The all-important approval-to-completion process

Yeah. So. When I was rudely interrupted by the millennium and stuff, I had been planning to write a whole series of columns on the crucial period between client concept approval and finished production. I wrote exactly one. Though even I...

Yeah. So. When I was rudely interrupted by the millennium and stuff, I had been planning to write a whole series of columns on the crucial period between client concept approval and finished production.

I wrote exactly one. Though even I can’t remember what it said, let alone you, I hereby try to pick up where I left off.

One reason why the approval-to-completion phase is so delicate is that the concept has just come out of hiding. The creative process, which actually generates the idea, is generally very quiet and clandestine, with closed doors, rottweiler guard dogs, frustrated pacing suits on the outside, the occasional sigh or shout, and maybe an illicit substance or two. But when the idea emerges, it become everybody’s plaything.

The account folk get involved, the clients get involved, the government approval boards get involved, the shortlist of directors or photographers gets involved, and so forth. (Let’s forget about the focus groups for now; that’s a whole nother matter.)

Each of these people, except for the governmenters, is genuinely trying to help. But they usually don’t. They have other motives beyond the integrity of the idea – job security, client happiness, the look of their reel, etc. – and though it sounds pretentious, the integrity of the idea is what counts here. Let me offer just one real-life illustration.

When I was introducing the Midland Walwyn identity program, Blue Chip Thinking, there were the to-be-expected discussions about the appearance of the icon itself. What does the long-metaphorical ‘blue chip’ really look like? Does it appear to be plastic, or bronze, or perhaps patterned marble? Does it have a border, like a poker chip, or would that heighten the illusion that the stock market resembles gambling? These questions created their share of angst, but they got answered and the idea survived.

However, at one point, somebody observed that the lobby of the Midland Walwyn head office had a central décor of hunter’s green. And hey, if this blue chip thing really took off, wouldn’t that kind of clash? Hoo boy, the client would be facing bigtime decorator’s fees. And the agency would be responsible.

That was when a senior account person said, with a completely straight face, ‘Hey, what’s the problem? We could make a green chip work!’

No. No, that’s not a positive, helpful contribution. No. No, we do not put a small disclaimer in every execution saying ‘the colour selection in this ad reflects agency concern for the client’s lobby.’ We do not oh-just-slightly, who’ll notice, modify the headline to say ‘Green Chip Thinking’. No. That does a certain violence to the integrity of the idea.

Years before that, I was working on a packaged goods product which was decades behind its time, but still managed to contribute major profit to the client’s bottom line. It was called Resdan, and you dumped it on your head and left it there for weeks until your dandruff surrendered. Head and Shoulders was a much more contemporary product, but Resdan had its loyal audience. We continued to try to reach that audience.

Since Resdan’s formula had remained untouched since the days when John A. Macdonald drank it, we decided to glorify that lack of change in our advertising. We developed a cute little satirical commercial in which a sweet, idealized family kept asking each other for ‘the new improved orange juice’ and the ‘new improved napkins’.

Freeze. Cut to Resdan bottle. Announcer quietly intones: ‘For 30 years, this product has been un-new. Un-improved. (DRAMATIC PAUSE) Resdan. We got it right the first time.’

We sent it off to Ottawa, to the Board of Great Protectors of the Hapless Canadian Consumer from the Predatory Advertising Brutes, and it sat there for weeks. Finally, it came back. The directive was, you can’t say you got it right the first time.

Why not, pray tell? we asked with slight undertones of anger. More silence. The answer finally came back, ‘We think you’re trying to imply your product is perfect.’ We replied, ‘That is correct. That is what we are doing. That is what ad guys do.’ Ottawa replied, ‘Well, you’re not doin’ it on my watch.’ End of discussion.

I went back, and I must have rewritten that punch line 50 times. They all sucked, and I can’t remember one of them. We finally got one approved – something like ‘Resdan, it’s been pretty swell for pretty long’ – and we made the commercial. It didn’t work. It was a long buildup for a weak punchline, sort of like the giant cake being wheeled in at the bachelor party and Roseanne pops out. (What we should have done was dump the whole commercial. Ottawa hadn’t just rewritten a copy line, they’d gutted the idea.)

The time between approval and completion is a lot like cutting a diamond. If you do it right, you polish and shape and improve something raw into something beautiful. But if anybody’s hand slips at any point, you wind up with a pile of dust.

John Burghardt’s checkered resumé includes the presidency of a national agency, several films for the Shah’s government in Iran, collaboration with Jim Henson to create the Cookie Monster, and a Cannes Gold Lion. The letterhead of his thriving business now reads ‘strategic planning – creative thinking’. He can be reached by phone at (416) 693-5072, by fax at (416) 693-5100 or by e-mail at

From Karen Howe’s dining table: Creativity, COVID and Cannes

ICYMI, The Township's founder gathers the best of the best campaigns and trends so far.

Cannes Base Camp

By Karen Howe

I’m attending Cannes from the glory of my dining room table. There’s not a palm tree in sight, yet inspiration and intel are present in abundance.

Cannes Lions is a global cultural pulse check. The social course correction in the wake of the murder of George Floyd and BLM has delivered far greater diversity in the judging panels as well as the work. And we are all better for it.

I’m proud to say that creativity defeated COVID, which speaks to its power. Great work and big ideas flourished, despite unimaginable odds.

The work from the past two years spans a vast emotional range. From the profundity of Dove’s “Courage is Beautiful” to the hyper exuberance of Burberry’s “Festive,” they are opposite ends of the spectrum, but each answered a need in us.

Take note, the ascendency of gaming cannot be understated. Smart brands have embraced the channel. It makes sense, because gamers participate to meet others around the world, not just to play. And they represent a huge and powerful community. That’s why QSR Wendy’s gamified their iconic gal in RPG’s Feast of Legends.

Burger King sponsored the unknown Stevenage Football Club, transforming the team into online heroes and vaulting BK into the fray at the same time. Once again, the brand embedded itself in culture.

The birth of gaming tourism arrived when Xbox snuggled up to travel guides and created a brilliant baby: a travel guide for gaming worlds. It, too, embedded itself in culture.

From the standpoint of social good, Reporter Without Borders showed how it worked with Mindcraft for its “Uncensored Library” to bypass press censorship, with Minecraft providing a loophole to a space where young people could be educated. It provided youth with a powerful tool to fight oppression: truth.

COVID changed us in unexpected ways. We learned how to pay attention again and there was a notable lack of 30-second commercials. Instead, longer format content thrived. Apple’s WFH was seven minutes long. Entertainment reigned king, so we find ourselves returning to our advertising roots.

Seeing competitive brands form partnerships was one of this year’s other great surprises. The brilliantly simple “Beer Cap Project” by Aguila to reduce binge-drinking saw the brand reach out to competitive beers to join in. Aguila put incentivizing (keyword: free) reminders to drink water, eat food and get home safely on its bottle caps from all sorts of fast food chains, ride-share co’s and H2O brands.

On a personal level, I’m so proud of Canada again this year. Given that it was two years of work from all over the world being judged, even making the Cannes shortlist was an accomplishment. Canada is herding in the Lions in tremendous numbers – and it’s not even over. Fingers are crossed.

KAREN-HOWE-PIC-higher-rez-300x263Karen Howe is a Canadian Cannes Advisory Board Member and founder of The Township Group