CLOSE-UP: LIVE ISSUE - D&AD wants clients closer to the creative process

Do clients really need to be taught how to buy creative work, Rachel Gardner asks.

As the 2004 awards season kicks off, agencies are already frantically scrambling around to get their prized entries in on time.

But after months of hard sweat and toil, how many clients will be clapping and cheering from the sidelines as the winners mount the podium to collect a highly coveted D&AD Pencil or Cannes Lion?

Down at D&AD - one of the most prestigious awards ceremonies of them all - there's a new agenda. Nick Bell, the in-coming president, is encouraging clients to get closer to the creative process, to stop watching from the outskirts and increase their interaction with creatives.

All too often, clients rely on a range of crutches (or secondary groups, as they'd probably rather have them described) to assist in the birth of creative work.

There is a plethora of options, from focus groups to extended research and pre-testing, which can be employed at great expense and over a protracted period to predict the success of an ad.

But there are occasions when advertising fails the test. Take the highly acclaimed "surfer" spot for Guinness, for example. It suffered in pre-testing, then came under further scrutiny during a year of study and more than 50 research meetings before finally making it on to our television screens.

Its success is proof, if it were needed, that client faith in focus groups and extended research can be ill-founded.

A gut feeling for - and understanding of - what makes a great creative campaign is a valuable tool for any client. Bell believes that by using D&AD as a platform, he can give clients the essential tools they need to make crucial decisions and "get it right" when buying advertising.

"You only have to look at the average TV commercial to know why we need greater understanding between those who produce creativity and those who buy it," he says. "Too much communication is so concerned with saying all the right things that it neglects to engage its audience sufficiently to influence it."

Bell, the former creative director at Leo Burnett, who relocated to J. Walter Thompson last spring, officially replaces Michael Johnson at this week's D&AD annual general meeting.

He arrives during a period of change. Michael Hockney, the recently installed chief executive, wants the institution to evolve and to that end has overhauled some of the awards categories, while shifting the venue from Earls Court to Old Billingsgate Market.

Bell, too, is determined to up the ante during his 12-month stint in the president's seat, despite the great pressure of balancing his dual workload.

Indeed, if he achieves nothing else, Bell's desire is to be remembered as the president who kick-started better dialogue between clients and creatives - a direction that he believes would be widely welcomed by advertising agencies.

"I wonder how many people have sat across a table gripped with fear because they have to make a decision about a multimillion-pound advertising deal," he says. "They will have had no training in how to buy that work and it would be great if the advertising and design industry could help clients to collaborate better."

For this reason, for the first time next year D&AD will put on a three-week congress to shine the spotlight on enterprise through a series of lectures, workshops and exhibitions.

The aim is to reach D&AD's traditional audience of creatives, but also to appeal to businesses that have a commercial creative output. D&AD hopes to achieve this by launching initiatives "aimed at collaborating with the client community in order to produce better, more effective creativity".

There is no doubt that these are wise words and admirable sentiments from Bell, but when quizzed on further practical examples of how he plans to build a better relationship between clients and creatives, he falters.

These are details that will be bolted down later in the year, he insists.

Indeed, it transpires he has yet formally to gather feedback from clients on whether training from the D&AD is something they would sign up to.

But the question that really demands an answer is whether Bell will find the time and resources to put his grand plans into action or whether, like so many other D&AD presidents who have gone before him, his ambitions will fall by the wayside as his year is swallowed up with general presidential duties at D&AD and his full-time role at the creative helm of a large agency.

Here Campaign asks four marketers to explain their attitudes toward the creative process.

SIMON THOMPSON - marketing director, Honda

"The reason you recruit an agency is because it is creative, so let it be creative. I would not ask it to do my job. My attitude is hands-off.

"There have been things we have been unsure about, but they have worked in the end. You have to have faith, be brave and go with your instinct and see afterwards how it worked. You have to have faith in the agency that it is capable of interpreting the brand.

"We have never, nor would we ever, do any pre-campaign testing. If you ask people beforehand what they want, they generally can't tell you - similar to car design - and you end up with mediocrity.

"Everyone has an opinion and everyone's listened to: for example, workers manifest opinion.

"Though we don't have any rigid system with our agency, we hold meetings to make sure things are going well but these are informal, about people talking to people."

CHRIS MOSS - chief executive, The Number 118 118

Moss says that great creativity comes from working with the agency, but advertising isn't a rational process.

"I can't help but get involved. Great creativity has to be bought into through the agency, but the client isn't just there to pay the bills.

"If the client doesn't participate, it falls flat because ideas only work when you have full integration. We meet as a team, not just as account men and creatives, at least once a week, even if it's just to say hello.

"The client must participate in the shoot and talk to the creatives. We've even written ads while on a film set because ideas came up.

"People higher up the tree get more logical, the big egos like to analyse, but advertising isn't logical.

"The problem is that most advertising is put through the mill and given a scorecard.

"The same rules apply as with everything in life. Eighty per cent is about 'does it feel right?' and 20 per cent is about talking to others. But advertising is about your gut feeling, really."

JAMES KYDD - brand director, Virgin Mobile

"We don't do any pre-testing at all. We have a tracking study that looks at the effect of the ad afterwards.

"How involved we become in the creative process depends on the project. But basically we have three people who deal directly with the ad agency: myself; the brand manager and the brand assistant.

"Most of the time, we are happy with the amount of meetings we have with our agency but there are certain times when it is struggling with something or is in two minds about something and it goes into traditional agency mode and works in a vacuum.

"We try to encourage it to talk to us at an early stage so we can help it through any difficulties as we do see it as a partnership.

"Our aim is to keep things as easy as possible and keep the agency motivated while not interfering when it doesn't want us to. It's all about being honest. Honesty is the only way you can achieve trust."

DAVID PATTON - vice-president of marketing, Sony Computer Entertainment Europe

"Brand ideas come from anywhere. But the big challenge for a creative agency is to think beyond ads and understand our business.

"We have a very close relationship with our creative agency, which gets involved in all aspects of our business, including our business plans, and we would be foolish not to have them do so.

"I need to see ideas expressed in all different versions of media. It's about being open minded, being ready to take a risk and understanding that not everything works first time around.

"Consumer research is not really used by us. Instead, we use an open process where everyone gets involved across the business. There is no decision making by a committee. We have an open debate because the client has to be involved and is responsible throughout.

"Ultimately, it is about big ideas."