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Creative approval: of processes, frameworks and subjectivity

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Recently, there was much furore on social media over an Instagram post from Kent RO Systems for their atta & bread maker. The ad asked: “Are you allowing your maid to knead atta dough by hand? Her hands may be infected”. As is wont in such cases, it was a free for all in terms of criticism. The brand sent out an official apology and pulled the ad. 

In my view, the intent behind the ad was perhaps positive – to convey the need for hygiene while cooking, especially in these times of COVID-19 pandemic. But they perhaps erred in execution, allowing for ambiguity and misrepresentation, painting our domestic helps as unhygienic. Fact is, in large condominiums, where such a product is likely to be used, it would be common for a house help to work in many households. Each household will have its own routine or precaution to follow. In that context, the anxiety sought to be addressed was right. 

The incident got me thinking about the factors at play over brands getting caught in such media storms. The first is the nature of social media and the other, the creative approval process in most organisations. 

Social media: there is no delete button

The open and free nature of social media means that it is a great leveller. It allows the general public to comment on communication from celebrities and brands – an option the common folk did not have earlier in the days of one-way communication. So brands and businesses ought to be doubly careful of what they put out in social media – because quite like toothpaste, once its out, you can’t put it back in the tube. 

Many brands have discovered the bitter truth that there is no delete button on social media. But that doesn’t mean brands have to be paranoid all the time. But it is a free medium and users can hide behind anonymity and view it an opportunity to spite or settle scores. If a telecom brand puts up a well-crafted ad, someone will probably respond with issues pertaining to their bill or give advice that investments on making the ad should have gone to upgrading network etc. 

So just as with any other official communication – an email or a press release, ‘think before you send’ is a one of the many sane guidelines with social media too. Negative viral content, engineered or otherwise has the potential to impact brand reputation, lose customers and business. 



Amplification factor of 24×7 media 

We live in a world where even a single image upload on Instagram by a celebrity warrants a 600-word article in online portals of news brands once known for serious journalism. So it is common to see trivial, ‘non-news’ masquerading as news to add to the clutter. The news cycle is also 24×7 thanks to news aggregator apps, TV channels and more. We tend to notice the same news across platforms and social media forwards leading to a ‘larger than life’ element to almost everything. 

Negative news gets more eyeballs than positive news. The latter is seen or preferred more as a welcome break from sensationalism that surrounds us. In that context a misstep from a brand, that too with connotations of privilege, is only going to be lapped up by media. Incidents which would hardly get attention in the pre-digital era are a cause for outrage now. As this article pointed out:

A few years ago, a foot cream brand’s TVC baseline went – ‘Chehrey se rajrani aur pairon se naukrani?’ Without creating an uproar then- in fact, doing very well for the brand in the market.

~ Amit K Shrivastava

The nature of the social media beast is to outrage and put every brand activity and message under the microscope – be it a logo change or an advert. If the brand team feels they are in the right they can hunker down and wait for the storm to be over (since a new outrage topic will be found). If the brand team feels they have made a genuine mistake it is better to apologise and move on which Kent did. 

The second aspect of this episode is about the process of creative judgment and approval – both from the agency and client teams. 



Missing ingredients: clarity, process beyond individuals 

In my view, 3 broad aspects (among others) are at play during the creative process and they can be either detrimental or productive depending on how they are put to use:

Clarity of task: in my experience, there isn’t much rigour as required in creating and agreeing on a communications brief – be it for thematic or tactical communication. Even if there is a written brief defining communication goals. I am not suggesting that there has to be an elaborate brief for every creative output – that would be impossible in today’s world where turnaround times are short especially when it comes to digital medium. There are content creators who produce engaging social media creatives lighting fast and that’s the kind of ‘entertainment’ brands are competing for attention. Nevertheless, the overall brand & communication objectives, the key message, how the chosen communication platform (YouTube, Facebook, Instagram) can be best used to communicate it must be clear to the core brand team.

