Listening For Better Creative

The best solutions for advertising start with listening


By Kim Parrish

Did you ever wonder how creative leaders come up with great ideas for their clients? I think the good ones listen. I've been called many things over the years; creative director, digital designer, brand consultant... these are all labels I have been happy to accept at one time or another. But I think one of the best compliments I ever got from a client was being called an “intense listener.” That one got my attention, and I wore that moniker proudly for a reason; see I happen to think that listening is one of the weak spots in many creative personalities. I never assume to know more about a market than the client who is currently engaged in making a living there.

Not listening—a common problem

As an inexperienced ad man fresh out of college, I would often struggle with producing concepts that really pleased my employer and clients. This was not because I was lazy or unconcerned; I was trying hard. My failure was simply not listening. It took me a while to realize this, and eventually I corrected the problem. Looking at some designers today, I think the problem is still common, and it's compounded by the fact that the creative process is often quite complicated.

Later on, in my post as a creative director for an ad agency, I was surprised to see designers and art directors come into client meetings without even carrying a note pad. I began to realize this was the main reason many of them required constant direction and input from account managers and executives; they simply didn't concern themselves with listening to the needs of the client. As a result, they had no hope of producing work that resonated with the client or the market which the client was trying to reach. They weren't dumb people; to the contrary—many of them were brilliant visualists. But there seemed to be a clear disconnect on the marketing side.

Too powerful to listen?

I'm not really sure why this happens, but a recent study conducted by a psychologist at Ohio State University shows that people who feel powerful often have a strange aversion to listening. Is it possible that creatives sometimes think of themselves as being in power over their clients or employers, and this impacts their listening? It's an interesting thought. Perhaps they feel that the client is going to attempt to control the creative process, but in my experience this is not always the case. I have found that listening to the client often leads to some of the best marketing insights!

Better listening means better solutions

And let's not forget one other point—proper listening should lead to great questions. I think our clients are often surprised and pleased at how many questions we ask at KPCS input meetings. Too many times, creatives put up walls around themselves and try to work in a vacuum. Anyone who has spent time in an ad agency on the marketing side has seen this. They might take a few notes and spend many hours trying to develop an original idea, but their failure to listen has impaired them. Even worse; their lack of listening results in a lower understanding of the client's brand and that results in a lack of brand-critical questions. It's kind of a negative chain reaction; If creatives don't listen to the client and truly engage themselves in addressing the marketing problem, the critical questions which can spawn great solutions are never asked.

Over the years, I have heard some real horror stories from my friends in marketing about agencies and creatives that refused to listen. If you are a business owner with a product or service, or a marketer in need of advertising and creative support services, the last thing you want to do is spend a ton of money with an ad agency, graphic designer or branding consultant that never listens. Make sure you hire a creative team with ears!

Kim Parrish is an award-winning creative consultant, his Orlando advertising firm develops cohesive branding, campaigns, website solutions and SEO, print collateral, and package design for a wide spectrum of companies—from small start-up firms to global brands like Wal-Mart® and NBC/Universal®.

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