The Creative Strategy Framework & Process (W/ Douglas Davis)

In this article, I’m speaking with a strategist, author, and professor Douglas Davis, about the creative strategy framework and process for brands and how to bridge the gap between design and strategy.

Now, Douglas Davis has an absolutely stellar career, he’s the principal of Brooklyn based agency, The Davis group, he’s on sabbatical at the moment after a transformation of term, as the chair at Emmy award-winning BFA communication design at New York City College of technology.

He’s a regular speaker at industry conferences, such as how design live and RGD design thinkers and he’s the author of the outstanding book Create A Strategy And The Business Of Design.

So if you want to learn how to fuse creativity with strategic thinking, so you can lead strategic workshops and brand strategy projects from a progressive and super cool New York-based professor and stick around for this article.

The Creative Strategy Framework & Process (With Douglas Davis)

[The Video Breakdown]

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Why Brand Strategy Is Important Modern Creatives?

Stephen Houraghan

Why do you think it’s so critical, especially in today’s day and age with the creative industry, the way it is. Why do you think it’s so critical for designers to be able to speak business and answer those bigger strategic questions?

Douglas Davis (Summarized)

I personally think that, and this is, again, my opinion. the reason why it’s important for us to understand strategy and to learn businesses, because you never know what part of that negotiation you’re going to be in. You never know when those transitions are going to happen.

And I think. It’s always important to, to really keep in mind, something that I think that some of the university programs fall short in, which is, we’re being asked to solve a business problem with creativity and that creativity has to be on brand, on strategy and on message.

I can wrap this answer up by saying that our clients, our business teammates, they’re not going to learn creative. They’re not gonna learn Pantone colors, and they’re not gonna learn the aesthetic things that we learned. They’re not interested in typefaces. They don’t want to hear the story of how you were inspired whenever you were hiking in Norway or wherever you were, when the inspiration hits you.

They just want to hear what your recommendation is. 

And so you have to understand what a business or marketing objectives are in order to, as a creative person often do your analysis. And so that’s the reason why it’s very important to learn and understand how to speak the language of business

How To Bridge The Gap Between Design And Strategy?

Stephen Houraghan

There seems to be a blind spot in the middle which is the brand’s strategy where you both kind of know about it and slowly, the creative starts addressing bit by bit, is that how do you see the creative’s role in bridging that gap to raise that conversation about the brand strategy, even if the client is not?

Douglas Davis (Summarized)

In our field, everybody has an opinion and I guess just in the larger, everybody has an opinion, right but our clients pay us for our analysis. And so I think it’s just so important for us as great people, because think about it. Like we all go through as people who are, our superpowers are harnessing our emotions.

Harness what we feel, what we’re experiencing visually, and how that makes us feel.

I guess I would look at what our role is as creative people and say that we are tasked with translating the rational language of business and translating that into the emotional language of design

So it’s so important for us to understand what those things are. And yes, it’s our role because if you think about us as creatives.

Again, a superpower is that we can harness our emotions, but it’s our worst enemyEverything about the journey of how you got there. They just want to hear your recommendation upfront and then why. 

So the challenge is that if you can’t harness those emotions, if you can’t take control of what you’re thinking and feeling in that moment, when that transition happens and you’re in that room, your work can go down the table And we all walk in, they’re overworked, juggling a whole bunch of projects, and we are emotional people. 

So it’s a superpower, but it’s also our worst enemy in terms of that emotional sort of how we feel about fear a lot as a result of that.

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The Creative Strategy Framework & Process Overview

Stephen Houraghan

Controlling those emotions and, and leading the conversation, guiding your client with the relevant questions. That is a pivotal moment. And, and it’s, it’s highly relevant in that moment as well.

Now, within the book “creative strategy and the business of design” and the creative framework, and the process of going about developing a strategy from start to finish is really what the book is all about.

Can you give us an overview of the creative strategy framework and the process?

Douglas Davis (Summarized)

Absolutely. So creating a strategy framework, as you mentioned, is pretty much my proprietary in a way to organize that chaos in the creative process. I always like to point to the fact that there was so much communication and creative process and that communication exists in the form of brief.

The actual briefing when you’re in the room, the clients tell me what the business problem is, but the documents themselves, how we understand what the actual problem is itself.

That is a part of that communication. And if you can improve that communication, you can improve the likelihood that you can solve your client’s problems with creative things on brand, on strategy and on message.

You know, it’s up to us to keep learning, right? It’s up to us to keep growing again. They’re not going to learn it. But I remember when I sought those business skills, there were so many concepts, so many terms that I was not familiar with. And so I developed a creative strategy framework, which is a three-step, four-column alignment exercise to really weave strategic thinking into the creative process.

