Defending a brand design you don’t believe in, or agree with

by / Saturday, 13 July 2013 / Published in Concept development

This is a topic of hot debate in just about every agency, at one time or another. Here’s the scenario: You’re working on a brand or a client with a design standard that you don’t like. There’s something about the font, or maybe it’s the colours, the logo or any myriad of things that annoy you about it. You’ve worked on this client for years, and there’s nothing new happening – just the same ole’ same. Then, some client-side cowgirl decides she wants to do something different. Exciting. NEW! “Hey, you know what? …Can you show me a bunch of other font treatments? I know this is our font, but I really want this piece to be cool. Go nuts!” Any designer or art director with any chops at all, likes to change things up, so you find yourself immediately tempted with imagined layouts that would be worthy of your portfolio. So, what do you do?

Another tougher scenario – I’ve been here and it’s not easy – your creative director says, “Hey, I know all about the brand standards, but I don’t give a shit. Change everything. Make it all cool.” You’ve done 100 layouts for this client in the last three months, and they’ve loved each one. But, the creative director isn’t happy with it. She decides instead that she’d like to win an award. Her motives are intriguing because you’d like to win one too, and you like her and her work so you’re influenced by her passion, and she’s your boss. But, the client hasn’t asked you to change their brand, nor have they said they wanted an award. So, what do you do?

There’s no simple rule to follow when navigating this territory. There are many factors at play. What if the client and their graphic standards are held-over from 1993? Isn’t it then proper to update them? Shouldn’t you try to do something cool? Is your job at stake if you don’t do what the creative director asked? Is he a prick and hard to deal with? Is that cow-girl client inspiring you to take creative flight, senior enough to make that call? Does she even understand the importance of brand and consistency? It’s all this, and more. It happens all the time, in many, many creative shops. So, what do you do?

I’ll suggest the “Guard at the Gate” mentality for these situations. To the client, I might say, “Hey, I’m here to serve you creatively on this project. For years, we’ve been following the standards very closely, so it’s unusual that we’d have permission to change it suddenly. Can you give us some background on this new direction? Will we be authorized to proceed?” To the creative director, I might say, “Really? We’re ignoring the standards? You’re my boss and I’ll do as you ask, but I disagree. The brief didn’t ask us to deviate from the brand. Would you object to 2 layouts – one as you suggest, and the other as the brief suggests, so we’re covered?” Like the guard at the gate, these types of questions do a couple basic things: verify the person and their level of access or influence, accommodates their request, but gives them a moment of pause to consider that this request is unusual, and not expected or required. Let’s go as far to say, you hate the standard you’re defending, creatively. Does that mean you’re more likely to give in and take a new direction? Maybe, but here’s the tough pill to swallow: it’s not your brand on which to decide, and the client that has hired you, has entrusted you with preserving it. They want your best work, yes. Don’t just phone it in, because you have to be here until 5 – you have to make an effort to create the best layout you’re inevitably going to hate, because that’s the service you’re being paid to do. That’s what they’re paying for and expecting.

On the other hand…

Its perfectly fine to take every opportunity you have to challenge a brand you think is weak, or outdated. There are good and bad ways of doing it, and not during a creative presentation, obviously, but it can be done. “We’re really glad you like the work we’re doing, and I’m personally grateful for all the projects you’ve entrusted me with. That said, do you have any plans for brand development? The design style seems a little dated, and maybe some new fonts and colour updates could take your brand up a notch. What do you think? Give us a shot at it when you’re ready.” Defend your client’s brand, because that’s the job they PAY you to do. Challenge their weaknesses to make them better …that’s why they HIRED you. It’s a line – you have to be able to walk both sides. This muscle, is called “creative strategy”. Start building it.

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