Concepting: What the heck is it and why should anybody pay for it?

When we describe the process for developing communications for our clients, they sometimes ask, what’s that concepting thing? Here’s an explanation of what it is, and why it’s important.

Concepting is an activity—but it doesn’t always seem like one. The participants are typically sitting—perhaps with their feet propped on a conference room table. At times, they talk. At other times, they seem to be studying the fascinating pattern of pockmarks in the acoustic ceiling tiles—possibly dreaming up new constellations. (“If you squint you can see a bunny rabbit.”)

Is this really necessary? Also, isn’t the term “concepting” hugely pretentious?

Yes and yes. Starting with the second question and moving backwards (just because), the term “concepting” has an unfortunate air of snootiness. (If a client wanted to know what concepting is, we could just show them a desktop-sized reproduction of Rodin’s The Thinker and win gold in the World Insufferable Poser Championship.) We could possibly use “brainstorming,” a term most are familiar with, but a brainstorming meeting, while similar, is not precisely the same thing. It typically involves more people, often from many disciplines within the organization, and it’s a bit more of a free-for-all. A concepting session usually involves two or three people whose primary job is conceiving and executing ideas for strategically planned content. (“Content” is another unfortunate word, but I’m going to stay on task here.)

Why do we need a concepting meeting?

Most projects sound deceptively simple. Our client PrimeSouth Bank once asked us for an ad that would convey the bank’s long history in four south Georgia communities. It wouldn’t have taken us long to bang out an ad that said something like “Serving your communities since 1891.” But our writer/designer team came up with something much more engaging. They proposed a photo of a couple and their daughter, with copy that promised to serve the couple today and the daughter down the road—just as PrimeSouth has been doing for generations. What really gave the ad emotional resonance, though, was its playful reference to a college rivalry everybody in the area is familiar with. It’s the kind of gesture a big national bank would never do—and it’s proof that PrimeSouth truly understands its customers. That kind of idea only comes out of a concepting session. Our team had to come up with—and kill—many lesser ideas before they were inspired to create this one.


The first thing we do is review the creative brief.

Actually, that happens before we even go into a concepting meeting. It’s impossible to have a productive concepting meeting without the brief information not only on hand, but in mind. The creative brief informs the direction of our thinking. It tells us why we’re taking on the project, its aims, its audiences, and how we can measure its success, among other things. In short, it takes a good creative brief to bring about good creative.

Next, we get all obvious ideas out of the way.

Whatever ideas first come to our minds, the things we’ve seen before and are most familiar with, we immediately get that out of our system. If a client tasks us with selling a breath mint, we write every Tic Tac® association we can imagine on the whiteboard, then make every attempt to work outside of those listed associations. This is key to ensure your project is not some reheated version of a competitor’s. Nobody is truly excited about a microwave-ready meal.

Then, we chase down lines of thought.

It’s a game of “What if we did this,” in which a charade ensues and we try to quickly sell our counterpart on the notion. If something clicks, we go down that rabbit hole. If not, we wait for the next one, and pitch it twice as hard.
Each resource—that’s what we call copywriters, designers, illustrators, etc.—functions as a sort of check to the other’s ideas. If all works according to plan, an idea arises in which neither party can poke a hole; the idea floats despite the copywriter’s darts and the designer’s blades. We generally aim to have two, often three of these buoyant concepts before exposing them to a more abrasive rigor.

That next test? Strategy and sandpaper.

Now we ask ourselves: how difficult would it be to produce ideas A, B, and C, respectively? How expensive is each likely to be? Assuming a budget of X and a timeline of Y, we can easily rid ourselves of option B, and so on. If we’re lucky, we’ve got two ideas left standing. We’ll then take those to our Creative Director—the one here to remind us that whole lemons can still float.

We also bring in the Strategic Account Director. (This person doesn’t suddenly appear at this point in the process, but rather, early and often.) Strategic Account Directors understand the client and their target audience better than anyone, so they stand by to confirm that the creative remains in line with the brief, the client’s needs, and most importantly with the brand and its buyers.

We have lift-off.

Eventually, an idea passes our gauntlet, and it’s time to make a mock-up that we can show to our internal team and the client. The mock-up goes to the Creative Director, who puts a smiley-face sticker on it (sometimes right away, other times after some adjustment), and then it goes on to the Strategic Account Director. She has her own set of stickers and once she has applied one, the mock-up is ready for client eyes.

