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Part 5 of 6: The Creative Agreement

Why use a Brief when you can forge an Agreement? Most agencies use a creative brief to define the rules designers and writers work against. At BS LLC, we use a Creative Agreement. A Creative Agreement describes the situation that creative deliverables are attempting to change, and it also defines the method to take to achieve the intended outcome.

Therefore, the Creative Agreement is a measurement device for both parties throughout the creative and evaluation period.

Don’t let all this transactional language push you deep into the dark corners of your left brain. Because a Creative Agreement, despite all it’s specificity, is intended to be a very inspirational document.

This document should be so concise, accurate, and insightful that creative professionals, upon first reading it, should experience an “a-ha” moment.

Context for the Agreement

Before we look at the pieces and parts of a Creative Agreement, it’s essential to understand a few critical components of how it’s fashioned.

We’ve shown our Creative Agreement format here. Yours can be very different. But the brevity and “pointedness” should be the same in whatever approach you (or your agency) take.

It should tell a story

The Creative Agreement should work as a linear story, read from the first column on the left to the sixth (next to last) column on the right. 

The story it tells is “why are we here, and what will we do about it.”

Each component should stand alone

Each of the six columns asks a question. Your answer to each question should be solid enough to spark creative ideas on their own.

Remove any element and the structure should fall apart

Although each question and answer should be its own “mini-story,” all six must hang together in tight harmony. There should be interplay. They should support each other.

One or 2 sentences per component. No more.

This might not be a “brief,” but it must be brief. Strip away any unnecessary language. Work hard to get to the point.

Let’s Break It Down

Our Creative Agreement has nine distinct sections. Let’s take a quick look at each of them.

The objective

What is the business objective of this deliverable or set of deliverables? For example, “Create a new brand identity for Vera Reed’s Vegan Restaurant.” This is a functional objective.

The poke

The poke is the initial pain point or spark of ambition that sets the client in motion. For Vera’s restaurant, it may be “A desire to profitably share a life-long love of plant-based cooking.”

The problem

Situations usually give rise to problems or opportunities. In this second step, we always take the negative path: “What is the problem here? What do we need to solve? What’s getting in our way?” Why not “go positive?” Because even with a great opportunity, effort must be expended in order to capitalize on it. Describe that effort briefly. Our restaurateur Vera is located in a place famous for steaks and barbecue: For her business, the problem sounds like, “Vegetarian food in this locality is perceived as “healthy but boring,” or even in an adverse political light.”

The perception

This element of the Agreement is probably the most tricky to figure out. This is the pivot point of your situation. You’re attempting to capture a behavior-based reality that you can flip to your brand’s advantage. What is it about the current situation and the problem that it poses that affects human behavior? What behavior do you wish to change? What strength or capability do you wish to exploit? In Vera’s case, its “Ardent meat-eaters often find Vera’s cuisine surprising, fulfilling, and delicious.”

The path

This is our “functional solution” for the problem. How can we take what we know from The Perception, and use it to achieve our goal? Here’s an example from Vera Reed’s Vegetarian Restaurant: “Vegetarian skeptics think they know all they need to know about vegetables. Vera’s will incorporate surprise and discovery in flavorful ways to make converts.” 

The plan

Now that you’ve described the problem and the functional approach, how are you going to render it? What’s the concept around it? Vera’s functional solve says they’ll introduce vegetarian food in a way that incorporates “surprise and discovery.” What does that look like? What does it sound like? Here’s a possible way to capture that: “Vera’s brand will utilize the darker, richer colors of nature, and a sense of sensuality, intrigue, and secrecy to convey the undiscovered nature of vegetarian cuisine to those who have rarely tried it.” 

Sum it up

The Creative Agreement is usually used as a kickoff or instructional document for creative team members. It’s their blueprint, along with strategy documents, used to create everything from brand materials to websites to social media content. The “Sum It Up” section pushes the ship out to sea, and it should do so in the right direction. This is your chance to set the flavor for the creative. The biggest challenge with this section is that clients often think it’s recommended copy. It isn’t! It’s only intended to capture the spirit of the creative output to come.

Tactics

This area provides space to list all of the tactical deliverables that should fall under this creative approach. If you are part of a team obligated to develop a new brand, and subsequently a new website and social media content, you’d want to list those here.

