detective, and really trying to weasel out the insight. And a lot of them then default to, or they’re given a template to fill in and I’m sure you have seen as many of those as I have.
And the danger with them … because they can be useful, but like any template, it can also default to just ticking the boxes or putting a few words in each one and saying, “Well, the job’s done, isn’t it?”
Yes. And I think, look, there’s a place for templates as you point out. But what I’ve come around to, is that any creative brief template should include one … should conclude with a key proposition, that we want to get to. But that proposition needs to be based on an insight. There should be a place on that document that says “what’s the insight?”, what can we use to get there.
And as I said that is the hardest part of it. It’s easy to write the things going to run and what kind of channels are going to be used to promote this. It’s much more difficult to say, “why should somebody buy this product”.
And when you get that, and then you turn it over to talented creative people to turn that into compelling, interesting, memorable marketing communications, that’s when you win. And I know from experience in talking to lots of people that are in the area and tasked with writing these, that it’s very often missed either because of the pressure on marketers to just keep turning things out in their day-to-day, or the fact that they’re uncomfortable going into that space.
There are lots of lots of reasons that creative end up just getting a document that’s pretty bland, and that they have to do the work that I think the marketer actually should be doing. Then the creators can turn an insight into great creative work.
Sorry, Joe, you just, again, triggered a thought; my four-year-old boys love ABC Kids, and there’s a show on there called Noddy, the Toyland Detective. And the jingle that introduces it says “Who, what, where, when, how, let’s investigate now.” And it took me back to perhaps this is as simple as the template or the brief needs to be.
Well. Yes, I think you’re right, Darren. I think the template should be quite simple. It’s filling it in which should be the difficult part. And rightly so, in a sense, because if it was obvious, you wouldn’t have to write the brief.
It is important to remember that you are writing the brief for two audiences. One, are the people that you want to buy your product or service. That one is pretty obvious. But the second is the creative people that are going to be reading your brief. And having been one myself early on in my career, I know that getting a ream of paper full of Excel spreadsheets is not particularly motivating to creative people.
So, that’s why I think it’s the marketer’s job to decode that information and get it down to something the creative people can use.
I spoke with one agency that said that they take the briefs that they were getting back from their clients, and in the creative department, they would just put them on a bulletin board and they let the creatives choose which brief they were going to write to. So, they weren’t assigned specifically to a client with whom they had worked.
And what happened was that the best creatives chose the best briefs. And so, my advice to the marketers was to write a great brief that appeals to the people that are going to be creating this work. If you do that, you’re going to get better talent on the project.
Yes, I’ve always found that being a creative for 15 years myself, what creative people love is a big juicy problem and a well-articulated problem, because then, you can focus on the solution. You know, if someone’s done the work of defining the problem very clearly, it’s almost like the solution offers itself to you.
And then the role of the creative is not to define the problem, but just come up with the best solutions, because of course, to every brief, there should be potentially an infinite number of solutions of which there will be a handful that are just mind-blowingly amazing. And that’s one of the things that you’re looking for, those really big problems to solve, aren’t you?
Yes. I think you put it well, Darren. That there are many different ways that you can go, even with a single problem. Charles Kettering said “A problem well stated is a problem half solved”. And whilst I agree with that, the “well-stated” is the easy half. It’s the solving, which still remains difficult.
But if it’s not defined at all, then you don’t have much hope in getting to where you think you want to go on that path, because you’ve left it open to the creative team to go anywhere, because you haven’t defined what you’re really trying to solve. I know I’m going to dwell on the same issue here, but it’s the one that I think is the most important as far as writing an inspiring brief.
And I’ve been in situations where I’ve written a brief for advertising, and it’s come back, and it just wasn’t making it. And in the end, I realised that it was a bad brief. So along with the help from my team, we went back to the agency again with the new brief. And it resulted in advertising that was compelling, relevant, motivating, and most importantly, financially successful for the campaign.
So, sometimes a marketer can work very hard on writing a brief and still have to come back and say, “You know what, that’s not working. I’ve got to take another stab at it.”
And Joe, when you’ve put so much time and effort and thought into writing a brief, what’s your feeling about then collaborating with the agency and getting their input, or do you get their input during that process of writing the brief? From a personal perspective, what do you think is better?
Well, the way of working that I’ve found to be most effective was to first, write the brief without talking to the agency. But then, delivering the brief in person to the team that you’re working with and having a discussion about it. And believe me, Darren, I learnt a lot from that process on things that I’d missed, or questions I hadn’t answered, even insights coming from jumping to the creative people; insights coming from those people saying, “Well, you might’ve missed this.”