Step #1: Target

I think you have to make sure that you’re understanding who the target is. And in this case,

I like to always write that target with frameworks that give me a bit of insight into their demographics, their psychographics, and their behavioral characteristics and this is about understanding who you’re talking to. 

So that’s a really important thing to have up top because if you don’t make that decision, all of the other pieces of information are going to be off.

Step #2: Features & Benefits

So there’s a slash it’s written as a one-to-one ratio and, and it’s really aimed at itemizing sort of boiling down.

How you connect the brand and the target through your brand is concerned with features of their product service or whatever they’re trying to sell.

Step #3: Objective or Message

This really objective or message, it sort of depends on what you’re doing. If you already have an account or if you already have, or if you’re freelancing, let’s say you’re pitching, you may be there to recommend, right?

So if you’re recommending, there’s probably some objective that you’re assuming through your research, that this client who you’re trying to win once they hit. So you can be very specific about increasing or how you want to move the needle, increasing this, decreasing that among this target group, get really granular on what you’re saying.

The actual objective is other times the client is going to walk in and they’re going to tell you what they’re trying to do.

And so again, some part of using this framework is your own research. Some part of using this framework is how you can retrain the way you listen so that you can understand where things go.

if you’re doing messaging, just maybe for people who already have an account, but they’re asked to sort of add another phase to that account, or maybe this is another project that you’re being given, and you want to think through what is it that we want that target to go away with after they come in contact with our pop-up shop or our ads, or our digital creative, or a website that we’re doing.

Whatever it is, what exactly is it that we want them to understand and go away with after they come in contact with our creative.

And so those are the parts of the framework itself. And I’ll say that it’s only as good as the information that you populate it with because it’s a framework. Exactly. Yeah. You go into the different steps of using it. if you’d like, Yeah. I’ve actually got some questions on that and I love, I love the simplicity of it.

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Brand Strategy Workshop Facilitation Technique: Honesty

Stephen Houraghan

We’re not there to do a song and dance on a show and pull a rabbit out of a hat. So in terms of controlling that conversation and techniques.

What are your go-to facilitation techniques to help our listeners be better at being okay with not giving advice and controlling the conversation with questions?

Douglas Davis (Summarized)

It takes a lot of screwing things up.

It takes a lot of being present in the moment and understanding through reflection that, I wasn’t ready for that conversation. No. What,  I didn’t know what I was talking about. And again, this may come through failure. I know that I’m going to still go out of fear earlier, but I personally teach through failure.

I learned through failure and through not doing it right. And really thinking about, well,

What went wrong?

What part of that was me?

What part of the might’ve been processed?

I think. You know, hindsight is always 2020. And even still, you may not necessarily know what to do. You may figure out what, what you did wrong or where things went wrong and not necessarily know what it was.

But I think, for me, the answer to that question is really experience.

It’s been experience and failure through failures.

I realized, and I guess I always go back to being in high school and, and I don’t know about you, but I was a mediocre student and I put zero effort in because I was bored. And so I could be the class clown and sort of disrupt the class and talk to people over here, their teachers, like, what did I just say?

And so therefore, I think it’s just always important to make sure that’s why in the book I talk about not just offering the red, green, and blue solution about offering scenarios where Ramos rainbow, and you know, something, you know, what red or three different things that you can sort of think about relative to the basis of competition that, that brand isn’t.

And from there, allowing your client to make the decision, but making sure that you’re walking into the room with well-reasoned analysis and the honest truth that until you don’t really know.

And I could spit right back. We were batim what was just said. The problem came in whenever there was the pop quiz to go up and now there’s a test and you’re like, oh shi*t, I didn’t study a thing.

If there was a gun to my head. And they said, you got to pass this quiz to save your life. It’s almost like a slow motion car crash, where over the course of 60 minutes, your cars, it’s slowly speeding towards that brick wall.

And, you know, you don’t have any information, you can’t help yourself. And so I remember the feeling of panic in that moment and I remember saying to myself that

I’m never going to be in a situation where I can’t help myself.

And that for me, it’s just always really important for me to remember that moment and then say, okay, so what am I going to do to prepare how exactly enter that room?

And I think that overall, a lot of how you see and communicate you know, this question is really what I try to remember, just that, you know, our clients that they’re going to pay for our analysis, but everybody has an opinion.

And just lastly on this I always sort of communicate to my clients that as the expert, or as someone who has experience in doing this, I’m going to make the recommendations, but you’re the client make the decisions.

How To Translate Benefits And Values To Brand Messaging?

Stephen Houraghan

We translate a lot and there’s a series of translations that happen to, to end up with a distilled outcome. One of those translations.

Taking the features and the benefits, and then translating that into valuable messaging.

How do you do that? How do you take the features and the benefits, and then translate them into a message that is going to resonate with the client?