Positioning statement

Although a positioning statement is its own exercise, including an approved positioning here can be invaluable for copywriters and designers producing the work. It’s also helpful for clients to refer to when evaluating work during presentations. So often, positioning statements and other strategic work gets completed but not utilized as the tools they were meant to be. Including a positioning statement here allows it to fulfill one of the reasons for which it was created.

The Fourth Row

Underneath of your succinct responses to the six areas, you have an opportunity to state or link to data, or other concrete information that helps to substantiate why you answered the way you did. It’s also an opportunity to make commentary regarding stakeholders and calls to action that might arise as a result of the information in that column. 

Think of this as your “footnotes” area.

Feet to the Fire

Wow, that was a lot of right-brained exercises, wasn’t it? Now, what do you do?

Now, you present this to your client and gain alignment. This is an agreement, after all; both of you need to be able to live up to it. This document is used to validate the work as well as question the work. When a client has a creative change request, the onus is on them to justify it against this document. Conversely, any rebuttals to changes will also need to be justified against this document.

An effective Creative Agreement is more than a set of instructions; it’s an enlightening, compelling, and creative document in its own right. It gets the creative team started, informs them well, and allows the client to feel confident that their agency has got the creative assignment under control. 

About the Author:Sam Lowe conducts research to help build full-featured road maps and strategies for BS LLC clients ranging from hospitality to healthcare and manufacturing to high tech. He’s also delightfully addicted to 2-wheeled vehicles, classical music, and fine teas.

Estimated reading time: 6 minutes

Part 3 of 6: The Risk Analysis

Whoever said “think only happy thoughts” might have had good intentions, but they probably weren’t good at planning. The 3rd step of starting a project with BS LLC goes gently down dark paths. Why? So we can prepare for (nearly) any eventuality.

The first step was defining our relationship with our Service Contract, and what our project needs to accomplish with the Project Charter. Next, we thought deep and wide with our Spiritual Kickoff. Now, we can start thinking creatively —  but our third step takes an unexpected turn.

The BS LLC Risk Register experience is like a mini-workshop. The staff at BS LLC, who will be executing the project, gathers your team’s decision-makers to ask: 

“What could possibly go wrong?”

A Diversity of Like Minds

The meeting should be attended by the project’s builders and the project’s owners—those who will manage it and those who need to see (and prove) results from it. On your side (our client), you’ll want to have representation of customer-facing staff, marketing staff, and senior administrators who will need to account for the outcome.

On our end (your BS LLC team), we include our creative director, strategist, project manager, and account manager. Having a diverse-but-responsible group means that you can address potential issues from all angles — increasing the likelihood that potential problems will be headed off at the pass.

How the Game is Played

After a bit of orientation, we ask, “What could go wrong with this project? What could stand in the way of achieving our goals?”

Then we set a timer for 5 minutes for quiet writing. (A timer which flies by.) Everyone in the meeting must contribute at least one potential problem, roadblock, or issue (most people have no trouble listing numerous examples).

When the time’s up (“Pencil’s down!”), we segment, rank, and discuss the group’s contributions according to an elementary rubric.

Slice ‘n dice. Shake n’ bake.

Everything is shared and recorded, and here’s how the discussion goes, one “risk” at a time, shared by one participant at a time.

  • Why did you think this was a risk?
    • It’s important that each participant shares why they think their contributed risk (or risks) is important. By sharing their rationale, other team members get visibility to aspects of the business outside of their own.
  • What type of risk is this? 
    • Each risk is given a type. Why? By forcing a type onto whatever is suggested, it helps clarify the concern for others in the meeting who may need more color than the previous explanation could offer. The types include: 
      • Financial
      • Personnel
      • Technological
      • Resource
      • Time
      • Brand Integrity
  • What’s the likelihood that we’ll experience this situation?
    • Assigning a rating from 1 to 5 to each risk, with 1 meaning “remote chance it’ll happen,” to 5, “certain or expected to occur,” the team is forced to deal with the most probable real risks. It’s also encouraging to hear a group of your peers say, “No, I don’t think that one is very likely.”
  • If it does occur, how severe would its effects be?
    • Regardless of how likely a risk is determined to be, the group rates how much damage its occurrence would wreak. The scale ranges from 1, “mild damage to the project or company,” to 3, “severe damage.”
  • Now that we’ve shared this possibility, what will we do about it?
    • Every submitted risk gets ranged for severity and likelihood, and every risk gets a response. A 1–1 (remote / mild) may have very little in terms of a contingency plan, whereas a 5–3 will require some clear action steps. 

