Judging Creative Work. The 5 Questions to Ask Yourself

Back in 2007 I was running a 2 day training programme with the Cadbury’s UK marketing team in one of the usual off-site locations. At the end the Marketing Director said to me, ‘do you mind if I show the team a new Dairy Milk ad that we’re thinking of running’. He put his CD into my laptop and played it on the big screen. It featured a man in a gorilla suit playing along to the Phil Collins song ‘In the Air Tonight’. And that was basically it. Then he turned to the room and asked ‘What do you think? Shall we run this?’’

For the next 45 minutes, there was a heated debate. The room was divided. Some loved it, some thought it was completely the wrong thing to do. Where was the glass and a half of milk? Where’s the chocolate? Who the hell wants to listen to Phil Collins? Indeed the entire Cadbury’s business was divided. It was only due to the persistence of the Marketing Director along with the impassioned support of the ad agency (Fallon), that they decided to air it.

And of course the rest is history. It became the most successful ad in the brand’s 102 year history and a true cultural phenomenon. In 2015 it was voted the best ad of all time by the UK public. Even Phil Collins loved it. ‘That gorilla is a better drummer than me’ he said in a BBC interview.

And the amazing thing is, it very nearly didn’t see the light of day.

Judging creative work is a big responsibility and is extraordinarily difficult to get right. People underestimate how hard is because a) they believe they have good taste b) they look at ads all the time, so feel they instinctively know what makes a ‘good ad’ vs a ‘bad ad’ c) deep down they’re frustrated art directors.

There’s no magic formula in developing and judging creative work - and not just for advertising, but for all kinds of marketing executions. Cadbury’s have not been able to achieve the same levels of success with their subsequent Dairy Milk campaigns, although I did love the one with the eyebrows.

Like most things in life, sound creative judgement takes practice and experience. When a creative agency presents you with their work and says to you ‘what do you think?’ here’s the 5 questions I believe you need to ask yourself.

1 What’s the big idea?

It’s easy to get bogged down in executional details - the fonts, colours, logo placement. Try to step away from this and ask yourself what’s the big idea that lies behind it all. In other words, what’s the overarching creative thought that underpins the execution. If it’s not obvious - ask. If there is one - ask yourself whether it’s any good. If it’s missing, ask why.

All great work is based on a powerful, creative idea. If it’s not present, there’s no real foundation.

2 Is it surprising or unexpected?

The reason you hire a creative agency is for them to produce something fresh and new. If it feels like something you or your team could have developed, then it probably lacks originality.

You should expect your agency to interpret your brief in an interesting way or to have come up with a challenging perspective. If they have, then you should should acknowledge it and give them credit for doing so. You don’t want the same tired responses. You need to be willing to embrace risk.

2 Does it evoke an emotional response?

At one of the training programmes I was involved in, a recommendation was made to ‘react like a human’ when reviewing creative work. In other words, trust your natural, visceral response. Did it make you laugh, did it make you cry, did you feel excited. Reflect on this and then ask, is it the right emotional response. Behavioural economics has taught us that we’re primarily guided by our emotions when we make decisions. The worst response is indifference. If the execution leaves you cold, then it simply isn’t working. You’ve got to ‘feel it’.

4 is it right for us?

Loving a piece of creative work is one thing. Deciding to adopt it is another. It may be a great piece of communication but is it appropriate for your brand or business. This is where the rational part of your brain kicks in. Go back to your brand positioning. In particular, reflect on your values, beliefs and personality. Is it in keeping with 'the voice of the brand’? If so, then it’s worth taking forward. If it’s too much of a disconnect, then hold back.

5 Will it cut through the clutter?

We’re living in on overcrowded, over branded over-informed society. If you feel your communication will blend into the background or get confused with a competitor, then push for greater differentiation. Your work has to cut through to get noticed and to drive the response you’re looking for.

My final piece of advice would be to take your time. Don’t rush into a snap decision. Remember it’s important and it’s difficult to get right. Go back to your brief and check whether you feel it will deliver against it. Seek out the opinions of people you respect and of course consider the response of your target audience.

You may not hit the right creative execution first time round. Indeed I’d be surprised if you did. However, to move discussions forward, these are the 5 questions I would always ask myself.

I would love to hear what your questions would be.