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How Can Agencies Sell Craft To Clients With Shrinking Budgets?

In this week’s discussion, we explore how agencies can get clients to buy in to ideas that go against the digital marketing grain.

Last week, we spotted an interesting campaign from Honda and DDB – a series of black and white silkscreen prints commemorating the motorcycle edition of Le Mans 24. It’s interesting because it’s hard to think of a less digital-friendly medium than screen printing, which involves manual labor, painstaking photographic and printmaking expertise, and in the end, only yields a handful of physical objects. The ink colors literally can’t be reproduced with a digital screen – yet DDB got plenty of reach and impact out of the creative.

Similarly, consider the tentative plans at Jacksepticeye’s coffee brand Top of the Mornin’ to move beyond a strategy totally reliant on social, in part through campaigns or activations that cause a fuss on both sides of the divide.

These aren’t easy pitches for agencies with shrinking budgets, or with an eye on the provable benefits of performance marketing. So, how can agencies persuade them to take a punt?

How do you solve a problem like… selling craft to cautious clients?

Jim Dyer, head of client leadership, Wunderman Thompson: “There’s nothing worse than telling clients or colleagues to be braver – why? Are you trying to call me a coward?

“In all seriousness, brave decisions come from strong relationships built on trust. That might sound counterintuitive, but bravery in advertising isn’t about taking a leap into the unknown, it’s about trusting that your partner understands the task and what’s required. Our work with Fanta, as part of the WPP Open X team, is a great example of this – building a Halloween experience at Piccadilly Circus was the most impactful and compelling answer to the brief, but it took brave clients to be willing to execute it in a tight timeframe with complex stakeholder approvals. Thankfully the trust in our working relationship made the work even better than we could have hoped.“

Tim Ainsworth, media and brand experience strategy director, McCann Manchester: “In a world where GAFAM platforms and rules-based media models have diminished a brand’s potential to show up in the world in unique ways (most models will tell every brand in a category to behave the same way), punching through with distinctiveness has never been more important. There is strong evidence from businesses – large and small – that demonstrate the power of creativity over anything else to grow brands at an accelerated pace. It doesn’t have to cost the earth, can follow the principle of “create once, publish everywhere” and shouldn’t require a leap of faith; more fostering a spirit of experimentation.“

Allan Blair, head of strategy, VaynerMedia EMEA: “While there will always be a place for beautiful, well-crafted content it’s not suitable for every medium. As we move to a social-first world the concept of craft has evolved. Highly polished content may still fly on Instagram, but on TikTok a real-world aesthetic captures attention.

“This poses challenges in selling this to clients, especially those who have a fixed view of what their brand is and looks like. We must demonstrate what relevance really looks like in a world where audiences decide what a brand is about – not brand managers. Brands should crave relevance, not beauty, because relevance gives brands a role in real people’s lives in a way that over-crafted content never will.“

Mark Elwood, executive creative director, Leo Burnett: “At Leo Burnett, our world-class in-house design capability is a big draw for our clients. Brand identity is at the heart of what we do for the likes of Morrisons, Premier Inn and Tui, where the agency is a joint custodian/architect of the brand world. Our craft work for McDonald’s is well received because it uses distinctive brand assets in inventive ways. Press and posters like ‘Lights On’ and ‘Delivery Pins’ are born out of the brand world, making the work simple to buy because our clients know it’ll be recognizably ownable and effective for both brand and sales as a result. Great clients appreciate the great craft, taking the client on the creative journey from the beginning is important though. Surprise doesn’t always lead to delight…”

Shannon Jones, co-founder, Verb: “Selling craft to clients can be daunting, but it’s doable with the right approach. First, ensure that a craft approach aligns with their goals, showing how it still meets their KPIs. No one wants a partner who’s more focused on their portfolio than their objectives. Second, position it as a beta project, giving flexibility around reach and measurement. Share successful case studies of brands that have taken big swings with craft. Lastly, show how craft makes the target feel seen and valued, building a long-lasting connection with the brand. All and all, transparent relationships push the boundaries of what’s possible.“

Sam Souen, executive creative director, 180 Amsterdam: “In the era of infinite scroll, fast generated AI Designs and ChatGPT among many others, focus and attention spans are shorter than ever. Brands, services and products are fighting like gladiators for a fraction of our attention inside this crazy Colosseum we call the Internet. In my opinion, the only way to break through this hypnotic battle is with the duet between good ideas and craft. Etymologically, Craft means Strength, Skills. It also means that whatever we are creating will have its own uniqueness and style – like The Flower Council’s ‘We Need More Flowers’ or DHL’s, ‘Keep Up With the Clicks’. It will elevate the brands and make them unforgettable, far away from the same old shit.“

Neale Horrigan, executive creative director, Elvis: “A focus on craft is often misinterpreted as a self-indulgent, creative folly. But it’s so much more than that. It gives the work a story.

“‘Sweating the assets’ as much as possible once the work has been created has its limits. When you have a craft story, you have content. This story gives you an extra hook, which will open up the work to broader audiences, and often create more noise that the finished product itself.