This exercise can profoundly affect a project, ranging from team unification to project modification — or even cancellation. Getting together to talk about everything that could go wrong about a project can help you and your team make sure that most things go right.

About the Author:

Sam Lowe conducts research to help build full-featured road maps and strategies for BS LLC clients ranging from hospitality to healthcare and manufacturing to high tech. He’s also delightfully addicted to 2-wheeled vehicles, classical music, and fine teas.

Estimated reading time: 4 minutes

Part 2 of 6: The Spiritual Kickoff

Why are you here? Existential questions are our stock-in-trade for the so-called Spiritual Kickoff, the second step of engagement with BS LLC on any project. In the end, trust us: you’ll be glad you (were) asked.

At this point in a project, we’ve already signed two documents that define our relationship and the project’s scope (contract and project charter), so why are we now going into areas that may sound like a psychologist created them? 

The answer isn’t as mushy as you’d think. 

Our goal as a branding agency is to define (or sometimes, redefine) your brand and your brand’s promise. We must blaze a pathway towards the effective communication of a straightforward and compelling offering to an identified audience—wrapped in an aesthetically appealing (preferably timeless) package. To do that, we need to make sure that we’re all talking the same language.

When your team meets our team, there will be a wide array of skills and backgrounds, and the kinds of deliverables we’re going to build together are often difficult to describe succinctly with language. Getting diverse personalities to agree on challenging subjects is, well, challenging. 

For example: “please describe why your logo looks like it does using business-oriented language.” 

*Cue blank stares*

The flip is, if we’ve already found a common language around what our audience finds trustworthy, we can more easily describe how our logo represents our trustworthiness. Make sense?

Therefore, we have to start by talking generally — and then bring it down to our project specifics over time. 

The Method Behind the Sanity

We present the fabled “Big Questions” of our BS LLC Spiritual Kickoff. Did we make these questions up? Absolutely not. In fact, we probably lifted them from a mentor or a former job or a design book. Good artists borrow, great artists steal. Here are the Q’s: 

Why do we exist?

No, you don’t get to say “to make money” or “to increase value for our shareholders.” Because we’re going to follow up and ask you, “Why is it important to you as a company to make money the way you do?” This is all about discovering your purpose as a company or brand. It can be surprising when you learn that your peers have other reasons than you do. 

What do we hope to become?

What’s the goal for this assignment? This is tightly aligned with the previous question but different. The last question asks: Why do you want to grow up?

What makes our team passionate about their work?

If your team isn’t passionate about its work, this question will be tricky. In that case, the right question is, “There is no passion,” and we can explore that one as it comes. However, assuming there is genuine motivation, we want to learn if there is an overarching tone or flavor to it that pervades your company or brand. This question is designed to get you talking about your culture.

What makes our customers excited about our product?

Every company that makes enough revenue to keep the lights on and pay its employees has “anchor customers.” You know the ones; they are the customers that help you understand what you do well. Why are those customers enthusiastic about what you do?

What are the big ideas that drive our company?

Motivation gives rise to action. To take action, you need ideas. Tell us about these ideas. With this question, we pivot from the general to the specific. Do you have proprietary tech, unique processes, a worldview, a POV?

What makes us different?

The features and characteristics of your product may be your differentiating factor. Your brand’s purpose may define your uniqueness. Or, you may realize that your product is “parity” and undifferentiated. We’ll discuss how hard to push on topics like “innovation” and “disruption.” Competitors: who are they and why are they worse or better than you at what you do? 

What do we need to be successful?

You can answer this question from a couple of perspectives: “We aren’t as successful as we’d like to be, so we need the following.” Or, “We’re doing great things, and to keep doing great things, here’s what we need.”

What’s holding us back?

