Strategy Session

March 19, 2018


Designer, speaker and author Douglas Davis. Photo © Mrodphotos
Designer, speaker and author Douglas Davis. Photo © Mrodphotos

How can you solve a creative problem for a client if you don’t speak the same language? In this exclusive Q&A, designer, educator, speaker and author Douglas Davis draws from his book, Creative Strategy & The Business of Design, to show how designers and marketers can avoid getting lost in translation


If you’ve ever heard back about a pitch you didn’t land and wondered why the client didn’t understand your brilliant solution, you may need to learn a new language. That language is called Marketing, and it’s creeping into every conversation you have as a creative person.


Douglas Davis, founder of Brooklyn, New York–based strategic design firm The Davis Group, is here to be your translator as you practice not only this new way of speaking, but also a new way of thinking. In 2018, Davis says designers need to be well versed in marketing tactics if they want to position themselves for success.


He would know. Davis had been working in digital design for almost a decade when he was asked to defend his design decisions to the client—and he was unable to. In order to bridge this language barrier, Davis returned to university and earned his Master’s degree in integrated marketing from New York University in 2010.


Now, Davis spreads the language of marketing to creative professionals at numerous international speaking engagements, and to students as a professor at New York City College of Technology, City College of New York, and the Manhattan Early College School for Advertising. In 2016, he assembled all of his learnings into a book, Creative Strategy and the Business of Design (HOW Books, $30). Having attended both design school and business school, Davis approached the book with deep consideration of daunting a designer might find the strategy world. In it, he shares easy-to-understand key terms and theories, draws on case studies from real marketers, and develops a concrete creative strategy framework designers can use to identify the target audience, brand facts, product features and benefits, and objectives of any project.


Applied Arts recently spoke to Davis about how designers can start to learn the language of business.


Applied Arts: It seems that designers need to act like they’re ad agencies when it comes to the pitch. How much of the onus is on designers to understand strategy and marketing in this way? Isn’t that what strategists and marketers are for?


Douglas Davis: Around 2007, I started to see that I was losing battles when, as the head of the digital arm in an agency, I could answer client requests, but I could not justify the design decisions that I was making. I couldn't justify what I was recommending for the client in the context of the business and the marketing objectives that they were trying to achieve, because I wasn't familiar with any of that.


Almost 11 years later, design and advertising have continued to merge, and designers need to approach their job as strategists. This is why you see client requests moving from creative content to strategic context. Clients are not just asking you to make it pretty—they're asking you for advice on how and where you should actually show the work. And they're asking questions that have more to do with things that are outside of our lane. It's important for designers to understand strategy, and the reason why I believe that it is in our best interest to continue to learn the skills that are outside of our lane is because you can't continue to make a living just on execution at this point.


Designers have always had to continue their education outside of their formal university program. You've always had to teach yourself additional skills in order to be relevant and in order to differentiate why you should actually be the person to win the pitch or to get the job. What I argue in the book is that you have to not only brush up on the things that make you a great executer, but you have to brush up on the reason why the client is coming to you in the first place. It's imperative that, just for survival, we broaden our own roles before there isn't a choice.


AA: Where can we make improvements to the education system to ensure that happens? It's probably unrealistic to think that every designer is going to be able to go back to school. So where can we make changes now, as students are entering college or university?


DD: I think we're falling short, but not just in design education. It's also business education. As a person who's been able to go through D-school and B-school, I got that experience firsthand. I wasn't in the room just to make it pretty—but that's what I’d learned in design school because of the way my professors introduced problems to be outside of the context of the business and marketing objectives.


We have to really pay attention as design educators to the way we introduce problems to this next generation. They can't be divorced from the target group; they can't be divorced from the brand itself. It's imperative that we not just teach the creative and aesthetic part of what we do, because we are a part of business. That’s where the creative side of this equation has to be better— we need to make sure that the way problems are introduced to students mirrors the exact way that they are introduced in the boardroom, or else we're doomed to have our curriculum, as well as our process, be a shadow of what the industry was and not a reflection of what it is.