So, I think in the end, the best work can come from a positive collaboration between the client and agency, where they both recognise the skills and talents that each group possess, and bring those skills together for a good outcome.
I used to have a formula, that I use to evaluate the creative that came back. And it was a simple, a two-question formula that I received from an agency creative director. And the two questions were these:
1: Is it on strategy? So, obviously, the strategy needs to be part of your brief. If it’s yes, you go to question 2, If not, you start over.
Question 2 is: Do I love it? If yes you’re set. If “no”, you ask the team to have another go.
And it seems simple, but it worked pretty well for me. But I had the chance a couple of years ago to sit down with Keith Reinhard, the legendary creative at DDB. And I was relating that story to him and he looked at me, he said, “Joe, let me challenge you on that.” I said, okay.
And he said “I might flip the two questions and start with, do I love it? And then ask, is it on strategy? And if it’s not on strategy, perhaps we can create a strategy that will make it work.” But what was interesting is he gave me a very good example. He said he had a creative team working on the US beer brand, Budweiser.
And they came in with an idea that was based on just something that the people working on the advertising did. They would call each other to talk, and begin with the phrase “Wassup?”, with each of them expressing it in a more dramatic way. The answer to the Wassup question was something like; “not much, just hanging around, having a Bud”. And they turned that into an amazingly successful campaign for Budweiser without a strategy document, other than maybe what someone thought it might be.
And so, I had to, in a sense, check my own rigidity and how that works. And whilst the idea of saying, “Well, I love it, so I’m changing the strategy” seems quite outlandish in some ways, the example that I got was a good case of it working extraordinarily well — we’ve got to be a bit flexible. That campaign debuted in 1999 but has recently been revised for COVID lockdowns.
Well, and part of that is really understanding the role of creativity, isn’t it? Which is sometimes a creative idea can spontaneously come from working on another problem and then working out if it’s relevant to your business needs or your marketing needs and driving it.
I always think saying you retrofit the strategy to the idea is incredibly dangerous unless you’ve got a real rigour to strategy. But certainly, it’s an opportunity for taking advantage of what seems to just magically appear spontaneously from the creative process.
Well, I think you hit a good point. I think one of the fundamental parts of creativity is, at least from my experiences in working with some very creative people, is to have your mind open to all kinds of different elements and different combinations of things that result in some type of creative work.
You know, James Webb Young said that an idea “is nothing more or less than a new combination of old elements”. And, if that be true, then one of the things that creative people, the good ones do, is they fill their brains with different elements. The best Creative people are very curious. As I am certain you are.
So when you received a formal brief, and it says “we need to do this or that and here’s an insight”, you have a better chance of coming up with something that’s quite interesting because you’ve just been interested in lots of different things in the world.
So, the reason for the conversation, Joe, is because there was some research done recently through the IPA, by a group called Better Briefs, a Melbourne based strategy group. And they surveyed about 17,000 marketers and agencies around the world. And they were asking marketers how well they thought they did their briefing.
And it might not surprise you that around 80% thought they did a fabulous job at the briefing, but around 10% of their agencies felt they did a fabulous job at the briefing. There’s this huge gap in perception between clients and agencies which is a worry because on the basis of you don’t know what you don’t know, there’s a lot of marketers out there that think they’re doing fabulous briefs but their agencies actually think they’re not.
Yes, I haven’t seen that, but I’m not surprised because I think that businesses that are in the job of marketing their products in a way that we’re talking about, oftentimes, have a formula for writing a brief, which they’ve poured over with lots of hours and lots of people giving input to it, and without picking any of them out because I wouldn’t be able to.
But I think part of it that does come back to what I said earlier, is the two audiences. You have to write to the creative team to inspire them. And I think that may be where that gap is coming. Again, if you’re a writer or an art director and you get a ream of paper and data and then say, “Well, come on, let’s turn this into wonderful, inspiring, and effective advertising,” that’s a pretty big job.
And you’re relying on creative people, in a sense, to be doing a strategist’s or a marketer’s role of first, going through that data and coming out with something that can translate into motivation for a potential customer to part with their money for your product or service. And I think the more that can be streamlined to the Creatives, the better chance you have of getting inspiring work.
Yes. Look, it may not surprise you, but Bob Hoffman, the ad contrarian commented on the research. He said briefing is bullshit, and the best brief is one line. And as I was reading that in Bob’s newsletter, I was recalling a group account director in an agency in let’s say, Asia, who showed me a text message, or actually a WhatsApp message that they received from their client on Friday night at 7:30 PM, which said: “Need ad Monday, first up, sell more product.”