This is another “centering” question. Here we are on a Zoom call, determining who we are and what we’re trying to accomplish. What exactly stands in the way of these goals?

Where we land

Knowledgeable, inspired, and unified. We’ve heard from our peers and defined the undefinable one hundred twenty minutes later. What’s next? We explore yet another broad question to anchor us in reality: “What could possibly go wrong with this project?”

Next up, Part 3: The Risk Register

About the Author:Sam Lowe conducts research to help build full-featured road maps and strategies for BS LLC clients ranging from hospitality to healthcare and manufacturing to high tech. He’s also delightfully addicted to 2-wheeled vehicles, classical music, and fine teas.

Estimated reading time: 5 minutes

Branding is Never Done

One day while thinking about the disconnect between theory and practice, we realized that branding agencies and service providers tend to fall into the trap of linear thinking. We build for our clients thinking “a + b = c,” and then we’re done, right? 

Thankfully, this line of thought (pun intended) is starting to change, and people are much hipper to the concept that the process of making anything, especially great things, is not a straight line. But most are still thinking, to use a word that would make our teachers proud, teleologically, i.e., that there is a beginning and a definite end towards which all things must march. 

The realization we had is that, as Jesse Eisenberg’s Mark Zuckerberg once put it, branding is like fashion in that it doesn’t have an end; it just keeps evolving. 

So, we did as anyone would. We drew a triangle.

Our triangle connects the three big categories of work that we think should (and do) exist in an infinite dialogue with one another; categories that give shape to a brand. 

These disciplines or categories are:

  • Strategy
  • Identity
  • Experience 


We develop a strategy that informs the creation of an identity that defines and gives shape to an experience. Experiences give rise to lessons or insights or observations, which reinforce or eat away at strategy, which must always inform and underpin identity, giving rise to new experiences. As Paulie “Walnuts” Gualtieri said, “And on it goes, this thing of ours.” This means our work is never done and our eyes should be open to “being wrong” or changing tack or improving. 

No matter what anyone tells you, a brand is not just a logo, a social media post, or packaging. A brand is as dynamic and malleable as the customers that embrace it and the organization that offers it. All of this means it’s okay to think outside your lane and take cues from other practices and disciplines. A brand is like a garden; it needs to be tended in context with its environment.

Author: Ben Greenberg is a founding partner of BS LLC, who helps turn insights into deliverables. Ben is a student and practitioner of human-centered design. He is a member of the board of directors at the Mercantile Library, Breakthrough Cincinnati, and MORTAR.

Estimated reading time: 2 minutes

Part 1 of 6: The BS LLC Approach

Every agency has a process. You know, a clever catch-phrase with a little trademark symbol next to it. We have one, but it’s not trademarked or what you’d call “clever.” We like to think of it as common sense.

As a generalist B2B branding agency, we have enjoyed partnering with diverse customers over the past seven years. From financial services to healthcare, from hospitality to retail businesses, it’s never the same engagement twice. 

If you’re currently thinking of taking on a new strategic communications partner, we’re hoping you can see the benefit of a firm with such diverse experience. We also assume you’ll appreciate a look under the hood, so to speak, regarding the day-to-day processes that make what we do successful. 

This set of articles will be relatively pragmatic: no heady philosophizing. Instead, we will walk you through what it’s like to get started with us. 

These six articles will introduce brand and marketing managers to the BS LLC Approach. Here’s what each article will briefly cover: 

  1. The Service Contract & The Project Charter
  2. The Spiritual Kickoff
  3. The Risk Analysis
  4. BS LLC Research (4 Way & JTBD) 
  5. The Creative Contract
  6. The Tactical Map

We’re big believers in making things straightforward and linear. This is the repeatable and direct way we get to know your business, your customers, and your aspirations. It’s also how we make sure you can follow our progress to keep us honest.

Let’s get started at the top: The Contract and The Project Charter.

Defining what “Us” means

You might well be thinking that contract service agreements are uncreative and unsexy.

But actually, what is sexier than defining what a relationship is and can be? That’s what our contracts do. 

When a contract is simple and clear, the assumptions are given a foundation for agreement. Great things can happen as a result.

At the beginning of our relationship, we will define the services we will provide, how long the definition will exist (and how it could end), what the two of us are responsible for, the payment terms, and how we’ll resolve any potential disagreements.

