Philly Creative Guide

Guest Columnist

Christopher Ovdyenko

Speaking "Creativese"
by Christopher Ovdyenko, 1 Aug 2009

Chris Ovdiyenko is a Creative Director at Digitas Health, a member of the Paris-based Publicis Groupe S.A. (Euronext Paris: FR0000130577), the world's fourth largest communications group, second largest media counsel and buying group, and a global leader in digital and healthcare communications.

Once, I asked a Group Creative Director what he thought was the most important thing an aspiring creative could do to be successful. He told me when you're coming up in an agency, the best thing you can do is learn how to talk intelligently about creative work. Being able to lead and participate in a meaningful discourse about creative executions is a skill that defines who we are as professionals, and it has direct influence on how you are perceived by your clients and peers.

I've been privileged to work with some exceptional marketing clients who totally "get it," but most are excellent marketers who don't necessarily know how to talk about creative work. It helps them out enormously if you can give them the words behind the pictures. Long after the projector is turned off and you've left the conference room, your words are likely the same ones the marketing exec will use to "sell" your work to their manager and coworkers. So it helps to give them the "right" words.

Art of any kind is a goopy, messy, and contradictory business. So how do you talk about creative work effectively? For me it comes down to communicating the meaning, strategy, mechanics, and relevance of the creative work.

Just a note, the terms I'm using are just words that I think work to describe concepts – some of these words have very different meanings outside the creative sphere. But since I'm talking with peers, I'm going with what I think works.

Creative Strategy

If I had to sum up my job in one sentence, I'd say I translate marketing objectives into effective creative strategies. I usually can't control what those marketing objectives are, but I can usually control how they're met creatively.

I think of creative strategies as the "big idea." In government circles you might hear about the cascade of policy doctrine, geo-political strategy, and situational tactics. I think of creative strategies as the "doctrine" in that model—it's the really, really high level thinking and approach to fulfilling a marketing objective.

One creative strategy might be to engage the viewer by provoking them in outrage (think the TRUTH campaign). Another might be to associate a brand with a lifestyle (VW Pink Moon)—buy the brand and you're buying membership in that particular lifestyle "club".

When working on a video for healthcare professionals, I illustrated a two axis graph. In one direction was a line between "selling" and "educating." In the other direction, "brand centric" and "health category specific." We advised the creative strategy fall toward the educating/category specific side of the graph based on what we knew about physician response to blatant selling of a brand.

I think that's the basis of a solid creative strategy: illuminate the motives and rationale behind the creative direction, without addressing exactly how the creative direction will fulfill the strategy.

I usually try to setup the creative strategy and meaning/conceptual framework at the beginning of the presentation before any work is even shown. The reason is simple, if you get buy-in early on, you can always return to it later if things start to go south.

Meaning/ Conceptual Framework

Maybe this is just symantics, but I believe that conceptual frameworks are different from creative strategies in at least one fundamental way. I look at the creative strategy as the motivation and approach to fulfilling marketing objectives while conceptual frameworks are the specific way that the strategy is employed creatively.

In some ways the meaning/ or conceptual framework should be self-evident. If you see an ad, you should understand what it's communicating without being conscious of "figuring it out." This is the hallmark of great work, but there's times when even great work needs to be "sold in."

Raise your hand if you've presented and heard this one: "I don't get it."

Or this: "I'll know it when I see it".

Or my all-time personal favorite "I hate it, and I don't know why."

These are all examples of clients who aren't able to articulate their thoughts about creative work because they lack the ability to speak in a "creative" language. So the feedback they're giving is just a gut reaction without any meaningful cues you could use to improve the work.

The burden is on us to establish the conceptual framework of meaning within which clients can give us useful feedback. Once the framework is established, you'll be able to tease out meaningful direction from cues clients give you.

It's difficult to give a succinct example of what I believe constitutes a creative conceptual framework since every project is unique, but hopefully this example illustrates what I mean.

Recently I worked on marketing a drug for people who have chronic dry mouth. I mean really, really dry mouth. We conducted market research and noticed something weird – everyone had water bottles. They said they wouldn't go anywhere without them because they could never be sure there would be a water fountain nearby and they sometimes need water to speak. Philosophically, we wondered if these patients resented having to carry all this water around? The research proved our hypothesis right. This insight then provided the conceptual framework we built the creative upon. We articulated it to the client this way:

The very coping mechanisms our patient population uses to alleviate symptoms are themselves objects of resentment which serve to reinforce the patient's diminished quality of life.

Coping mechanisms are proxies for the condition itself.

This established the conceptual framework the creative was built upon. Once we had the client agreeing to the way we framed the issue, getting buy-in on the executions was a snap.


By mechanics I mean things like the colors, design devices being employed, size, treatment of interactive elements, etc. etc. This is where most new creative presenters go first – that's understandable since it's the area they're usually most comfortable with. Unfortunately, most clients I've come across could care less about hearing why you chose green as the accent color. But mechanics are still an area worth spending some time on. Arguably the most important aspect of mechanics are the design devices brands can "own."

So what constitutes an "ownable brand device" and how do you discuss it? I'm thinking of visual mnemonics that help consumers correlate a brand with the brand promise. Maybe an ad campaign uses a purposefully sketched line to circle a brand relevant aspect of a photograph. Or it could be an artifact like a Polaroid or handwritten note employed to signify those personal meaningful moments from the past which still correlate to the present. Whatever it is, these devices are brand add-ons which should serve the creative strategy.

Words like "artifact," "signify," "employ", "correlate," etc. illuminate the nature of the device and its relationship to the strategy. I believe a large part of communication is the linking of concepts and illustration of relationships. Words like these carry meaning that accomplishes those goals. At the least they work better than saying you used an old Polaroid in a layout because it looked "cool" and "retro".


When I was in college I learned a crucial lesson which stuck with me. I labored on an English Lit. paper and submitted what I thought was the best damn paper ever written on John Keats' "Eve of Saint Agnes." I had an interesting thesis, built up one purring engine of an argument, I even typed it out on the very best paper my college budget would afford—everything was just so. I handed it in, confidant that the last two months of sweating one single, solitary poem was going to payoff big.

When I got the paper back, I was crest fallen to see I received a "C" and I was confused by the question spelled out in large red capital letters which read: "SO WHAT???" I thought maybe the prof just didn't like me, but hat in hand, I humbly asked him after class what I had done to deserve such a mediocre grade. His response made a lasting impression.

"You did a great job building up your case, and your argument was interesting in a technical way, but you failed to show the relevance of your idea."

I think this point is also critically important when speaking about creative work—convey the relevance of what you're saying from "go." It may be true that the inclusion of some element is important to the design – but why is it important to the communication? Is it coming from an insight gleaned about the audience, or is it just a pretty thing that looks nice? So I start there. I try not to assume that what I'm talking about is immediately relevant.

Shining light on your work

The goal is to turn ambiguity into clarity. Hopefully, by speaking a little "creativese" even negative feedback you receive will be actionable and might sound like this:

"The conceptual framework of your ad isn't aligned to our strategy because you're focusing on – instead of – ;

"The key consumer insight we have is –, but your executions are using a tone and manner which doesn't match the spirit of that insight."

Or maybe if you're really lucky you'll hear this:

"I hate it, and here's why..."

Print Article Brought to you by: Christopher Ovdyenko | Past-President; the Art Directors

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