Is there a better way to direct creative craftspeople than giving them “the proposition?”

We spend a lot of time working with agencies who are populated with expert craftspeople who are fantastic at generating solutions, making stuff and planning how to go to market. They are often under tremendous time and resource pressure and it is awesome what they can create.

It has been our experience that many of them are still using some kind of creative brief, within which there is a question akin to “the most compelling thing we should say” as a a focal point.

There is a better way to focus and inspire creative craftspeople. We recommend what we call a “creative question.”

A creative question is a question that has 1) the desired consumer-based change and 2) the desired consumer response embedded within it.

Some examples:
⁃ How can Kleenex build the story that a disposable bathroom towel is more sanitary than a cloth towel?
⁃ How can Google convince engineers that Google engineers experience the most challenging and interesting problems in the most interesting environment?
⁃ How can new sneaker maker Athletic Propulsion Labs introduce a basketball shoe that offers an unfair competitive advantage?

Here’s why we prefer creative questions over propositions and the like.

A creative question emphasizes the strategic reason why something needs to be done in the first place. — Craft organizations have tremendous inertia around solving, making and executing stuff. We find their muscle memory makes them skip over the time it takes to clearly define a specific consumer-based change and desired consumer result. Creative questions force this rigor.

A creative question re-establishes the difference between stimulus and response. — Confusion about the difference between stimulus and response is one of the biggest problems with marketing generally. Marketers often confuse what they want to leave with people (desired response) with what they might offer to get people there (stimulus). Here’s the difference. Imagine you had an Uncle who wanted to be known as your funny Uncle. That’s his desired response. What he does or says to get you to think that is his stimulus. The creative question emphasizes and articulates the desired response. This is essential for measuring effectiveness (market response to marketing). This fluency is also very helpful during creative conversations because too often marketers tell their craftspeople to “say” what they really want their customers to take away.

A creative question creates conditions for broader and more imaginative solutions. — A creative question doesn’t emphasize what to say. It emphasizes the result. Going back to your Uncle whose desired response is “funny Uncle.” He can do/be/offer many, many different things to get you there. He can dress funny, tell jokes, have your Mom tell you he is funny, he can take you to comedy clubs, etc. The potential for what he offers is wide. He can say things, be a certain way, use other people, emphasize funny locations, etc. The scope of possible solutions is wider and less predictable.

A creative question is more interesting and engaging (versus being told what to do). — We’re not sure this is true but we’ve been told that Dan Wieden said something like “the best thing a planner can do is give a creative person an interesting question.” If Mr. Wieden said that, we agree. If he didn’t, we’ll say it. Questions are engaging and interesting and provoke possibilities and options. Statements or propositions carry with them a work-order sub-text (e.g. go say this!) or worse, begs for a judgment (e.g. do I agree or accept that?) that can quickly end the process. A creative question feels like the beginning.

A creative question is better for collaborations. — There are a lot more craftspeople involved in the creative process these days. Since a creative question focuses on the desired result, it leaves lots of room for different kinds of craftspeople to create different kinds of offerings to create the desired change and result. This helps keep everyone involved, inspired, happy and most importantly on track.

We’ve done a lot of work helping clients write creative questions. Our tool “The Role of Communication Tool” is particularly useful in this area. This fundamental re-framing of how to express strategic focus makes a ton of difference.

"Is there a better way to direct creative craftspeople than giving them “the proposition?”" by Scott
Posted in Questions Collaborators Answer on Thursday, February 17th, 2011
  • Todd Ames

    A related question, resulting from this innovation in the framing of the assignment, is should there be a corresponding evolution in the process through which creative is conceived and developed?

    • Scott

      Big question. We’ll topline.

      I think there has been an evolution already. A lot more people are involved and the overall process is a lot less linear than it used to be. I’m not sure anyone has “cracked it” yet. I think it is an exciting time of trial and error.

      We’re certain though that if you don’t have mechanisms for people to come together, chunk up key decisions and work through stuff together it all gets rather inefficient. That’s fine for some but most organizations need to manage time/people/energy. Such inefficiencies are unsustainable.

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