“In our work for Heal’s, we proposed putting as much care and attention into the making of the campaign as Heal’s puts into its products. As soon as we framed it like this, it made sense as an obvious approach, instead of being seen as a risk or waste of resources.“

Dan Salkey, co-founder, Small World: “We’ve started vetting clients out at the point of entry using our creds. It saves them and us time. We use a 10-statement checklist at the beginning of our creds which paints a picture of the type of agency we are and equally – are not. For instance, building brands that entertain first and foremost is vitally important to us, therefore it’s one of our criteria. We like to feel it’s part of the reason Top of the Mornin’ came to us first.“

Hillel Hurwitz, chief executive officer and founder, Bald: “First, you have to root the idea in strategy. The strategy gives the idea a solid foundation, aligning around the brand’s positioning. This ensures that the idea isn’t a risky gamble or a trendy fad, but a well-thought-out strategic direction. Then you have to build trust with the client. Leverage your experience, use data to allay concerns, and genuinely care. Demonstrate how you are invested in their success. Finally, sell the magic with the methodology. Share the high-altitude vision with the granular steps. Present the scenarios – what if we did something mild vs. doing something bold vs. doing nothing at all – and then let the client decide.“

Sally Pritchett, chief executive officer, Something Big: “It can be hard to think beyond measurable click-throughs, impressions, etc. in such a digitally commoditized world, but when we understand that these kinds of KPIs often hold us back and make us think too small, then we can open our clients’ minds to much bigger ideas. The trick, I believe, is in the difference between output and impact. If you are simply trying to achieve an output (like meeting a digital KPI) then follow the formula that creates that, but if you’re looking to create a meaningful impact you’ll need to think bigger and braver. Not every client wants to make an impact every time, so choose your moments and then grab them.“

Matt Charlton, chief executive officer, Brothers & Sisters: “People remain captivated by the art and skill of proper craftsmanship, so why would you ignore that in marketing? Michaelangelo wasn’t an app. The Beatles weren’t AI. The slight imperfections of the human touch deliver a sense of realness and soul that digitally-created perfection doesn’t. Help clients see that. In music, producers will often build in slight imperfections to give the music more warmth, even though digitally they can line up everything to a nanosecond to be technically right. We’re all here to elicit the right reaction. The most expensive ad is the one no one remembers.“

Diego Andrade, executive creative director, Orci: “How do you pitch an inventive idea that’s a bit of a risk? By making the creative unassailable. The core of your idea has to be so well rooted in authenticity and relevance towards advancing your brand that it becomes undeniably worth whatever risky provocative statement or unorthodox execution method it hinges on.

“Craft for the sake of craft is the hardest sell. If there’s no inherent strategy backing it up or if there’s a flimsy one “pegado con chicle,” as they say (stuck together with chewing gum), what’s the point? You have to give folks something to care about, beyond a spectacle or production wow factor.“

Ryan Michlitsch, creative director, Hook: “Here’s an idea: it should be less about selling “craft” and more about empowering talented people to make things everyone can be proud of – creatives and clients included. The focus should be more on creating an end result that is so impressive or exciting or surprising that it’s hard to ignore than on convincing clients that craft is the way forward. In other words, show them, don’t tell them.

“Because truth be told, mediocrity is an easy path to take, especially since so many ads are driven by metrics, data, testing, retesting and group polls. It can be tempting to take shortcuts given compressed timelines, but making a case for “craft” is always worth fighting for. As creatives and makers, we are in service to the idea—without giving those ideas the space to grow, what do we have?“

Amanda Munilla, global principal, Wolff Olins: “While the debate about whether to invest in performance marketing or brand building continues among pundits (spoiler: you should probably fund both), the people (clients and consumers) we’re looking to influence exist as they always have—as nuanced decision-makers. Meaning seeking, but time and cost-constrained. Selling in an artifact or craft-driven experience to clients works best when it is understood as one layer of a robust marketing plan and closely tied to a bigger story the brand wants to tell. Think about the best concerts: You already bought a ticket to the show, but once you connect with the artist you’re always tempted to leave with the limited edition merch.“

Andrew Brown, vice-president of creative and client engagement, TMS: “We have gotten lost in the numbers; people are persuaded and engaged almost always on an emotional level, and with that, we can create emotion by design. Audiences appreciate the craft and tangibility of something well thought through, designed with empathy and depth of narrative. It’s time to get back to the idea of physical experimentation to stand out.

“In this Honda piece, the careful distillation of a moment in history is powerful because it mattered ­– what’s even more beautiful is that it’s about embracing nostalgia and failure. Work will always have a place if the intended target and outcome are clear.

“At a time when every brand is vying for attention, exclusivity, authenticity, and analog mediums are more important than ever. Ideas with genuine connection are inevitably worth the gamble.“

Phil Khosid, co-founder and chief creative officer, Battery: “It all begins with clients who recognize the potential of an idea and help protect it along the way. It then comes down to timing, context, and tension. If you’re lucky enough to line everything up… for a moment you can hack everything. For instance, we once brought Netflix a bold vision – Netflix Is A Joke – taking an unexpected direction to a simple brief. We hijacked culture by placing high-profile comedians into popular Netflix original dramas. Four years later, this strong vision continues to serve as a platform for all things comedy at Netflix today.“


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