As part of my series on marketing process changes that are byproducts of today’s new technology, I turn to creative production and management during campaign development. The overall theme of this series has been that enhanced marketing processes are critical to the success of new marketing technology. Successful resolution of scale and complexity process issues in campaign management is critical to realizing the true value of new technology. These challenges are important in the creative development and management processes as well.

Creative development and management are not commonly associated with marketing technology, although some tools, such as Chordiant (formerly known as Prime Response), have begun to develop such an infrastructure. Most marketers tend to see creative development as an entirely right-brain activity. Based on a framework laid out in a strategic brief, artists and copywriters develop sample concepts and prototype copy, which are narrowed down with the client and then developed into detailed mockups for approvals prior to production. In production (from a high level), creative is sent to the production house and set up for printing. Once the print run is complete, the pieces are sent for lettershop, associated with a letter (if appropriate) and matching envelope and bundled for mailing. Overall, this process appears on the surface to be highly right brain, with little need for or involvement with new marketing technology.

However, new technologies for marketing campaigns bring changes in the creative process as well. As campaign volumes increase (enabled by the elimination of repetitive tasks and increased integration with different channels), creative development faces new challenges – specifically, how great creative can be developed in volume and how marketers can manage that creative- through-execution process. The first challenge is critical to the brand and the second critical to execution. Together, these issues represent the two sides of the campaign management dilemma: How to manage content and process to consistently deliver a superior product?

Let’s focus on the content side first. Most marketers believe that powerful, effective, strategic creative is not easy. To achieve such a product requires time, thought and innovation. I would concur; the amount of shoddy, off-strategy creative that appears in database marketing reflects tradeoffs that marketers have made. Also, in many cases the difference between great and mediocre creative is never measured and creative selection is arbitrary. So, if the differences between creative approaches are not measured, and creative selection (by upper management) is often arbitrary and capricious, why should a marketer get invested in this process at all? Why not select the lowest common denominator and get going on offer development, training and execution, all of which are time-consuming activities? Why bother at all?

There is one simple reason why marketers should care about creative, and invest themselves in the creative development process – and that reason is the brand. Remember, interaction quality and consistency between customers and the organization across all touchpoints creates the brand. Creative establishes the core message that is delivered through those touchpoints. While the quality of those interactions is executional, the content springs from creative development and is very challenging indeed.

Now that the importance of the creative process has been (re)established, the next question is “how.” Remember, we are faced with two challenges – how to determine valuable creative and how to manage the process.

How to identify valuable creative is really two processes – identifying the fit with business strategy and identifying the value of one creative treatment over another. The business fit is important because impactful creative that is off-strategy is fun but will eventually erode brand identity. This process is nontechnical. It involves assessment of creative fit to a preestablished strategic brief. The closer the creative fit to the brief, the more strategic the results are.

Once on-strategy creative has been determined, marketing technology is available to establish relative value of one treatment to another. By aggressively pursuing “champion-challenger” test methodologies, marketers can identify the value of different creative treatments and quantify that value. Champion-challenger approaches split creative treatments across a test segment and then evaluate results (financial and response) to identify the stronger creative, which is then adopted as the standard until another “challenger” treatment is developed. The theory is that continual testing and creative refinement with such a rigorous approach should improve overall results. One note to consider is that strong creative often takes time to build. If creative treatments are tested over just one campaign, the stronger, more differentiating creative may be eliminated. The result can be more “me-too” efforts, reducing brand differentiation and, over the long- term, diminishing financial results.

Now we have discussed managing creative content. Strong, on-strategy creative is possible in a technology- enabled marketing environment. In fact, the technology may assist in identifying stronger, more effective creative treatments, once the strategic fit is established. The creative management challenge also impacts creative content and runs the risk of reducing creative to the lowest common denominator.

As marketing campaigns increase in volume, the time that can be dedicated to creative development for any single campaign is reduced.

In order to create brand value across a communications volume, marketers are turning to different creative development strategies, reminiscent of traditional marketing approaches. In order to manage so many different campaigns, marketers are beginning to group campaigns into, well, campaigns – a group of communication efforts with a single message and theme across different channels. Gone are the one-off campaigns with creative that is never used again. In fact, there is not time to develop creative for all the campaigns today if a one-off approach is used. Now, a single creative theme is developed, and poolouts (different executions across a single creative approach) are developed for multiple efforts. Those poolouts are often produced in a generic format, with custom laser printing added at the last minute to personalize the communication. Preprinting capitalizes on economies of scale in production, while new laser printing customization capabilities drive mass-customized offers and communications based on business rules.

This approach, from a high level, is similar to classic marketing campaigns, when creative was developed, usually for TV advertising, and then that creative was extended across store merchandising, direct mail and radio to create a consistent look (dare we call it a brand?). The increasing campaign scale and volume today forces marketers to adopt similar approaches. Only time will tell if branding improves through this approach.

Finally, to manage campaign volume, marketers are leveraging new technology in order to create and share time lines across departments and with partners. As campaigns proceed through execution, different steps are checked off the time lines in a central, easily viewed system. Tasks that are delayed or behind schedule are highlighted through alerts (e-mails and pager alerts) and are detailed in a “stoplight” report which uses green-yellow-red coding to highlight critical activities that are behind schedule. Such detailed tracking permits marketers to focus their attention on the most critical tasks that are in jeopardy of slipping, rather than be deluged by the volume of tasks occurring on a daily basis.

There is no question that creative development and management faces challenges from the increasing campaign volume enabled by new marketing technology. In addition, database-driven marketing communications are not exactly improving in quality. Just look in your mailbox every day – more “me-too” clutter appears. But marketers who recognize the value of strong, branded communications are inventing new processes to support such efforts. By bundling efforts into macro campaigns, improving creative testing rigor and managing development processes through technology, marketers are “boldly driving brand value where no one has gone before.” Ultimately, strong, strategic creative consistently executed will provide sustained results to support that brand.

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