And that was the brief; no budget, nothing. It was a WhatsApp message. I felt like saying to Bob, “Is this the one line that makes the perfect brief?”
Wow. I am not surprised to hear that. I must say in the places I’ve been over the past many years, I’ve seen a few of those; “We need an ad by Monday” briefs. And it just flabbergasts me on how you think that’s going to result in something that you know is going to be effective. Not that it maybe doesn’t occasionally, but boy, talk about a bad start to the process.
Yes, it was interesting because this group account director, we were actually benchmarking the agency’s productivity. And what we could actually see was that the agency was spending a huge amount of hours back-filling the lack of any sort of thinking the client did.
I mean, the client was literally in reactive mode, spitting out commands and orders without any sort of strategic thinking or any sort of consideration. And it was more than doubling the agency’s workload in time to produce the same amount of work. Literally, it was doubling the agency’s cost and ultimately, the client’s cost because of this lack of thinking.
Darren, it comes back to what we were talking about earlier about this partnership between agency and client. I worked for a big multinational business where that partnership was a part of the ethos of the business.
And when I was representing the marketer in this case around the world, I found it interesting; I could walk into a conference room filled with people that worked for the business and people that worked for the agency, and it was difficult to tell who was who. There was such a partnership and cohesion all working to solve the same problems or to create new opportunities.
And I think that if you can do that, you’re going to be more effective than if you act in the way that you just described, where marketers are the task masters and just continue to request more work and critique it. So, you have to respect each other’s talents in that kind of situation, because everybody’s not the same. But I just found it to be a much better way of working.
What you’re describing there, Joe is an interesting relationship because I often wonder why there is an expectation between marketers and advertising agencies, that the marketer should have a brief in the format that the agency, first of all, desires or wants, and in a way that’s exciting and inspirational to the creatives.
Because when I look at other professional services that I’ve dealt with over my career when I go to a lawyer, they don’t ask me to fill in a brief for their services. They’ll sit down and they’ll actually ask questions and they’ll listen. And they’ll ask me to provide evidence, or can I provide evidence for the various aspects while I work out what they can best do for me.
If I go to my accountant, they’ll ask a whole lot of questions to really understand my business and my particular problem that has been sitting there. My financial advisor — my God, my doctor. I go to the doctor he doesn’t ask me if I’ve already undertaken the MRI and the blood test. He will actually/or she will ask lots of questions and why doesn’t the same process work with advertising agencies and their clients?
Because it seems to me that the onus shouldn’t be on the marketer, that the onus should be on the agency and the marketer should be open to participating in this process because they want the best solution possible.
Look, I think that’s a very interesting and good point, Darren. And I think I’ve seen over the years, relationships that start to approach that, but never to the degree that you’ve described as far as going to your surgeon and telling him where to cut.
But I just come back to the fact that the business that we’re in, can be at its best very collaborative, and tearing down these walls between all the different disciplines that are in both businesses or with the same goal. And if you could get to the point where the agency comes in and kind of flips the model around and talks to the client about the problems and what they’ve seen. I mean, that’s one that doesn’t happen very often. But the way you’ve described it, it seems like it’s probably certainly an opportunity to do that.
And look, lots of agencies have what used to be called planners or insight managers, whatever that would be sitting in the room in a discussion like that. But to completely flip it on its head, it could be interesting.
I did read something somewhere that said, well, who should write the brief? And the cheeky answer was the person that has most to lose if it goes wrong. And whilst oftentimes the finger gets pointed at an agency for the communications didn’t work or whatever it is; if you take a step backwards, you find out that it was briefed incorrectly – well, then it’s hard to just point the finger at the agency and probably vice versa to your point.
And you touched on it earlier, Joe, in that the brief is not just about starting the process. It’s actually then about judging the work that comes back. But I personally think that it has a role beyond that because it also has a place in selling the work internally as the marketer.
But often, you’ll be in a position of you’ve briefed this work, the agencies come back with a great idea, but it’s a great idea because it actually makes you a little bit uncomfortable in your stomach. You know, there’s a bit of excitement, the adrenaline of this would be amazing if we get it across the line.
But then having the brief to structure the way you present it, rather than just saying, “Well, here’s the ad, what do you think of it?” To then use the brief to take the audience, whether it’s the CEO or the board, or the sales director or whoever else you need to get on board with this concept; take them through the briefing as almost a story of why this is the best idea possible.
Have you seen that work?
