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The Responsible Gambling Council (RGC) is an independent non-profit organization dedicated to problem gambling prevention.

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Working with a Creative Agency

Working with a Creative Agency? 8 Ways to Stay on Message with your Prevention Initiative

This article is part of the Perspective series by the Responsible Gambling Council, which is intended to inform policy makers and industry leaders.

Also in this series: Time to Shift Gears ; RG=Prevention=Persuasion

By Jon Kelly, Ph.D.

Prevention messaging is an essential part of any strategy to reduce risk of harms, whether road accidents, diseases, addictions or a gambling problem. 

Very often, prevention messaging campaigns involve a non-profit organization (or government department or business) hiring at least one of a group of firms—advertising agencies, PR firms, graphic design groups, and other creative suppliers. The Responsible Gambling Council has hired at least a dozen such agencies in the last 20 years, for a range of initiatives. We have had the opportunity to reflect on what worked well and what did not in those relationships.

Creative agencies bring a bundle of expertise to prevention messaging. They look at the world from the audience’s perspective. They understand the many communications vehicles available to get the messages out. They are specialists at getting attention to messages. Agencies specialize in “creative” – the design of the wrapper for the core message.

Working with agencies can be a creative delight or a disaster. We have experienced both. At best, the experience is exhilarating, creative and fun for both players. Each side brings its expertise to the table and the result is better than either could have done alone. But getting there isn’t always easy. Here are some fundamentals that you, the client, should understand.

Working with agencies can be a creative delight or a disaster. We have experienced both.

1.     The message is yours

If there is one single overriding lesson about working with agencies, it is that the client must (and I usually hate that word) must control the message. It is your message. If you want to communicate with a group of people, the communication originates with you. Your message is an expression of your intent, your experience of the world, your vision. 

You know the most about your intentions and the nuances that need to be built into the execution. You are the final decision maker.

In practical terms, that means that you need to know the core message you want to convey and to whom. Whom do you want to influence? What do you want the audience to do with that message?

Your message is an expression of your intent, your experience of the world, your vision.

2.    A strong strategy is essential

It seems simple that if you want to communicate with or engage an audience you need a strong and coherent strategy.

And most agencies will testify to their commitment to strategy, especially in their pitch for your business. In our experience, though, once hired they tend to move quickly past strategy into tactics. This is particularly the case with ad agencies, whose profit comes from the media buy—i.e., it’s a percentage of the money spent on ads placed on TV, website banners and so forth. This creates an incentive to spend your budget on ad placement rather than strategy.

It is up to you, the client, to ensure you get a clear, well-articulated strategy—one that you can understand and that fits with your organization’s brand and motivation for running the campaign. Patience and perseverance are essential: you are building a relationship with the agency and it will take time. Rushing this stage almost always leads to missteps and back-pedalling later on.

Patience and perseverance are essential: you are building a relationship with the agency and it will take time.

3.   Understand the language

When working with communications or advertising vendors, it is important to get a solid grasp of the words they use. Every industry has its jargon, and this one is no different. So learn the vocabulary. “Creative,” for example is a noun that describes the main piece of the campaign from which everything else flows. “Collateral” describes all the pieces that make up the campaign, each with its own “specs” – i.e. their shape and size. To wade through this, you need to ask the questions that make language concrete. “When you talk about ‘platforms’ what do you mean?”

To further complicate matters, many firms invent their own languages—they see it as part of their brand identity to rename things. (I guess, given their line of work, it’s not surprising how common this is.) I came across an archive of someone’s Twitter account, @industryjargon, which contains a treasure trove of such indecipherable phrases and sentences. For example, “This pillar unveils a brand platform that organically creates emotional connections with consumers.”

To be fair, every organization creates jargon and needs to be hyper-aware of the place for such language shortcuts. We all need to be prepared to set jargon aside in favour of actual communication. The bottom line is, the client needs to understand what is meant by all terms. And that will mean asking. (A prospective vendor’s ability to answer such questions goes a long way, in my books, to determining if we hire them.)

We all need to be prepared to set jargon aside in favour of actual communication.

