Digital vs Creative – Conflict, Conciliation & Where Every Campaign Must Begin with Cheryl Hersey of Action Group

Cheryl Hersey
Cheryl Hersey, Action Group

Dan: Welcome to today’s podcast, which is part of a series we’re running with agency directors, on the big challenges facing our industry. Today we’re joined by Cheryl Hersey of Action Group, a full-service agency specialising in the health and wellness industry, to discuss the relationship between creative and digital; the potential conflict, which comes first and how to pull it all together. Cheryl, thanks for joining us.

In my experience, most marketers tend to fall into one of two categories; either they’re focused on brand and the creative process or digital and data. Where would you place yourself on that spectrum? Or do you think that’s actually something of a false dichotomy? 

Cheryl: Yeah, I think broadly speaking, most marketeers will favour one end of the spectrum or other. We’re a full-service agency and we work across a lot of disciplines, so I think it’s probably my job to be au fait with all of them. Luckily, I’m surrounded by expert teams who have their own specialisms, which they know inside out, and in far more depth than me. 

I think to be at the top of your game as a marketer, you almost have to be obsessive, and so by definition, some of the best people are definitely at one end of the spectrum or other. I think creatives also tend to dislike number crunches and vice versa, but both are essential to true marketing success. 

Dan: So I think you’ve just described that in a way that puts yourself as kind of spanning across both areas, so I’m interested to understand which you think comes first? So, if both are important – and I understand Action is a full-service agency – do you need to first establish the creative vision and then let the digital people translate that into their world? Or do you need to first consider the digital implications and work backwards to design the right creative? 

“A good brief should make it clear where you’re starting.”

Cheryl: I think it probably comes down to the brief. So, what is it that you’re trying to achieve? Who are you trying to reach? How are you trying to reach them? You should be answering all those questions first, and a good brief should make it clear where you’re starting.

So, if we’re talking about an above-the-line campaign, then yes, you would start with the creative, but really that creative should be framed in the context of who are we reaching? How are we reaching them? How is that going to translate? And so, whilst you don’t want to put too many constraints around that creative process, I think you do need to always be thinking within the context of where is it going to go? Who am I talking to? What resonates with that audience? Obviously you can always refine those things once you have your creative idea and your creative campaign in place, but it’s much easier to get it right if you always have that framework to work within, and so that’s where I think it comes down to the importance of people at both ends of the spectrum having an understanding about the job of the person at the other end to appreciate the challenges that each person has within their role and how you can work together to create something really magical. 

Dan: And do you think we’re good at that as an industry? Do you think people who are specialists at one end of the spectrum or the other are good at appreciating the challenges, the opportunities at the other end of the spectrum? Or do you think you have a tendency to undervalue those disciplines that fall outside their own areas of expertise?

“If we were appointed to generate a creative concept, we would actively seek intel and feedback from the people running the sales end to ensure our work was as good as it could be, because ultimately if your campaign succeeds, it is far more likely to lead to repeat business.”

Cheryl: I think that probably comes down to company culture. Most really big multinationals, have got it pretty right, but I think equally, they have the resources and the budgets to be able to encourage collaboration and have those regular touchpoints with inter-agency and in-house staff, but I think with agencies there is still a tendency to fight really hard for your piece of the pie, and then when you get it, there is sometimes a tendency to be really protective of that. Yet, it would obviously work better for everyone if agencies and in-house teams were able to collaborate to achieve those sort of best possible results. 

I know, for example, if we were appointed to generate a creative concept, we would actively seek intel and feedback from the people running the sales end to ensure our work was as good as it could be, because ultimately if your campaign succeeds, it is far more likely to lead to repeat business. So, I think agencies should look at inter-agency collaboration as a really positive thing. I think it happens well in some cases and not so well in others, and when it comes down to thinking about how well it works in-house, that’s definitely down to the company culture and how well that collaborative process is instilled within the workforce.

Dan: I’ve never really thought about this, but presumably, it also poses a question around what you actually call yourself. Are you a digital agency? Or are you a creative agency? 

“It is worth spending the time working out who you are and who you are communicating with.”

Cheryl: We are wholly focused on one industry – fitness and wellness – and we went through a rebrand fairly recently and that was actually a real sort of interesting point for us. We see ourselves as a service provider to the fitness and wellness industry, and a provider that really offers the broadest range of services for success in the fitness industry, but it is a hard thing to pin down, and as a business, you have to really know what your skill set is in order to communicate that to your customers. So, it is worth spending the time working out who you are and who you are communicating with. 

Dan: Do you think there is ever a danger that with the immediacy and efficiency of digital and the sense of productivity that can give us, it can sometimes undermine the creative process?

“A brilliantly executed digital campaign with a weak message probably won’t convert. Equally, an amazing creative with poor digital delivery won’t work very well either.”

Cheryl: Something I see a lot with some of our clients is that there can be a real focus on executing too quickly. So they might say “we need more of this, so we need to run an advertising campaign or we need to send some email marketing out and we need to do it right away”, when actually, what they need to do is really pause and think about the message or the creative that sits behind that data-driven or digital campaign that’s going to resonate with people first, because even a brilliantly executed digital campaign with a weak message probably won’t convert. Equally, an amazing creative with poor digital delivery won’t work very well either. It just goes to reinforce the importance of both ends of that spectrum being considered and working as well as they can to support each other to achieve those results that they need. 