Douglas Davis (Summarized)

So this answer has a lot of how I triangulate and sort of arriving at what I think.

And when you think about the business category or the brand product or service that you’re working with, some products are sold through feature statements.

So if you’re really thorough in that column, that’s going to be the basis of any copy that you’re actually going to develop the creative from, because you’re understanding that category from the information that’s in the second column.

And again, you gotta make sure that you exhaust all of the different places that you can look for facts, and you have to go beyond their website because the client is drinking their own Kool-Aid.

There’s going to be a gap between what they say about themselves and what the reviews say in terms of real people who are using, listening to what they said, walked the product, and either had a great experience or a bad experience finding whether there’s a gap.

There is your first part of how I answered this.

And then the second part is to really understand that certain categories are sold either through emotion or through the actual sort of itemizing of like all the things that you’re going to get.

So if we’re talking about a car and if we’re talking about the higher end, that’s less about utility and more about what your face looks like when I drive up next to you in a Maserati, right?

That’s more of the benefits part. And that’s where you got to understand what are we selling? And is there a gap between what the client says about themselves and what other people say about their product or services, and then from there, understanding through your own research where you pull from, in order to come up with the concept?

I think the last place that I look to solve this question that you’re asking is the facts I looked there, but I asked myself another question. I asked them, can we build a campaign on that? Where’s the insight?

It’s not just about just sort of itemizing and collecting a whole bunch of information. It’s really about understanding where the insights and, you know, we’re either going to walk into that room and present something that no one’s ever seen before.

That’s going to be few and far between, but sometimes we’re going to be able to do that. Most likely, we’re going to walk into that room and present something.

Everyone already knows in a slightly different perspective than anyone has looked at. That’s what’s most of the time that’s where most of our solutions are going to come from. But even to do that, you’ve got to find the insights.  You’ve got to really drill down into what is insightful about what it is we’re trying to solve.

How exactly is this going to be viewed in terms of whatever the pain point is that this target is trying to solve?

How exactly can we present this brand product or service as the solution to that pain point?

I say the last thing on this that oftentimes when we ask ourselves what the problem is, we were sort of creative problem solvers.

So we’re trained to think about this. From the perspective of the client. And I’d like to sort of push back on that and argue that really the first perspective that we need to understand is that the perspective of the people that we’re talking to.

This is why so important to understand who they are, what life is like, what exactly it is that trying to solve.

And at that point, you can then present this brand product or service as the solution for that. But first, you’d have to retrain the way you listen.

You’ve got to organize the chaos.

You’ve got to turn those insights into executions.

You’ve got to use the tools and the frameworks 

And, but you also have to sort of triangulate exactly what it is that your research says so that you can walk into the room, look at everything is before you have a process in place or tools or framework in place in order to underst make sense of it for yourself.

Then at that point,  we’re ready to go back into that room and position this as the partnership to solving your problem so that we can then move forward to the other parts of this.

But again, there’s going to work into this, the knee jerk reactions we’re working into this, how we were trained to be more tactical and less strategic.

How To Translate Brand Strategy to Marketing Strategy?

Stephen Houraghan

Another, area that we need to translate in order to produce an outcome. Now, some specialists go down this road, others don’t. So the way I see brand strategy, I see brand strategy as the strategic development of the brand as a vehicle.

And then I see marketing strategy as the deployment of that vehicle. How do you, how do you translate brand strategy to marketing strategy

Douglas Davis (Summarized)

How do we translate strategy to marketing?

The biggest thing that I try to remember is not just the process.

When you think about the way the world has changed right now, COVID, everybody has to pivot your clients from the way they do their business to either doing the exact same thing in a completely different way or taking the, assets and competencies that they have.

And coming up with a completely new business as a result of the fact that everything has shifted in the environment.

So I think it’s so important to sort of understand that in order to make that translation in order to, connect with, and understand who the target is and connect with them as, or on behalf of the brain.

You got to be really aware of the shifts in the environment and the pivot that needs to happen as a result of not just that environment shift, it changes the brand, it changes their competitive position. But it also changes the behavior of the people you’re trying to talk to. And I think in order to really make sure you can hit a target, you’ve got to really be aware of how is the wind changing here?

Are we relevant?

Is this particular tactic still right?

Has the world shifted away from whatever it is?

It’s really important to be aware of that. And again, as creative people, we’re the best suited to feel the changes in the environment, the temperature changes. But from that, we have to also understand that it needs to register that when that environment shifts.

We’ve got to rethink or retook retool the different tools that we’re using, even solve the problem, maybe rethink our process, rethink the steps that we’re working in, re rethinking some of the things that we’ve come to sort of accepting as givens.