If you have ever negotiated a “master service agreement,” you’ll be familiar with the format.

However, our contracts differ from typical agreements in that we include a general scope of deliverables upfront. We don’t go into detail on them (that’s what the Project Charter is for.) However, every relationship is predicated upon certain expectations. The list of anticipated deliverables usually defines those expectations.

Defining the Details

Our Project Charter picks up where the Service Contract leaves off. This is where we start getting into details. 

We will define the business issues addressed by each project. We will also describe what success looks like. When you describe the desired outcome and the goals and benefits to be attained, the anticipation starts to rise because the nature of the solution begins to take shape.

Scope Check: Aligning to Expectations

The lengthiest section of the Project Charter is where we define “in scope” and “out of scope.” Over the years, many client/agency relationships have gone sideways over this miscommunication. We head it off at the pass at the start by literally putting it side-by-side in black-and-white. No confusion!

Here’s an example. We can state that social media guidance, specifically for LinkedIn and Instagram, is in-scope. Our scope might include audience definition, linguistic and stylistic guidelines, specific topics to be covered or content types to be created, and the cadence or pacing of the communication over time. What’s out of scope? In this example, we made sure to tell the client we would write the copy, create the visuals, or manage the channels. “Guidance and strategy, but no production and no management” is the shorthand, but the Project Charter goes into detail.

Timing.

The horror story this is meant to correct: agencies take on big scopes of work, kick off projects, and then go dark, leaving clients wondering what the hell they’re doing. In our Project Charter, we will call out critical milestones for timing so you can see how a project will develop on its way to the goal. Once the Charter is approved, you’ll receive a detailed Gantt Chart that lives in the cloud so you can see updates to the critical path in real-time.

Next Article: We Get Spiritual.

In the next post, we’ll stretch out. Way out. Now that we have defined our swim lanes, so to speak, we can begin to explore the ocean of our assignment with some guided, measured, recorded introspection.

About the Author: Sam Lowe conducts research to help build full-featured road maps and strategies for BS LLC clients ranging from hospitality to healthcare and manufacturing to high tech. He’s also delightfully addicted to 2-wheeled vehicles, classical music, and fine teas.

Estimated reading time: 4 minutes

Does your Culture match your Brand?

Remember when “authenticity” was all the rage in business marketing circles? Now, the “Great Resignation” is proving to those companies who didn’t get the memo that your culture must match your brand promise. Or else. 

BS LLC has written a lot about the relationship between a company’s culture and branding. Why? Well, selfishly, because we’re a branding agency. Holistically, however, we’re also a strategy company. And let’s just get this out there in the open:

Yeah, we went there. 

We’ve also worked with our fair share of startups, filled with genuine idealism, and a strong drive to understand how to serve their customers better. Those experiences for us as strategically driven creative professionals are just joyful. Everything coalesces. Insights turn into strategies, strategies turn into compelling tactics. Design and copy seems to create and write itself.

What do you do if you’re a mature brand but your internal culture, messaging, and marketing is misaligned? 

First, clear the air, and ‘fess up

How do you know if you have a culture / brand mismatch? It’s pretty simple: if your customer experience and your internal work experience are out of sync, you’ve probably got a culture problem. And if you’re that misaligned, you most likely have a branding problem.

If your customers are returning products, leaving bad reviews, scaling back their engagements, etc., but your sales teams are thinking “we’re doing everything right!” That’s a mismatch. Conversely, you may have booming sales, but your HR department is working overtime to keep the labor force shored up. 

Talk openly and respectfully to your customers and your workforce. Qualitative interviews at scale will reveal the pattern quickly: For example, customers know when you’re not walking the walk, even if they’re buying your product. But, if they’re “holding their nose while they buy,” that’s not a sustainable proposition.

Second, understand what “culture” really means

It’s a common misconception that culture is the same thing as workplace perks. “Jeans Friday” and foosball tables are outgrowths of success, but they don’t define culture.

Your company defines culture by how it gets work done. It’s your processes, and how they mandate people work together. Efficient, respectful workflows that factor in how and why your customers choose and use your products or services eliminate the previously-described mismatch. That’s what “walking the walk” is all about. Your workflows extend your customer service.