After all that, when the concept is out in the world and proving its worth, we might think back to the time spent bouncing ideas around and remember that this is why we love our jobs. It’s hard to come up with an idea, fall in love with it, and then push it aside when it doesn’t measure up. It’s hard but it’s also the most fun thing ever. And when it solves a problem for an appreciative client, we’re ecstatic.

Christmas in July: Why Your Business Should Prepare for the Holidays in Summer

You’re probably familiar with the phrase “Christmas in July”, a phrase used loosely to describe summer indulgences. It holds an actual function for countries in the southern hemisphere, whose seasons are reversed. And though we find ourselves on the top half of the planet, we are thinking about the holidays even in the 90+ degree heat and a longing to be on the beach or by the pool.

A little planning now makes you smarter in December.

At Red Letter Marketing, we start holding meetings and discussing our holiday plans six months ahead of time, and we recommend you do the same. Ideally, it gets you ahead of the game—no competing for holiday resources, no employees out who’re necessary to complete projects, no last minute dashes for this or that. But to be honest, it simply keeps you on track. It keeps that feeling of “we never have enough time around the holidays” away.

Starting early leaves more time for creativity.

Our recommendation comes out of experience. In the early days of our company, we scrambled. That’s not to say things don’t get hectic still, but it helps greatly when you know in what direction to panic. Brainstorming for ideas in July means they’ll be solidified by summer’s end. Then you’ve got fall for execution, when nearly all employees are in the office. Since holiday projects come secondary to actual client work, it’s good to have these projects in queue for when employees have downtime, or simply need to work on something different for a bit. You’ll be surprised how much cooking gets done on the back-burner.

It doesn’t matter what your line of work may be. Marketing or otherwise, you’re likely responsible to clients, partners, friends, or supporters of some kind. Show them your organizational prowess. Plan ahead.

Oh, and Merry Christmas.

— Red Letter Marketing

Do we ever say no to clients? Yes. Here’s why.

The headline might have brought to mind a familiar scenario.

Client: Shouldn’t the email blast have our logo in it somewhere?

Designer: Your logo is in it. Down there in the corner. Get closer to the screen.

Client: I guess I see it. Could we maybe . . . embiggen it a smidgen?

Designer: No. Next question.

Maybe it’s never happened exactly like that but, most of us in marketing have witnessed exchanges along those lines. The designer in that scenario has taken her advisor role to its extreme, where advice has transmogrified into unyielding command.

We don’t do that here. (If you don’t believe me, here’s what you should do: Become our client. Then you’ll see. I stand ready to receive your call at 336-676-6822.)

But we do say “no” sometimes. And when I tell you about a recent example, your first reaction might be something like “What kind of naïve imbecile would do that?”

There are times when I am a naïve imbecile, but this was not one of those times. What happened was, a client called and said “I’ve got some money here and I’d like to give it to you folks. Please take it and use it to redesign our sales kit.”

So yeah, here’s the part where you go “Did you really say no to that?” And then your next question is “Can I have the phone number of that client please?” (Now I’m saying “No” to you.)

Of course there is more to the story. I didn’t just decline the funds and wish my client a good day. I reviewed her sales kit and agreed that it could stand some grooming. However, I knew that the basket of money she was waving in my face was all she had in her marketing budget for the rest of the fiscal year. Some serious prioritization was in order.

Now, this client wasn’t asking me for financial advice. She wanted design advice. So I was indeed risking a scenario in which she picked up her basket of money and stormed out.

It was a risk worth taking. In our experience, good clients welcome all kinds of advice, even when it is counter to their original request. In a job long ago, in a galaxy far away, I had a client who had built an astonishingly successful logistics company. He was a really smart guy—smart enough to welcome challenges. I once attended a meeting in his company’s stately conference room; also in attendance was my trusted account director, Mike. At a certain point in the meeting, the client held up an ad he had torn out of a magazine. It featured a scantily clad model draped over an outboard engine. My client asked “Why aren’t we doing stuff like this?”

The room got very quiet.

Mike (my hero) blurted “Because that would be the stupidest thing you could possibly do.”

The client smiled. He still liked the scantily clad model but he liked frank advice even more. (Mike and I expanded on that first comment, and the client saw our reasoning.)

Okay, back to my client with the request for a sales kit redesign. When I put the brakes on that idea, she was disappointed. She even kind of whined and begged a bit. (She was half-joking.) But when I told her that there were better uses for her remaining budget—uses more likely to trigger sales—she graciously accepted my advice.

Maybe we’ll get to redesigning the sales kit next year. Meanwhile, our client knows that if we always said “yes” to her suggestions it would only feel good for a while. The occasional “no” may be briefly annoying, but it can be more rewarding for the client in the long run.