On the business side, it has to be the same thing. If you're in a marketing or business program and you're not clear on how to wield your creative team as a weapon, then you're not paying attention to what Apple has been doing for the last 10 years. You're not paying attention to what Kohler’s been doing in terms of home furnishings and industrial design. You're not paying attention to the way that the public is becoming more and more aesthetically aware. It’s imperative that those programs teach exactly how to interact with and get the most out of the creative team by making sure that something as simple as the brief is written for the creative team. We've all heard that a picture is worth a thousand words, but in the hands of a right designer, a word is worth a thousand pictures. You can craft that creative brief with the same drama that would get a creative person going with a thousand pictures in their head. And then you're actually doing the whole team on the account a favour, because you're not putting in everything-but-the-kitchen-sink into a lazy creative brief.


But half the time, maybe even 75 per cent the time, in order for a creative person to have a sound strategy, they might have to write it themselves. So we can start to add those skills. It won't matter whether the business side decides to learn what we do. They should—I think it would help everybody—but they might not, because they already wield a lot of the power in the dynamic. So I'm suggesting that creative people take their seat at the table by learning another language. And it might be easier for creatives who are already tasked with learning new technology and new platforms to just add business and marketing terms and tactics into their creative process.


AA: In what way can designers implement these tactics into their process using the creative strategy framework outlined in Creative Strategy & The Business of Design?


DD: The creative strategy framework is really important to the foundation, to being able to offer the perspective during a pitch, and to being able to actually write the strategy in the first place—you might need that strategy because it wasn't given or it wasn't sufficient. The framework forces creative people to sit down and write the notes. I encourage people to write notes from the kickoff meeting into the framework itself so they can get a head start on any strategy session they might have after that initial meeting. And from there, if your team wants to teach your junior creatives strategy, then I encourage creative directors or art directors to stand back and let the juniors add to the chart.


One of the columns is for the target group, and it forces creative people to sit down, think things through and question the answers, as I always like to say. Our clients come to us with what they believe are the answers in terms of their own business problem. But they've been eating and sleeping and breathing them, and we come in with a new perspective and we're able to recognize things that we can question.


AA: What's been your success rate using this in your own work?


DD: The way I’ve gauged the impact of this in my business is that I've been able to sell not only the creative product, but also the strategic thinking. The strategic process—I've been able to add that as a whole different element of billable services.


There are more design decisions than there are visually literate people to make them. It's very clear that's the case whenever something like the Oscar for Best Picture gets mixed up because of the typography on the card. When [the presenter] says La La Land but it's actually Moonlight. It's very clear whenever there is a butterfly ballot in Florida—going back to the 2000 election—and the design is confusing. When the wrong Miss America is crowned. Understanding the strategy as well as the execution is a way for us to make sure that we are the ones who are getting paid for those jobs. These examples are just execution solutions, but it’s very clear that someone who wasn't qualified to make them was making them.


It’s going to be really important for us to be involved in [figuring out] the best ways to actually deploy the work itself in order to achieve the objectives by knowing what the objectives are—so that we can advise clients on not only what to do but how to do it. I've been able to bill for that. And I've been able to help other creatives bill for that globally.


AA: Once that framework is filled out and the pitch is ready, what’s next for a designer in order to get to the point where they can bill? How do they cross that last threshold, where they actually have to do the convincing to the client?


DD: A lot of us, as creatives, have that voice inside that prevents us from moving forward on the creative side of things, much less on any of the peripheral things I'm suggesting that creatives learn. So there’s that doubt, procrastination, feeling like you’re fake, that “imposter syndrome” feeling. I tried to answer that in the book in the chapter on “Dragon Slaying.”


If you go to thinkhowtheythink.com, you can see the full visual essay that I'm using to address some of those voices inside and really encourage creative people to step outside of their comfort zone. One of my fears is memorizing and presenting something on stage. Sn order to weave in more jokes and to make things lighter when I'm speaking about strategy to creative audiences who I know have a very short attention spans just like my own, I thought, let me learn stand-up comedy. Let me subject myself to that and let me risk it not going well so that I can learn how to make my strategic presentation lighter to a creative audience. I'm literally going left field to strengthen my primary role. And there's a lot of fear in that.


What I really want to say to creative people who might be hesitant to move in these directions that are not first nature to them: You can do it. I'm not special. Fear and that self-doubt is what we all had to fight to even get into design. Most of the time people's parents didn't encourage them because they don't understand design. And our clients don't understand it and we have to always justify what we're talking about, and that can get tiring. But it’s important to talk about the emotions that, in a sense, make us valuable and able to articulate things on the creative side in the first place—but those very emotions can be an enemy whenever we're trying to learn something that's more on the rational side of the brain. I don't want to ever be at a point where my fears have dictated what's possible. And that's why I must fight them.


This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.


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