And so I think, you know, the way I like to do it is,

I start there now, obviously, PROBLEM, every SITUATION, every TARGET, every MARKET, every BRAND, every, everything is so different and it’s unique, but I started really paying attention to how things have shifted. And then they’re asking myself if there’s, is there something about what I had taken as a given whatever steps and common knowledge?

Is there something that is not true about what was true five months ago, six months ago. And I think about environment this time right now, because the COVID, the answer is yes, everything is different. And as a result, where do you look? Is there a new place that you need to look for your research? I personally like to go to mentor.

I love that database because even though it’s very expensive and it cost as much as the car , you can really find some great secondary research if you can’t afford to do your own. Um, I think it’s really about the quality of where you go to find the information that you’re basing your recommendations on.

And then from there, making sure that you’re actually giving a scenario analysis like an actual, if this, then that,

if we’re competing on the basis of service, these are your top three competitors. If we’re competing on the basis of taste, these are your top three competitors. If we’re competing on the basis of experience, then these are your top three competitors.

And I, and I’m talking through this because in order to sort of solve or answer the question that you asked, you have to really understand that, you know, when someone, when you’re doing a competitive analysis and someone says, well, who are the top three competitors? That’s not one list that’s relative to the basis of competition.

So you’ve got to ask yourself, well,

What are we going to recommend for them?

What is the category?

How has it shifted as a result of like the world-changing?

How has people’s behaviors changed as a result of, you know, COVID?

there are so many things, this is a moving target. And so there’s no one right way.

Just like there’s no one right answer. There’s just your right answer and why you think it’s right.

How Do We Bridge The Clients Strategy Education Gap?

Stephen Houraghan

You know, the increasing education of the freelancer clients. So small business owners and their understanding of what brand is beyond a logo and that’s the temperature gauge that’s rather than, you know, boom.

It was just, you know, from freezing to boiling very quickly, this has been a more gradual temperature change.

And, and that’s what I see has been a big one in the last, in the last couple of years, is just being able to meet the client where they are with, with their knowledge of what they need for a brand. And then, and then add to that.

What temperature changes do you see?

Do you see that as a big temperature change in the world of building brands for smaller businesses at the time?

Douglas Davis (Summarized)

Well right now, I mean the biggest and most obvious temperature change, you know, as I mentioned, is really how COVID has just changed the world and either, you know, again, your business, your own career, everybody’s having to pivot, right.

For businesses, for clients or brands is really do we do the exact same thing? 

How do we do the exact same thing in a completely new way? 

How do we pick what we have assets, competencies, factories, equipment, people?

How do we deploy that same stuff in order to enter into a new business?

And so just that as a very easy sort of way to look at what a pivot looks like for the audience that’s what everybody’s navigating. And so if we think about us as individuals, since everything changed for our clients and everything changed for us in terms of behavior,

Then it also changed how we would get those clients and what those clients would need from us.

Figuring out how to use this new medium that our design God professors that never even worked in. And so therefore there was nothing to look at. And I think that said as the temperature changes, as you don’t know what you’re talking about until you do as the tips and tricks and tools and processes keep shifting because the environment keeps shifting as people’s behavior keeps shifting.

But as you mentioned, there’ve been a bunch of other changes to, and most notably, like you mentioned, when I first started it was that you know, in 1999, if you think about that web design degree, like nobody could study it, even though everybody was working ups and so I think, and I guess with this part of the answer, I’m going to focus on the pivot for us as individuals,

As creative people nobody really wasted time with, sort of thinking, like, Focusing our time on solving the problems for the clients, right?

Figuring out how to use this new medium that our design God professors that never even worked in. And so therefore there was nothing to look at. And I think that said as the temperature changes, as you don’t know what you’re talking about until you do as the tips and tricks and tools and processes keep shifting because the environment keeps shifting as people’s behavior keeps shifting.

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The Adobe Creative Mentor Series with Douglas Davis

Stephen Houraghan

Now you have got a creative mentor series coming up and I believe this is an exclusive, you’re, you’re dropping today. What’s happening?

Douglas Davis (Summarized)

You’re not, so I am breaking some news on your podcast. So  Adobe creative cloud for teams sort of reached out and I was really, really fortunate.

I had done some work, on another podcast, Adam Morgan, big shout out to Adam Morgan, but as a result, I think it was great to sort of pick up the phone whenever the production company for Adobe reached out again and, they wanted to.

I have this debut a five-minute mentor series where they would have a personality-driven series you know, they asked me to launch it, to host it. So they flew a team, a production company out. We had a two-day shoot. It was a whirlwind time.

It was amazing and really this was just aimed at, focusing on how to equip the creative community with tools that help us to do a lot of what we talked about today, just in terms of collaboration.

And so, I won’t reveal too much more, but I will say that you can look for that early, December this year. The top of mine has been pushed back slightly, but it’s almost ready to launch and I’m really excited about it.

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