Yes, I have seen it. I mean, I spent as you know a lot of time working for McDonald’s and the creative work was always presented to the group of franchisees in a particular market. And we’d always start out with what the brief was for that to try to do exactly what you said.
Now, there’s no question that some people didn’t like it, or thought that it was on the wrong track, but they heard the rationale. And in most cases, the rationale was well-thought-out and could be executed.
Now, in defence of my old employer, I thought that they made a good decision to say that although franchisees would vote on many different things having to do with marketing, they had no say in what the actual creative looked like in the end.
Well, they had a say, but they couldn’t make a decision on it. They would say, “We’re not going to run that” just because of the diversity of opinions and the like. But I think they did understand the process and before we would show any work, we would demonstrate how we got to the work that was presented.
And to your point, that leads to a better understanding by the people that are going to have to be living with this and delivering on the promises made in the communications.
I’m reminded of a story about … remember the Holeproof commercial Antz Pantz? It was voted one of the top Australian commercials for the 20th Century, which is a big call. I think it was in the top five or something for Holeproof.
And Jack Geddy was the account director at the Campaign Palace. And he was given the creative, they explained it met the brief and for those that don’t know it, it’s got this young, very attractive woman. It’s obviously very hot where she is. She’s only in her underwear and she’s lying on a bed and there’s ants crawling across her lower abdomen. And there’s an echidna and she says Sic ’em, Rex’. And then you just cut to the product shop with her giggling in the background.
So, except Jack was faced with presenting this to at the time, a group of senior executives, at Holeproof, they were all middle-aged men. And so, earlier when you said, the first question is, “Do I like it?” Or one of the questions that you said was, “Do I like it?” He was terrified that they weren’t the target audience.
So, whether they liked it or not was largely irrelevant because this was written for teenage and young women, and the ad had been written by young women as well. So, they were right in that sweet spot of the target audience.
So, what he did — and I thought this was brilliant. He presented a whole lot of media aimed at that age group to remind these men who would be approving it, that this is the target audience. This is what they’re seeing. This is what they’re watching. This is what they’re paying for. This is what they’re doing, now, here’s the ad. And he sold it.
So, I mean, to me, that is not just salesmanship, but it’s using the brief as a structure to present creative work beyond someone’s personal tastes especially if they’re not the target audience.
Well, and good on them for actually going through that process or good on him going through that process, so that they’d understand what was going on, and that they agreed to do it is also a good outcome.
Look, Joe, one of the other things that bothers me is the number of times we’ve benchmarked agency resources. And the problem is that the client, the marketers are using the briefing process to actually test the strategy. And so, there’s an iteration of the briefing, getting creative back, changing the brief; it’s not the ideal way, is it?
No, it isn’t. Explain to me just a little bit more, Darren, on how that twist is going on?
So, the client may be not completely sure what their strategy should be. You know, they have a problem, they’ve defined the problem. So, they’ll put a brief into the agency and when they get the work back, it helps them work out from the creative, whether they were on the right strategy. And they’ll use that to then modify the brief and then go back in. And look, apart from the financial cost of that, it has a huge emotional cost on the agency and particularly, the creative people who find themselves doing idea after idea on slightly different briefs.
Yes, I think that on the one hand, another point of view can always be helpful, but probably not in that formal process. And I also believe that the client has to own the strategy. I mean, it’s their business and their job to determine how they’re going to try to accomplish whatever objective it is that they’re going after. And I would be reluctant to flip that to the agency and say, “Well, what do you think our strategy should be?”
So, yes, if that happens and they’re just in a sense saying, “well, bring me lots of ideas and I’ll reach into that and pick one, and maybe that’ll make us reconsider the way that we’re marketing”; I think it’s, well, probably lazy at best, and really it just doesn’t make sense to me if you’re in that role that you’d be doing it that way.
It’s a bit of a cop-out, and haven’t they heard of market research? God forbid!
Joe Talcott, this has been fantastic. Thank you so much for taking the time and having a conversation today. CREATISM a company that you partner with … your partner is Stacy Thorpe, and you help clients and agencies with problems like this, don’t you?
We do. That’s what we’ve decided to do. Each of us has left corporate life to be able to have relationships with individuals and business clients to help them, in the area of marketing, create programs that deliver higher sales and profits.
Well, wishing you both huge and continued success with that. Look just before you go, I’ve got a question and it’s because you hear a lot of people say that oh, marketing today is not as good as it was a few years ago. But from your perspective and thinking globally, who’s the most inspiring marketer for you today?
Ideal for marketers, advertisers, media, and commercial communications professionals, Managing Marketing is a podcast hosted by Darren Woolley and special guests. Find all the episodes here