I’m in two minds about this old giving-clients-what-they-need-not-what-they-want adage.
On the one hand it appeals to the image we agency types like to project of being top-table, C-Suite, trusted adviser consultant types.
On the other I shy away from the intellectual arrogance that it implies. I suspect that many clients shy away from its implicit (explicit?) intellectual arrogance too.
Nonetheless, here’s a story in which the adage could not have been more true.
Several years ago Honda briefed the Leith Agency to develop campaigns for two vehicles – the CR-V and the (then) brand new Jazz.
We came back with two absolute rip-snorters.
(If I say so myself).
There’s a phrase, favoured by literary reviewers, that goes something like “This is a tour de force by a writer at the peak of his powers.”
Looking back that’s how it felt at Leith working on those Honda briefs.
The planning was good and we had a group of young, hungry creatives who were in an incredibly fertile groove.
We had Dougal (Wilson – now a top international pop-promo and commercials director), Gareth (Howells – now Creative Partner at Newhaven) and Alex (Flint – now a senior creative at Goodby Silverstein in San Fransisco), all working into a fired up Gerry Farrell.
The CR-V campaign was executed in the style of those Commando war comic books that came back into nostalgic fashion a couple of years ago. It turned everyday family situations into highly charged combat scenarios, allowing us to seamlessly show off the features of the car in the process.
The campaign line was ‘The Honda CR-V. Because it’s hell out there.’
A trip to the supermarket in the CR-V was treated like a helicopter insertion behind enemy lines. The carpark was the ‘L.Z.’ and one of the kids was discovered to be ‘M.I.A.’ as the shopping was unloaded into the (capacious) boot. ‘I’m going back in’ said the mother. ‘But that’s crazy talk’, replied one of her other siblings.
The print work was a highly distinctive combination of photography and all-action illustration, complete with speech bubbles and ‘Achtung Spitfeuer!’ style exclamations. It worked well in every format from small space press to dealership window stickers.
The Jazz campaign was a sure-fire award winner. I know this because it was almost identical to an award winning Toyota Corolla campaign that came out a few years later.
The Jazz strapline was “One Proud Owner”, a play on words on the phrase “One careful owner”, much beloved of second hand car classified advertisers. One of the print concepts featured one proud Jazz owner deliberately getting flashed by a speed camera to get the car’s photograph taken.
The later Corolla campaign carried the line ‘A car to be proud of’ and it won a stack of awards for several executions including one which featured a proud Corolla owner deliberately getting flashed by a speed camera etc. etc.
Our Jazz campaign also included some very funny radio ads.
I remember us killing ourselves laughing as Alex (I think it was Alex) phoned some local builders to get them to quote for building a rotating plinth in his driveway to showcase his new Honda Jazz.
We recorded several hilarious conversations with obviously bemused tradespeople as they attempted to define the scope of the project and put a cost to it.
These were great campaigns, presented to a client that was looking to buy stand-out work. They were exactly what the client wanted.
But neither campaign ever ran.
The two briefs were the basis of a pitch for the Honda UK account.
We were pitching against several agencies, one of which was Wieden & Kennedy London.
W & K didn’t give Honda what they wanted.
W & K’s pitch was based on what they thought the client needed.
They pitched that Honda shouldn’t be trying to sell cars in their ads.
They pitched that Honda should be building a brand.
They pitched that Honda was cool, but that not enough people realised it yet.
They pitched the basis of their famous Power of Dreams campaign.
So, although we presented two fantastic campaigns that I genuinely believe would have won nine out of ten pitches, we got blown away.
It was one of the most bitter, bruising but ultimately useful pieces of training I’ve ever had.
Many client briefs, particularly briefs to digital agencies, go beyond articulating the problem and suggest the approach to solving it.
The suggested approach may turn out to be the right approach, but you should always always go back to the base problem and think from there.
Clients don’t always like being told that there’s a better way than the one suggested in their brief. These can be difficult conversations.
But being blown away is worse.