4.     Focus test

Focus testing creative concepts is very useful. It is true that many of us can point out a number of limitations to focus groups: they are not representative; subjects influence each other; the skill of the facilitator and the quality of the script greatly affect the results, to name a few.

So they are imperfect.

But focus groups do two things well:

  1. They provide an occasional gem of insight.
  2. They are a disaster check.

Focus group discussions often involve considerable interpretation. It is important that both the agency and the client attend the focus group sessions to hear firsthand what is being said. You will be sensitive to different issues and pick up nuances the agency will not, and vice versa.

Focus groups are also good at picking up discrepancies. “His clothes do not look right.” “If she has a gambling problem, why is she smiling?” “This table is too neat for a poker game.” 

To be fair, every organization creates jargon and needs to be hyper-aware of the place for such language shortcuts. We all need to be prepared to set jargon aside in favour of actual communication. The bottom line is, the client needs to understand what is meant by all terms. And that will mean asking. (A prospective vendor’s ability to answer such questions goes a long way, in my books, to determining if we hire them.)

When a focus group participant says something you never even thought of—that’s when disasters get avoided.

5.     Remember that audiences look for consequences

In prevention messaging, there is often a tension between messaging that promotes healthy choices, and messaging that focuses on the consequences of not making healthy choices.

With gambling, we know from many focus groups that people tend to overestimate how many people have gambling problems. (It is not uncommon, for example, for public surveys like this one to find that 20 to 30% of the population have gambling problems—a rate that’s much higher than any research-based measure of problem gambling.)

As a result, focus group participants are often drawn to more drastic portrayals of consequences: they want a terrible story—a 5-car pile-up of problem gambling.

This can present a real dilemma for those who want to convey prevention messages—because focusing too much on consequences tends to shift the message from prevention toward information on how to get help. Agencies—who are less sensitive to these nuances—will often move to the extreme-consequences end of the spectrum because it helps to attract attention and can focus-test well. Sometimes it can work. But it can become an alternative to real creativity.

The real test of a strong prevention program is to acknowledge consequences while maintaining focus on the prevention message. And creativity comes in figuring out how to do that.

6.     Consider impacts on other audiences

While focus testing with your desired audience is critical, it is important not to forget any unintended consequences for others. This is especially true in mass market and traditional media, since targeting your message is much less precise than, for example, on social media. Find out if your message offends anyone—and if it might, is it worth the risk? What would your response be if people complain?

Several years ago, we used an analogy to safe sex messaging in an effort to draw young people into our message about safer gambling. (One ad, for example, featured a father and son having what appeared at first to be the “sex talk” but turned out to be about safer gambling.)

We anticipated that not everyone would like it—and we were right. Some groups objected about “promoting promiscuity.” However, we weighed the strength of the campaign and opted to go forward. We were glad we did because the response was overwhelmingly positive and the campaign met its goals well.

The key is consultation. When you know who your key stakeholders are (and we all have them), make sure you talk to the ones who could be affected. One important stakeholder group we always consult is people with a history of gambling problems. Even though they are not typically the target, their opinion is incredibly valuable to us, and often quite insightful.

7.     Ruthlessly focus on one simple message

When you are immersed in any topic, you know a lot about its subtleties and complexities, and that’s good. But simplicity is essential when it comes to prevention messaging. In the case of problem gambling prevention, there is very often a tendency to try to say too much in one communication.

There is a place for multiple messages. For example, listing tips on responsible gambling or identifying various signs of a problem. 

This type of messaging can work in static situations with captive audiences like, perhaps, transit ads. Or better yet, they can be a secondary component on a companion website—for people looking for a “deeper dive.”

In the case of problem gambling prevention, there is very often a tendency to try to say too much in one communication.

But, if your goal is to capture and focus attention on a key piece of learning, simple is undoubtedly best. Multiple messages take time; ads need to get their point across virtually instantly. The same is true of press releases and home pages. Simple is important—and this is an area where a good agency (who understands your goals and message) can help you stay on track.

8.     It’s a thesis

A communication is like a thesis that says, “If I convey this information in that way, then I can persuade those people to do that.” You can marshal all the evidence, test the concepts and engage experts but in the end, the decision comes down to your judgement. This goes back to where I started this piece: you are the decision maker.