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Advertising - the Creative Process

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Despite the disastrous state of the marketing services industry (which comprises, for example, PR, advertising, sales promotion, direct marketing, customer relationship marketing and numerous other disciplines) at the moment, there still remains something of an aura of mystery around advertising agencies. Doubtless a hangover from the hedonistic 1980s, in which advertising was king and Maurice and Charles Saatchi were justifiably famous (as opposed to the here and now, where one of them is primarily known to the general public for his social activities). And yet these days, ad agencies are in something of a pickle, with clients demanding more and more clarity and tangible return on investment: something it's very difficult to do with traditional mass marketing. After all, how many of your sales can you confidently say are due to your latest ad campaign?

This entry is designed to give some transparency to how an advertisement is made - a process that manages to be, at one and the same time, remarkably simple and yet incredibly complex. While an attempt has been made to explain the various roles within the agency that make it all possible. Although different agencies may vary their approach to certain elements of the process, this is the accepted and acknowledged way of doing things.

The Client's Brief

It all begins with an 'Advertising Brief', given to the agency by the client. This consists of a few standard parameters: what we're going to talk about (ie, the launch of our new four-door saloon), what there is to say about it (ie, it removes stains twice as fast as... etc, etc), and other key bits of info, or 'selling points'. Think of it as giving the agency ammunition with which to work. The client will also have some input into which medium is used (TV, press, radio, direct marketing) but, in theory at least, the agency should look at the client's budget and advise on which media are most suitable. This isn't always as simple as you'd think. TV is, of course, an incredibly expensive medium with which to broadcast your message, and may well not be suitable for your target market or the product/service you're selling. And with 'new' ways of getting your message across appearing all the time (ambient marketing, 'viral' marketing, so-called 'guerrilla marketing', the ubiquity of the Internet) there's a hell of a lot of choices to be made. In practice, ad agencies are good at making advertising: ask them how to sell your product, and they're going to suggest what they do best. Besides, why would they send you somewhere else? God knows, they need the business.

The Client/Agency Relationship

So we have our ad brief. After this, it becomes fun. The client's point of contact within the agency is the Account Handler, and it's their job to turn an ad brief into a creative brief. These poor souls represent the agency to the advertiser and vice versa, and as a result are professionally disliked by both sides. The client will always assume that the account handler is trying to edge him/her off the carefully-discussed marketing strategy and onto some hare-brained idea that will win the agency a Cannes Lion or D&D award1. The agency creatives and production people will, naturally, conclude that the account handler is being overly protective in his/her presentation of the client's needs, and therefore cramping their creative style. At this stage, egos are heating up nicely and hackles are rising.

The Advertising Brief

The account handler, then, has the job of turning the ad brief into something the creatives can get their heads round. The final brief, when it goes off to the creative team (or teams, depending on how big the piece of work is, or how desperately the agency needs to pull a decent piece of work out of the bag) will consist of answers to a series of questions along these lines:

  • Who are we talking to? (what's our target market)

  • What are we saying? (what's the single-minded proposition we need to communicate)

  • How are we saying it? (what tone of voice should we use)

  • What is required? (ie, 3 x press executions, 1 x 30' TV ad)

And so on...

The creatives take it from here. What they have to do is come up with an idea and turn it into a useable piece of creative: as already mentioned, this could be a TV or radio script or scripts, press or poster ads, or whatever. A creative team consists of an art director and a copywriter (pictures and words... obvious when you think about it) and, in reality, what they'll do is lounge around the agency for a month playing table football, knocking off early to go to the pub, and reading Creative Review, Dazed & Confused and Sleazenation. Then they'll bash out any old nonsense the day before their mock-ups and draft scripts are due and hope for the best.

No, not really. There are plenty of professional creative teams out there that give a brief the attention it deserves and over-deliver when it comes to first drafts. Plenty, without a doubt. No, really!

Passing the Buck

So the drafts are done, the Creative Director has gone for a slash-and-burn and removed all the good bits, and the account handler is left with something which must be printed up on nice headed paper and taken to the client to sell. After a couple of weeks of toing and froing, the result will be something which bears precious little resemblance to the original draft and will inevitably give a lot more space to discussing product features, available colours and range of sizes than the agency is happy with. But that's life. It will be around this time that rumblings will be heard within the agency that have nothing to do with Pret a Manger crayfish and roquette sandwiches, but rather along the lines of 'Why hire us to make advertising if they're going to dictate the creative? Let them do our jobs, for Christ's sake'. This is the part of the creative process known as 'The Great Whine'.

