Branding is built on differentiation. Differentiation takes courage. Here’s a gut-check exercise for financial marketers.

This article was originally written for The Financial Brand and published in February 2014. Click here to read the original.

This article was originally written for The Financial Brand and published in February 2014. Click here to read the original.

I play a little mental game from time to time to help me keep my creative mind open. The game is called, “Would I Have Approved That?” It’s a game that’s easy to learn, simple to play, and you can do it just about anywhere. But before I explain the rules, a little background.

I’ve spent the last 15 years as a writer, concept developer, and creative director. And in that time, I’ve worked almost exclusively for financial institutions. I’ve worked on big, brassy projects, and wee little things. I’ve created and sold thousands of concepts. And I must have killed or rejected tens-of-thousands more.

And what have I learned in this time? Repetition can hone your skills, but it can also blunt innovation if you’re not careful.

Repetition can hone your skills, but it can also blunt innovation if you’re not careful.

I have personal preferences like anyone else. Have those preferences and gut reactions ever got in the way of a great idea? Probably. How many brilliant concepts have I let slip through my fingers over the years because I just didn’t see the potential? Hard to say, but I’m sure there’ve been some doozies. All of us who are in a professional position to approve or reject creative work have probably done the same. And we may have done it more often than we care to admit.

When I see a well-executed piece of creative ‹ whether a billboard, a TV spot, a web banner — heck, it could be a statement stuffer —‹ my natural reaction is, “Of course! That idea is so obviously good, it had no problem getting approved.”

But did it really?

No way. In reality, the creative team probably started with a brilliant “creative brief,” then went to work. They threw away a ton of decent ideas in search of one great one. Great ideas usually feel pretty weird at the beginning, but the hallmark of a good creative person is their ability to help others see the potential in a concept. In other words, it’s not the quality of ideas that matter in advertising and marketing. Nothing matters if you can’t get your ideas approved.

Which brings me to the game, “Would I have Approved That?”

How to Play

I start with a piece of well-executed creative. Then I try to mentally transport myself back in time. I try to imagine how the assignment was launched. How was the creative brief written? What were the goals of the organization? What key insight set the direction? Does the strategy hold up?

Then I try to imagine the concept as an idea on a piece of paper. What form did it take in the weeks and months before it made its public debut? How was it presented to the decision makers? If I were one of those decision makers, would I have seen the merits of the idea? Or would I have got hung up on the myriad of reasons do go another direction. Something safer. Something less “edgy.” Something more logical.

Would I have approved that?

Here’s a commercial for Raymond James, a financial investments firm. Watch it. And as you do, try to imagine the idea being pitched to you for your approval.

As a marketing pro, you’re caught in an interesting dynamic. On one end, the creative team wants you to approve this concept (that they lost sleep over for weeks and love dearly, perhaps even irrationally). They made a good case. On the other side, your boss/CEO/board of directors wants you to reach your marketing goals without embarrassing the organization or making them look bad. Sometimes those forces feel very much at odds. In the middle, there’s you:‹ with all of your personal motivations and hot buttons, whatever they may be Under those conditions, it can be pretty hard to approve anything that doesn’t feel like a “sure thing.”

Okay, ready to play? Watch this, and as you do, think of all the positive qualities of the concept, but also make a mental list of the logical reasons why this spot should never be approved.

Did you like it? Don’t answer, because for this exercise it doesn’t matter.

Did you make a mental list of reasons to kill it?

Here are five reasons that jumped out at me. Each of these I could imagine hearing as real feedback to this concept, all plausible reasons this spot should have never seen the light of day:

  1. Raymond James didn’t exist then. The Librarian is 187 years old. But Raymond James was founded in 1962, so when she started “planning,” it couldn’t have been with Raymond James.
  2. Raymond James is not a British company. There’s a British accent on the voice over. The lady looks vaguely British (especially as a young woman in the cobblestoned lined streets of her town). Some of the sets could have been used on a Downton Abbey shoot. I believe she’s riding a Norton Motorcycle (which admittedly is pretty cool). But Raymond James is headquartered in Florida.
  3. Sex. Marriage bed + old people = gross. Someone’s going to complain.
  4. Investing is serious. Sure, this spot is fun, maybe even funny. But investing is about people’s life savings. It’s serious, right? Should we be making jokes?
  5. No one lives that long. No one can live to be 187. It’s impossible.

If you were inclined to talk yourself out of approving this concept, you could do it easily. There are dozens of “good reasons” to kill an idea like this.

And while I’d like to think that I would have approved this concept straight away, I can’t honestly say that I would have. The 187-year-old woman may have seemed too farcical to me on paper. Instead of a charming character, I may have viewed her as absurd, irrelevant, and unidentifiable (think: a female Leslie Neilsen). That alone might have been reason enough for me to discard this idea in search of another.

Would I have been right? If I were in a position to kill this ad, what would Raymond James have lost?

This commercial was beautifully shot, masterfully executed, and wonderfully directed. I can’t speak for you, but my sense of the Raymond James brand before seeing this spot was something boring, stuffy, and traditional. After seeing this spot, Raymond James is still boring, stuffy, and traditional ‹ but they’re also flexible, smart, and committed to tailoring the best possible plan for the needs of each of their clients.

More than anything, this ad told a story that compelled me to feel something about Raymond James that I would not have felt with a more logical, head-on, feature-oriented approach to the assignment. And that’s what great storytelling is all about.

That’s my gut check. What do you think?

 

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