Lean Advertising

Gad Allon

By Gad Allon, The Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University. Source: The Operations Room.

I have very few rules as a blogger and one of them is that whenever I get a reference to an article from two different former students I must post about it. I got this reference to an article that appeared on Advertising Age (“Why a Little Discipline Is Good for the Creative Process”) from two former students (hat tips to Debbie Mendel and Tania Martino) at the beginning of the summer, but only now got to post about it.

The article discusses implementing ideas from Six Sigma to more creative fields:

Companies that implement a methodical process, such as Procter & Gamble or Microsoft, tend to deliver consistently better communications and business results, and their brands enjoy greater value. They tend to beat competitors on such key attributes as “cycle time” and “speed to market,” and have a higher degree of success when it comes to new-product launches. Most important, a meticulously executed process can deliver savings of more than 30% and improve productivity, as the need for redirects and errors is minimized. In fact, much of the angst caused by contract renegotiations and the squeeze on agency fees could have been mitigated had marketers focused on fixing what’s “broken” (the process) and not what’s “convenient” (agency compensation).

While the author refers to this as Six Sigma, (and tries to coin the term Three Sigma to tone it down), I find most of the suggestions to be more related to lean operations.  Many of the tools suggested are important, but interestingly are not entirely well understood from the article. In particular, the author suggests to

Avoid the iterative process: The common practice of separating creation from production is unsound. Upstream production involvement in the process is necessary to avoid flawed hand-off, and budget boundaries must be defined upfront.”

In essence I agree with this point, but I think the main issue is not to avoid the iterative process, but make the iteration short and quick, which can be achieved by moving to a cellular layout and keeping a single-unit transfer (see implementation in software developments, such as Agile).  There are many other suggestions, many directed at thinking about the creative process as a process and using different tools and measurements to improve it.  However, one just has to scroll to the end of the page and read the talkbacks to get a sense of the level of debate in this field regarding these “techniques”:

Yeah, lets process the hell out of everything, measure every little detail and increase efficiency. This isn’t the manufacturing sector, there are no assembly lines, we aren’t making widgets.”

The words “methodical” and “meticulously” scare me. They sound like micro-managing, robot jargon.

The resentment is well understood and in my opinion stems from not understanding the core of these ideas, as well as pure resistance to change.

Part of the idea of lean was to take the basic methods of Taylor, but involve the employee and the customer in the continuous improvement process. Furthermore, one of the key ideas behind lean is of tailoring – no tool or process fits all environments. Out of the list of steps the author brings the one about continuous improvements is probably the most important one:

Improve continuously. The process is not linear, and it is not close-ended. The process should include client feedback, brand reviews and 360-degree audits, all providing the foundation for continuous improvement.”

We have devoted already several posts to the notion of lean as frequent and gradual improvement, both for startups and mature organizations, both in the service and the manufacturing sectors. For a creative process, if you take one things from this article, this should be it.