Costing and Scheduling

Now the proposed ad has to be costed. This is where Production (also known as Traffic) come into it. It's their job to take into consideration the multitudinous factors and elements that go into physically producing the damn thing. If it's a TV or radio ad, a producer will also be needed. They will usually have to hire an independent production company to make the ad. Sounds like a lot of chefs? Well, it is. Production companies love making commercials because it gives them a chance to offset their losses from making one too many home furnishing clones for the BBC. Production will present the account handler with their estimate, as well as a timing plan detailing the various stages of development. Again, the account handler has to take this lot and sell it to the client. It will be here that the agency's decision to shoot the ad in Hawaii will be questioned? Can it be done in Bournemouth instead? Could we, in fact, do it in a studio? Hold on a sec, we have plenty of room here at the client's offices, why don't we do it there, think of all the money we'll save? Hair will be torn out. Voices will be raised. In extreme cases, excrement may be thrown.


Having agreed all this, the work goes into production, and as might be expected there's huge variation between the requirements for different formats. A photographer will be needed for press or poster ads. Obviously the production company will provide a film crew for a TV ad but again... where is it to be shot? Would it be cheaper to hire a crew on location if we're shooting in Brazil? Dare we trust a local crew from Brazil? What if it rains? Do we need weather insurance? (Yes, always). Is the client going to be on the shoot? If so, how do we keep them occupied? What if the client spends a week on location getting drunk and trying to grope the female actors? A curtain will be drawn over the rest of this chapter: suffice is to say that it's every bit as frustrating as it sounds. And then some.

Chest-beating and More Egos

It's in the can. Raw photographic stills, film footage, radio reel, whatever. The client may or may not be shown some early rushes (unedited footage): on the whole, this is not deemed a good idea as it can lead to 'This is nothing like what I thought! Bin it now and let's go with my original suggestion!' diatribes. Post-production will take place. Post-prod houses are usually to be found on nasty sidestreets in London's Soho district; heave a brick on Wardour Street and you'll probably hit one. They're grim, dingy places where creatives and producers sit for hours on end, swallowing budget with the wild abandon of Americans at an all-you-can-eat buffet. Versions will be shown, reviled, tweaked, shown again, changed completely, argued over, and finally presented to an increasingly-wrathful client. He or she will hate the first version and demand, at the minimum, 15 fundamental changes. Most of these will be made. The Creative Director will stick his oar in and demand that 10 of them are left as is. And so on. After several dozen iterations, what's left will be the version that almost (but doesn't quite) make the agency people retch violently on the spot, and which the client is rueing spending half a million pounds on, but is quite unable to back out of now, TV deadlines being what they are. The final version is presented to the rest of the client's and agency's companies. They all secretly hate it. It goes live. The End.

The Aftermath

On the first weekday after the first weekend insertion of a new press campaign, the account executive (the lowest form of life on the account handling ladder) will come into work at 7am, sweating and terrified after discovering that the version that ran in the Sunday Times had the wrong copy and an old version of the image they're using. When his manager comes in an hour later, the old maxim 'a problem shared is a problem doubled' is proven. This is particularly the case when it's discovered that the fine print in a car ad is offering finance on a £30,000 model for £4 a month.

Hopefully this has offered some insight into the workings of a modern advertising agency. Please note that this is intended to be a humorous and exaggerated representation of these workings, and is not in any way drawn from personal experience. By the same token, any description of tantrums, ego-trips, diva-ism and general childish behaviour is purely fictional and bears no direct reference to any person, alive, dead, or currently working in the industry. Honest!

As a final note, a mantra for any who brave the choppy waters of marketing services. At times of stress, close your eyes, breath slowly and deeply, and tell yourself: 'It's only a job.'

Further Reading

A trio of other h2g2 entries on adverts that pleased both ad agency and client alike (and won a stack of awards too!).

1The holy grail of the UK ad industry - the Design and Art Direction awards.

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