Messaging and meetings

white paper

I remember I ran a meeting once where the designers put together a look of what was to be a space focused on the new students the university was bringing in. It was a space designed with an admissions message in mind.

The meeting fell to pieces when the account manager didn’t like the design. The designer thought she was doing something right, but was way off, and the producer didn’t think it would fit in the space. It was a triumvirate of bad.

We spent an hour throwing out ideas, folks were getting upset, and everyone was feeling lost. No one could decide what the design should be because no one knew what the message was. 

And who messed up? Who didn’t bring a clear message in? Who was responsible for getting that information out of the client? Who didn’t do his homework and figure out the primary and secondary messages?

That would be me (in this scenario, picture me pointing two thumbs at myself).

And what happened after all that? Well, my boss at the time returned from a weekend away to hear all about the horrible meeting. “I need to talk to you,” he said to me.

He and I had a sit-down and we talked through what happened. We pieced things together like it was CSI: Special Events.

It didn’t take long for us to see where the issue started: I wasn’t clear with the design team on what the client wanted and what the message was.

Why this happened

This was why the designer just threw darts at a wall to see what would stick. It was why the design didn’t make sense. This was why the account manager got angry. This was why the producer was frustrated.

I hadn’t given the project the sense and focus it needed. I got complacent. I thought I could just ask a few questions, hear what I wanted to hear, and use my own creativity to give it to what it needed. I thought I could just wing it. 

This was when I realized, “Oh wow, you need a message for everything you do. This is what happens when you don’t have a message.” Together, we retraced our steps, like adventurers who have lost their way, and we saw where the pain started.

This was on me, and I had to recognize that. It sucked, and it hurt, but I needed to face it.

Talking to designers

We too often rely on telling designers to just go and make it pretty. We think they should just “get” what’s in our heads. This is sloppy and we do it because it takes the pressure off of us, or so we think. But this is a false sense of satisfaction because when we are flippant about the message, and the design team comes back with something off-brand, it’s our butts that are on the line. 

Never blame design for something you did wrong. You didn’t get the message right. you chose to not ask the right questions, and you refused to provide the background that would make the design process simple. And now, look where you are. You now have to go back to your client and ask them the questions you should have asked from the very beginning. 

What we learn from meetings

That terrible meeting I mention in the previous paragraph was the result of me being sloppy. I was relying more on my own creativity and less on what was really needed. This meeting happened because I refused to do the legwork. And faced with a design professional that knew what she was doing, was smart as hell, and refused to settle for run-of-the-mill; my cover was quickly blown.

That’s when I realized this mantra: no groundwork, no message, no reward.

The same can be said for marketing campaigns. When you’re not clear on the message, you can tell it from the design instantly. I think back to a campaign I did a few years ago. I remember the designer came to me with two ideas for the look of a campaign we were about to launch: one was super on the mark and fit the look and feel of the event completely, and one was totally off-brand. I saw that second design and had an instant visceral reaction to it.

I had to remind the designer that the message of the campaign was focused on a certain style and feeling, and the first option was most indicative of this. I knew the second design was wrong because I knew what the message was. I knew how the creative should look, feel, and how it should speak to an audience. If I wasn’t clear on what my messaging was, I could have gone with the second design and everything would have been terrible. 

Learning from meetings

Looking back, I can only imagine how the client would have reamed me out for bringing that second design to her desk. She would have destroyed me. It would have been beyond horrible. But I also realized that this meant I had to be more specific about the look, feel, and message of the campaign. If I had been more vocal with the designer, I don’t think she would have tried to go for that other look because she, too, would have realized how off it was.

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