Third, define your values, and turn them into action

Why does your brand do what it does? How does it serve customers? What problems are you solving for your customers? Why is this work important or valuable to you, the people doing that work? These can be hard questions to answer because they’re often internalized; we feel the answers more than we can describe them. But describing them is an action that leads to shared clarity. Once you have shared clarity, you can define clear workflows.

Finally, does your brand need to change?

Once you’ve done this, look at your branding: does your messaging and your brand creative guidelines resemble this newfound focus? You may need to do some qualitative work with customers to see if it does. If you’re an established brand, you may be too close to it. 

If all off this seems a bit overwhelming, we strongly recommend that you call us. We’re experts at looking at your profit formula, your sales incentives, your workflows, and can compare this to your brand voice. By eliminating the gaps, your authenticity will increase, your messaging will sharpen, and your brand will be stronger.

About the Author:

Sam Lowe conducts research to help build full-featured road maps and strategies for BS LLC clients ranging from hospitality to healthcare and manufacturing to high tech. He’s also delightfully addicted to 2-wheeled vehicles, classical music, and fine teas.

Estimated reading time: 4 minutes

Solve your customer’s real problem with JTBD

We don’t know a single marketer who wouldn’t love the information served up at the top of this article. 

We humbly suggest, however, that the majority of our peers in marketing and marketing communications are spending far too much time learning about the customer rather than learning about the customer’s problem and context.

That’s where your answers lie, and Jobs To Be Done (or “JTBD,” sometimes called “Job Theory” or even “Timeline theory”) is the lens you need to get these answers.

One of the reasons JTBD is sometimes called “Timeline Theory” is because it takes a linear view of the customer’s process to solve a problem (or “hire” a solution.) 

Clear your mind. Be “solution agnostic.”

You may ask, “What’s the difference between this approach and the classic “Customer Journey?” That’s a great question, and there’s a clear difference: 

JTBD is solution agnostic, meaning it isn’t tracking a customer’s path to a product; it’s following the customer’s path to a solution — which could be any number of competing products, products from another industry altogether, or a seemingly random DIY approach.

Why is this revolutionary? Because by learning how the customer arrives at what they call a solution (rather than what you or your competitors call a solution) your customer tells you what they’ll “hire” (or spend money on), and what information — or marketing messages — they’ll respond to.

STEP ONE: Identified needs

Identifying the actual need is critical, otherwise, you’re chasing red herrings. 

Clayton Christensen’s famous example of one of his associates working with McDonald’s to increase sales of milkshakes captures the “need” question beautifully. He shares that they’d spent quite a bit of time and money attempting to increase sales by reformulating milkshakes after segmenting customers demographically (a classic faux pas,) and surveying them around ways to make a more tasty shake. Despite faithfully responding to this crowd-sourced info, they didn’t sell more milkshakes.

Taking several steps back and asking “what problem is hiring a milkshake solving,” they started looking at different data. When they realized that 40% of milkshake sales occurred during morning drive time, often with kids in the car, they realized that shakes were “hired” instead of other foods for very interesting reasons: convenience, amount of time to consume, cleanliness, and even boredom were all factors. 

McDonalds ended up reformulating 2 shakes: a thicker, longer-lasting shake with “interesting” bits of fruit for adults, and a thinner, easy to consume shake for kids, all targeted around morning. Whaddya know… they sold more shakes.

“That’s well and good,” you say, “but I’m not trying to increase sales of a product. I’m seeking to launch one.”

JTBD is especially good at innovation. But — you need to be brave. Are you sure you’ve identified an unmet need? 

JTBD will ask you to consider the problem your solution is designed to solve and then take your solution completely out of the equation. Look holistically at the non-demographically segmented group of people who live with, wrestle with, and often ingeniously solve (often through workarounds) your problem. Prepare to be surprised. 

Taking this approach seriously will set you up for our next installment, understanding the customer scenario.

About the Author:

Sam Lowe conducts research to help build full-featured road maps and strategies for BS LLC clients ranging from hospitality to health care and manufacturing to high tech. He’s also delightfully addicted to 2-wheeled vehicles, classical music, and fine teas.

Estimated reading time: 3 minutes