Seize the Moment

March 1, 2007
Robin Shaprio
Successful Product Manager's Handbook

As pressure to succeed increases, agencies start to work earlier in the brand's life.

Life's too short. That's become our agency mantra. It's an expression that means many things, especially as it relates to healthcare marketing and communications. Life's too short reminds us that we are in an industry centered on improving and extending human life. There is so much on the line that there is not a minute to waste. This, combined with the fact that the effective marketing life of most brands can be as short as seven years, means more pressure to get things right the first time. Today, many brands are expected to become blockbusters within their first two years on the market.

Robin Shapiro

As the senior brand manager, this pressure falls on you. You have more responsibility than ever before. And if you're like most, you have to delegate things you never had to before, including time spent with your agency. These days, you often tell your team to go ahead and meet with the agency without you. After all, you don't want anything to slow the brand down, least of all your crazy, triple-booked schedule. Well, there could be a chink in the armor. It is possible that you could be losing time and money, and missing precious opportunities to make your brand more successful.

The purpose of this article is not to scare you into babysitting every tactic from start to finish, nor is it to find a reason to attend every status meeting. But there are critical times in a brand's life when your time and attention is not just a "nice to have," but a "have to have." Knowing these times can help you prioritize your time, and more importantly, do the right thing for your brand. Here are a few of the critical times when you need to get most involved.

1 Set mutual expectations

The first order of business whenever you have a new client-agency relationship is to set mutual expectations and establish how you would like the partnership to work. In this meeting, you are acting as a role model for your team, setting the tone for the relationship, and establishing your role as the champion for the brand.

The evolving agency structure Agencies used to be led by few thought leaders. Now that they are included on brand teams, influence is dispersed.

It's always good to encourage honesty and candor in the relationship, and invite your agency to provide candid feedback to you on an ongoing basis. It is surprising how many problems could be averted by bringing the senior brand manager into the mix early enough.

In addition to setting expectations with your agency, this is the ideal time to set expectations with your team about your involvement in the agency relationship. Let them know that you are not there to overrule their decisions, but to ensure that the work is absolutely as great as it can be—for the sake of the brand.

2 Lay the foundation

As the saying goes, you only get to launch once. Before a brand debuts, you are doing critical work with your agency that you can't do over again. You're sifting through market research; determining key insights and unmet needs; developing the brand's positioning, value proposition, and brand character; and finally developing branding hallmarks and a creative campaign for its launch. As the pressure to succeed increases, agencies are beginning their work earlier in the brand's life; these days, it is not uncommon to start three years prior to launch. Contemporary brands are initiating marketing efforts in the clinical foundation part of the lifecycle, and they are involving their agency partners during this phase.

The launch campaign for Alcons Toric is unlike any creative ever done in the arena of ocular surgery, with its dramatic visual and sardonic tone. Creative ideas with the most potential to move the needle often carry the most risk-and its up to the senior brand manager to give approval for these ideas.

As the client, you require the most senior agency resources at this critical pre-launch phase, and for good reason. You want the benefit of their collective years of experience, wisdom, and knowledge. Not only does this kind of senior brand-building talent ensure you get the best strategic thinking and freshest ideas, but they often discover those ideas faster and more efficiently. The good news is: it's getting easier to obtain those agency resources, as enlightened agencies evolve their structures in response to changing client needs.

The brand foundation is undoubtedly the most critical phase of your brand's life. You demand the most senior agency resources to lay that foundation. For the same reason, we need you to be there. Your ongoing involvement, attendance at key meetings, and guidance during this phase will ensure the brand has the best chance for a successful launch.

3 Master creative briefs

You should see and sign off on all major briefs, especially briefs that will drive multiple agency projects. Briefs are the ideal instruments for hammering out critical issues, debating, and fine-tuning. Why? Because this thinking happens before the work gets done. Nothing is more costly than a "do over." Yet it can and will happen if you don't make it your business to weigh in on creative briefs. I always recommend that this process happen in a series of conversations, rather than e-mails, because it is the back-and-forth dialogue that gets you to an exciting place together.

4 Make creative presentations

Any new idea or campaign presentation requires your attendance and can benefit from your involvement. First of all, your participation aids in the development of your people. In a creative presentation, you are acting as a role model on how to review creative, how to respond to it, and how to give constructive feedback. That is not to say that you need be the only voice in the room. In fact, many people in your position choose to let the most junior people in the room speak first. It's no great secret that once you state your opinion, it will be more difficult to get honest feedback from those who report to you. So weigh in last. That way, you will get the benefit of hearing their real opinions and they will get the benefit of hearing yours.

It is also in the brand's best interest to have you in the room for creative presentations. It is not uncommon for agencies to present ideas to one group, receive feedback, make changes, and return for the real presentation only to find out that further changes are required. Why? Because, let's face it, creative is highly subjective. Ideas stir up an emotional response and it is almost impossible for the people who report to you to know exactly how you will respond to a given piece of creative.

There's yet another important reason for you to be involved in key creative meetings. Often, the ideas with the greatest potential to move markets are also the riskiest ideas. Market-moving ideas are surprising. They capture your attention. They have the potential to strike a real chord with your target, stir up emotion, challenge the status quo, and change behavior. Ideas such as these could turn your promising compound into a gold mine. But they could also stir up another emotion—fear. Knowing when and how to take appropriate risk is a senior skill. It takes a combination of experience and judgment. It's a skill that comes with time. You have the necessary skills to choose a riskier idea. And you have the influence to see it through the system in its purest form. Make creative presentations your priority and I guarantee you will be doing the best thing for your brand.

5 Hold strategic summits

There are other key times to interface with the agency. We recommend quarterly strategic summits that include key members of the agency and client team. These meetings should be off-site, ideally at the agency, so you and your team will have a long stretch of uninterrupted time. At these meetings, you and your team should lay out the key issues, the competitive threats, and the major milestones. Encourage open dialogue, discussion, and idea sharing. Make sure you leave the day with a clear action plan. The point is, you should create forums to take advantage of this collective brainpower and get the most out of this resource for the benefit of your brand.

6 Conduct agency evaluations

Finally, you should always be a part of your agency's evaluation. After you have spent a year working together, your agency deserves to know how they are doing. And they deserve to hear the truth. If things need to get better in certain areas, say it. Different clients have different feedback methods. The best processes encourage two-way feedback, so you can also learn from your agency what your team is doing well, as well as areas for further development. The important thing is that you conduct evaluations, at least annually.

This is by no means an exhaustive list of the times when your agency needs your involvement. But it's a good start. The point is, making time for the agency will be great for the brand.

In the end, those "time deposits" will come back to you in personnel development and ultimately, brand success. So, next time you think you can't possibly find the time to meet with the agency, ask yourself if you could be missing a brand-defining moment.

Robin Shapiro is senior vice president and executive creative director of Corbett. She can be reached at