What separates agencies who make ads from agencies who make great ads?

It’s not what city the agency is located in.

It’s not who the creatives are.

It’s not who the creative directors are.

It’s not who the clients are.

It’s not whether the agency is digital or big or small or pharma or business-to-business or family-owned or young or old or the staff is composed of any permutation of colorgenderrace or if the offices have doors or whether there is any office space at all.

It doesn’t matter what language the agency’s work is written in.

It doesn’t matter how the work is art directed, produced, traffic-ed or presented to the client.

What separates the tiny cadre of agencies who make great ads from the legion of agencies who just make ads is whether the agency’s process looks for and depends on found insight or whether the agency’s process kills found insight.

Found insight is what one gets once one has started on a project.

It is not the map with which one starts a reconnaissance of an area but the redrawn map one returns with from having been there to look and smell and measure.

Found insight is something you discover that you wish you’d known when you started.

It is the nature of the really good stuff about products and audiences to hide itself from the view of normal investigation.

It is the way the world works that the best answers to problems do not come to the surface before they’re needed, but rather are only found in the penultimate moment before they must be put to work.

99% of agencies kill these found insights, these unknown discoveries. They punish those who bring them up and reward those who stray least from the exact terminology of the project’s starting point.

1% of agencies thrive on implementing found insights.

1% of agencies (maybe fewer) will stop what they’re doing and shift direction to the found insight and turn it into great advertising that surprises and delights.

Dear students, this is not the only way to look at agencies.

Not everything is as simple as the look through this particular lens makes it seem.

Neither is this an incitement to disregard briefs or to provide argument for the value of every cobbled-together-at-the-last-minute piece of work that you do.

This is merely an invitation.

To those Brand Managers-to-be: Leave room in the process of deciding what to say about your product for the agency to discover something you didn’t know was there. If you dare, require them to find such and not accept their work until they have.  And if you dare greatly, reward them for not bringing you merely what you asked for.

To those Planners-to-be: Briefs are more helpful when they establish a place to start than when they are fashioned as a hoop the finished work must jump through. And, if you dare greatly, don’t leave all the fun for the creative teams–create starting points no one else would have dared to.

To those Copywriters & Art Directors-to-be: Kill your darlings. The first sentences you write that sound like headlines have to go. Yes, first thoughts are sometimes good. But mostly they represent the same thoughts anyone else would have if they spent 20 minutes thinking about the product. There’s gold in looking longer and harder at something than anyone else is willing to.