A guideline or framework for evaluation: The creative approval process in most organisations is not a documented, standard, erm…process. Not sure if brand managers who are usually the brief givers (rather job initiators) are also first level approvers. It’s all subjective without a set of standard questions being asked.‘ Mazaa nahi aaya’, (‘that was no fun’) ‘show us more options’ ‘or why can’t you give us something like <insert recently popular campaign>’ and such like are common reactions to creative presented.

‘Is it on brief?’ (if there was a written one or at least an agreement on the key message), ‘is it on brand?’ (if there is a consistent, well-defined personality, tone of voice and go, no-go areas are usually not parameters involved in the discussion. Also what works for one brand may not work for another, even in the same category. Some brands deliberately choose to chase controversy by being provocative, rebellious. But that’s not every brand’s cup of tea. Also there is a thin line between being audacious, cheeky and downright insulting to a particular group of people. It’s all a matter of perspective.

Some clients take it to the extreme by micro-managing the process and almost dictating the ingredients of a commercial.  I once had a client who had a checklist for the brand team to go through as the TV script was presented. I don’t remember details now but am sure it must’ve had things like ‘brand should make appearance within 7th second’ or some such. It is also true that most clients want to play it safe by creating work that is fairly straightforward and predictable. The results are for us to see – most advertising goes unnoticed. Here are a few guidelines on creative evaluation I came across on the web:

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A mix of Intuition and experience: The reaction to any creative output – be it a movie, painting or music, is likely to be subjective. What might be liked by some may be loathed by others. Subjectivity is involved in advertising too. But if someone understands the business objectives, the broad contours of brand voice (go, no-go areas) and the nuances of the medium being advertised in, they should be able to spot potential issues. The media industry has also changed drastically over the years. Those who grew up in advertising making TV commercials have to acquire the flair for understanding new media too. It takes experience (not necessarily in terms of number of years) to get a good combination of business acumen and ‘getting’ new media. 

Of course, the role of creative agency to present only what is right for the brand is also critical. It calls for training, ‘education’, experience etc. But I am guessing senior involvement in creative especially digital is low. Another factor at play is the excessive dependence on tactical, short term advertising and force-fitting every occasion and event as an opportunity to advertise. Unrealistic expectations on turn-around times have a role to play in churning out creative which may not have passed through strict quality control. A controlling, almost dictating client telling the agency exactly what to do in terms of execution or having ads produced in-house by the client (not always a bad thing, though has its pros & cons) are all factors which are common in the business now. 

Despite guidelines, processes and documents, the creative development and approval process is a lot about gut instinct. It is not an empirical process or a fully automated one (the industry seems to be trying hard to be one). The unpredictable human element, sudden doses of inspiration or mental roadblocks are common. It cannot all be documented or mechanised. But when it comes to creative approval broad company-wide, brand specific guidelines help as they can provide a framework for what’s right for the brand even if brand managers come and go.

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A marketing communications professional with a keen interest in all things advertising. I share creative ads and views on the ad industry here. Views are personal. See Disclaimer for more.

6 Comments

  1. Shalini Somanath Reply

    Loved it! Very insightful and informative…Thank you

  2. Excellent piece. As always. And the tools are particularly useful. Thanks much.

    I cannot agree enough with almost everything you say.

    The only thing I might add, is that the brand manager’s checklist, is like a blind man’s stick. If I can’t see with clarity, I will resort to something like this to keep me safe. It’s not a perfect tool, as it only gives me a sense of the shapes ahead… And all too often, what feels like a boulder ahead might actually be a pot of gold… But since I can’t see, I’m going to play safe and avoid it.

    The opposite may also be true of course, to be fair to the team at work… Hence it’s a really tricky business, at the best of times.

    • Wow! Thanks for visiting and the comment. The challenges of the brand team with regards to a ‘format’ or template, so well captured.

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