Dan: In a perfect world, I guess you would have the full spectrum of experts with somebody who has an appreciation for both ends of the spectrum and everything in between spearheading that, however, very often, resources are not infinite and priorities have to be made. If you were building a marketing function for a small brand, and at the outset you can only afford just one person, what skill set, speaking generally, do you think that very first person should have if they were operating under you in that marketing function? 

“Words are required in pretty much every facet of marketing. So, if you have a good writer, there will be lots to keep them busy.”

Cheryl: That’s a really good question. I would hire a really good writer, ideally one with an eye for detail, probably coupled with a healthy dose of common sense. They don’t even have to know a huge amount about your industry, because that can be taught. You can teach someone about, you can teach someone how to run a Facebook ad campaign, you can rely on stock libraries to provide visuals, but you can’t teach an adult to be a brilliant wordsmith in my experience, they either are or they’re not.  

Words are required in pretty much every facet of marketing. So, if you have a good writer, there will be lots to keep them busy. 

Dan: So let’s imagine then that you have this astonishing writer, but maybe they know a grand total of absolutely nothing about anything else. What book or resource might you recommend they use to up-skill themselves at both ends of that spectrum? So, if they were to read one book or go to one resource for brand, creative, and then likewise for digital, what might those books or resources at either end of the spectrum look like?

Cheryl: I read a book called ‘Little Wins: The Huge Power of Thinking Like a Toddler’, by Paul Lindley, who is the founder of Ella’s Kitchen. One of the things he talks about is how your creativity diminishes as you grow up; children have free-flowing, non-linear thinking, and to a young child, anything is possible, but as adults, we constrain our own thinking by the rules and boundaries that we’ve learnt to live in, which I think is really interesting.

“When you’re creating a campaign, you shouldn’t constrain that campaign or the creative ideas behind it to fit what you’ve always thought, otherwise you’ll never really achieve greatness.”

Around the time I was reading it, my daughter had this little cuddly lion and she wanted to put it in the indoor tree we have at home. “Mummy, mummy, the lion should live in the tree”. And I said, Lions don’t live in trees, but then because of the book, I thought, well, why not? And that lion has stayed in that tree ever since, and he reminds me to not be automatically dismissive of ideas. I think that is really, really interesting. When you’re creating a campaign, you shouldn’t constrain that campaign or the creative ideas behind it to fit what you’ve always thought, otherwise you’ll never really achieve greatness.

From a digital resource perspective, I really like later.com, it’s a social media scheduling tool, but it has the most brilliant blog which is constantly updated with extremely useful and actionable insight into running effective social campaigns. I think the people that write it are absolute geniuses, they’re always completely on the money, totally up to speed, and they’re always breaking the news before anyone else. I think if you are attuned to that and spend even just 10 or 15 minutes on it each day, you won’t go far wrong with your digital knowledge. They also have free courses, and they run a digital summit called ‘LaterCon’ which is also free. So, I’d highly recommend that as well. 

Dan: That is awesome. I was actually not aware of that, so I have made a note and I will be passing that onto the team in due course. I also love the fact that your daughter is already attuned to Elon Musk’s first principal way of thinking, clearly destined for greatness.

Final question: is there one particular mistake that you look back on and think I wish we had done that differently and it might’ve just accelerated our progress – whether it relates to something on the digital side or something on the creative side – is there anything that you look back and just think I wish we had approached that a little bit differently?

Cheryl: I’ve mentioned before we rebranded this year, so ‘Action PR’ became ‘Action Group’, and the reason that we changed our name was because, for about nine and a half of those 10 years, we’ve been offering services beyond PR. As I said before, we do everything from advertising through to business consultancy and content creation, we even build websites, and so we spent a long time pitching for business saying things like: “well, we’re called Action PR, but we don’t just do PR”, and it just got to the point where it was almost amusing. I felt our name was really, really holding us back. People would say, “well, you’re a PR company, how could you possibly build my website?”

Changing our name has been phenomenal from the point of view of getting the recognition for the other services that we offer, and have offered for the best part of eight or nine years, and I wish I had done it sooner. I wish we’d done it five years ago. I think we had the credits, we had the work, we had the experience. We should have done it much, much sooner, because actually, if you weren’t a client of Action, you wouldn’t have a clue what we were able to offer. 

Our clients are great. They have gone from being a PR client through to being a client that we do above-the-line advertising for, or we deliver their social or whatever it might be, they have an awareness of what we can do, but the wider industry still would see us first and foremost as a PR agency. Of course, we love PR we’re great at it, and we don’t want to lose that, but we are actually so much more than that. So for me, it comes back to that question you asked earlier about positioning and how we position our agency around the services that we offer, and I think that’s the classic example of how getting that wrong can really be a thorn in your side. 

Dan: Thanks so much, Cheryl. Enjoyed this a lot and really appreciate your time.