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Blaze: Confessions of a creative director

The light bulb never switches on for Reuben Webb, creative director-Stein IAS Europe EMEA. He doesn’t serve as a megaphone for his clients’ brands, and when those clients visit his office, he doesn’t invite them to sit in the director’s chair. In fact, Webb has made a personal commitment not to trot out any “tatty old clichés” in the name of business marketing. He’s written a book that calls out our biggest offenders.

101 Clichés: B2B’s Most Notorious Creative Faux Pas focuses on insidious tropes like The Light Bulb and The Stopwatch, the type of stock concepts that so often pepper business marketing materials. Webb will be giving away copies of the book at his Firestarter session at the 2013 International BMA Conference in Chicago. And he’ll be taking confessions.

BMA Buzz: When did your war with predictable creative begin?

Reuben Webb: It happened at 15.00 hrs, Monday, Sept. 15th, 2003. Not that I’m obsessive or anything. I was a fledgling creative. I had just pitched an idea that failed to get buy-in and, for the second round, I was fed a client idea. It was a tape measure to represent their tailored solution. So there I was presenting a seeded, clichéd idea as my own work and, through gritted teeth, I received praise. I left the room angry. At first I was angry with the account guy, then the client. But in the end, I realized I only had myself to blame for not coming up with an original idea that was in the context of the client’s business. It was an experience that helped me develop a specialized approach to B2B ideas in the years to come, and the one that lit the fire under me to fight against the clichés that bring my beloved B2B down. The tape measure is No. 2 in the book by the way. I hate it that much.

BMA Buzz: What was your worst offense?

Webb: I did The Crossword — we’ve got the solution — actually thinking it was a good idea. I am ashamed. But I am not alone in my shame. Not long after Rob Morrice took over the reigns at Stein IAS, I went on vacation. Rob took charge of the creative department. When I returned, he’d helped develop a campaign using The Safe to represent security. It’s a massive cliché. He probably did it on purpose so I would never ask him to cover for me again.

BMA Buzz: Why are there so many clichés in business marketing?

Webb: There are so many reasons why business marketing has uninspiring clichés. I could talk about miserable old mindsets at the board level, or the foolish notion that business marketing must be serious and therefore boring, or the fact that marketing departments don’t get the same respect as sales. I could tell you that many agencies try to force through ideas that don’t relate to the professionals they mean to inspire. They use B2C tactics and say, we’re all still people when we’re at work. I say, yeah, but we’re busy people focused on our work. The bosses of business brands have an instinct for this and turn down ideas that are creative but out of context. That’s when the clichés limp out dragging their sorry asses into the market.

There are a million reasons but it boils down to this: It’s easier to say no than it is to say yes. No to a bold idea carries no risk. Yes means commitment to something that will definitely get noticed. But will it be liked? Business marketing is full of people who will go to their graves never having got their market or their people excited about their company because they were too afraid to put their name to something special. This book is for them. It’s trying to tell them that it’s never too late to do something that gets noticed.

There is safety in numbers. If your competitors are doing clichéd business marketing, it’s OK for you to do it too. But who is the loser? The markets don’t actually care, because they can engage themselves. The real loser is the business marketing community. We could be having so much more fun together if we all tried to out-create each other. For me it starts with a promise never to do what’s in this book.

BMA Buzz: How do we escape the mediocrity?

Webb: Business marketing is addicted to safe, warm, reassuring mediocrity. What’s the first step for any addict? Admit you’ve got a problem. Step two: Confess your clichés. Walk into the boss’ office and say we can’t go on being this boring. I won’t stand by and have you present another light bulb. Step three: Keep talking. Talk to your agency, talk to the people who turned down the last good idea. Agree on a creativity manifesto, and eventually you will change the culture of business marketing in your organization.

If that doesn’t work, hit people with the book.

Comments (3)
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Posted May 01, 2013 at 05:57 PM

I agree that cliches do not make the product standout. They are so overused that they have become meaningless in the same way that an original creative MAY not portray sufficient context - except that the overused cliche NEVER portrays sufficient context and ALWAYS be mediocre.

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Len Diamond
Posted Apr 25, 2013 at 03:22 PM

What do you do these days when a good client pushes hard for a bad idea?

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Rob Morrice
Posted Apr 25, 2013 at 11:03 AM

I would counsel any employee of any company never to have a go at their boss in print, particularly when the wage reviews are approaching. However, I have to admit Reuben as always tells the truth.

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