Creative Focus: Hope and Glory

Aaron Baar learns how Leo Burnett measures creative success
It’s the agency version of the U.N.
Every quarter, nearly 25 high-ranking creatives from Leo Burnett Worldwide gather to evaluate work from its offices around the globe. The auspicious group is dubbed the Global Product Committee. This year, I was invited to participate in the process. (Per an agreement with Burnett, locations will not be named.)
The GPC was formed by worldwide executive creative director Michael Conrad in 1992 as a way to improve the quality of work in the agency’s network and keep tabs on each office’s development. In fact, the GPC is serious business–many creative directors’ bonuses are tied to the number of 7-pluses (the ranking given to work deemed “Excellence in Craft” or better).
If that’s the case, I’m initially dubious about the range of work submitted. If I’m a creative director whose bonus is tied to the GPC grades, why would I submit anything that’s below par? I learned each office is expected to submit all its work for the quarter.
Being on the committee is akin to being a Cannes juror. The meetings have been known to take place in exotic locales, but much of the time is spent inside a room viewing ads. The most recent five-day GPC meeting took place in Chicago.
Frankly, I’m a little at sea here. How harsh should I be on these ads?
I decide to go with my gut instinct: Do I get the ad?
After the first day of evaluating ads, the GPC is abuzz over work it feels is a sure winner. The campaign for Kellogg’s LCMs starts off in benign fashion–a boy discovers he’s out of the snack and his mom tells him to head to the store (with the dog) to get more. It’s not exactly breakthrough work. But each subsequent execution changes a wrinkle; in the second spot, the dog is replaced by an alligator. Another spot switches the roles of dog and mother, while a later one is devoid of the product. (“There’s no product in this ad,” the boy laments.)
Here’s how the judging works: Each member of the GPC has a numbered keypad. After seeing each ad, members are asked to rank it on a scale of 1 to 10, with 1 considered “appalling” and 10 being “best in the world, bar none.” In between, there are stops at “destructive” (2), “clichE” (4) and “new standard in category” (8).
The panel sees generally 20-30 ads at a time, then tracks back to record the average scores. Any ad receiving a 7 or better is saved for revoting on the final day. After each screening, the averages are read out loud. Any discrepancies in the voting are noted. One ad receives a 6.8 average score, “including a 2.” I’m the 2, which means I’ve brought the average down, probably keeping this work from automatically getting a 7-plus. Though I felt the spot was vaguely racist (I was joined by a 4), the ad gets a second chance at a revote.
After the averages are tallied, Conrad picks one member of the group to lead a discussion about the ads.
Some campaigns, such as Heinz Salad Cream dressing, are clear winners. From print to television to an outdoor execution in which a man literally eats a billboard, each Heinz execution gets more outrageous, while making the point that “Any food tastes supreme with Heinz Salad Cream.”
During the discussion, any member of the panel can nominate an ad that did not receive a 7 or above to be re-evaluated on the final day (they need a two-thirds majority to be reviewed). Generally, these ads have averages in the high 6s, so they probably warrant another look.
Sometimes, these discussions can be uncomfortable. During one session, a creative director is tapped to lead the discussion on a group for which he was directly responsible. Some ads were good; some were, as Conrad would say, “not so fresh.” Even the creative director admits some of the executions were “kind of weak,” and offers that the client is particularly difficult.
This is where Conrad’s authority as the leader of Burnett’s worldwide creative resources (and his gentle nature) come in handy. To the creative director who just evaluated his own work, Conrad notes, “They may be a tough client, but this is a tough business. We need to succeed in it.”
Throughout the session, Conrad uses his demeanor to make his points subtly. “Should we nominate this one for the ‘Be Clear’ award?” he asks of one confusing execution.
At another juncture, he criticizes one TV spot for cars for leaving the impression that the product is destroying history. Yet he ends his comment with a German-tinged “Ja?” making the comment sound more like a question. The creative director being addressed nods in agreement.
Throughout the process, a select group of Burnett staffers take copious notes. These notes will be passed on to top creatives at the agency’s network offices and compiled in the quarterly package sent to every office. The package–the ads receiving votes of 7-plus–reflects the GPC’s views. The less flattering comments are distributed more discreetly.
Each office is asked to give its own evaluation–based on the 1-10 scale–of each ad. This gives Conrad a chance to see how discerning an agency is when it comes to creative. If an office consistently thinks its work is a 7 but the GPC is only awarding a 2, there’s a problem. Many of the offices are fair when judging their own work; it’s not uncommon to see an agency rate its work as a 2 or 3.
Yet the process of evaluating an office’s work can get trying. One outpost submitted nearly 100 print ads for review, everything from posters to counter displays. Unfortunately, they neglected in their enthusiasm to submit all but a few translations for the ads, meaning it’s up to Conrad to translate for the group.
The process starts out gamely, happily going through all the work. But cultural differences begin to get in the way. “I don’t get it,” Conrad says to himself. People start to get impatient. They begin milling around the room. Some take a bathroom break.
Eventually, Conrad stops translating the ads and is just recommending the scores each ad should get. “Give it a 2,” he says of one perplexing ad. By the time we finish with the office’s work, more than an hour later, there’s a burst of applause just to be done.
Ever optimistic, Conrad praises the office for submitting as much as it did. “It’s interesting to see a lot of work,” he says. Yet when an Asian office does a similar thing three days later, Conrad encourages us simply to give it one overall grade. We are all grateful.
The importance of getting a 7-plus is not just to receive Conrad’s pat on the back–or to get a bigger bonus. It affects the bottom line. An unscientific survey by Burnett’s creative resources department found a 45 percent chance of exceeding marketing objectives with a 7-plus campaign.
After four days of evaluation, the GPC has given 43 TV spots/campaigns and 51 print ads/campaigns 7-pluses. Most telling–the highest- scoring work married a creative idea to a unique media opportunity.
The Heinz Salad Cream billboard grabs the highest score, an 8.9, while other ideas, such as a one-cup bra hung on a lingerie rack to promote breast-cancer awareness and a mannequin perched atop a building with a billboard pushing suicide prevention, also get high marks.
“I think the GPC reacts to media ideas on an emotional as well as an intellectual level,” says Paul Kemp-Robertson, Burnett’s director of worldwide creative resources, after the session. “If something grabs our attention, then surely it will have the same effect on people in the street.”
Of course, timing is everything.
Looking at the 7-plus spots six weeks later, I begin to have doubts. Perhaps it’s because I’m not in a conference room debating the importance of the ads.
Maybe seeing the commercials out of context throws me. Or maybe I’m in a worse mood than I was six weeks ago.
See, it is just like being on the Cannes jury. K