Spilled Milk — What Causes Creative Conflict

Think Shift

I in the agency world, the creative brief is an absolutely critical strategic document, as its primary intent is to clearly outline the problem while also providing any pertinent information that would help formulate a creative solution.

This strategic purpose is an important one to note, as the like or dislike for a creative solution is subjective, while the measure of whether it strategically solves the brief is not. This paradigm can be difficult to manage for clients and agencies, especially when a client does not like a creative solution that strategically solves the brief.

The 2017 controversy around the Dairy Farmers of Canada’s “Spilled Milk” campaign can easily be interpreted as an example of this paradigm at work. The client (DFC), who represent more than 12,000 dairy farmers across Canada, received significant negative feedback from some of its members over the campaign the agency (DDB) has produced, and both the client and agency had an argument as to why they are in the right.

I would suggest that this dispute revolves around something much larger than the subjective like or dislike of creative — instead, it has to do with the brief itself. More specifically, it seems that the client and the agency worked off of two entirely different briefs.

To better understand this theory, let’s consider the reality that both the client and the agency were faced with:

  1. The Dairy Farmers of Canada wanted to increase the consumption of milk in Canada (specifically, fluid milk).
  2. The consumption of fluid milk in Canada had been declining an average of 2.4 percent per year for the last five years prior to the campaign’s release.
  3. One of the primary reasons for this decline was the misconception of milk quality; more specifically, that it contains harmful antibiotics and hormones.
  4. A majority of new Canadian immigrants consume little to no milk because it is perceived as a luxury in the countries they come from.

More specifically, the variables both the client and the agency had to work with and within were:

  1. The existing Canadian consumption amount
  2. The amount of new consumption that can be generated
  3. The amount of existing consumption being lost

In this reality, the client’s brief outlined that an increase in consumption was the problem that needed to be solved, and that a focus on converting new Canadian immigrants into milk drinkers was the solution. Essentially, this brief focused on a strategy where consumption would grow (A) by generating new consumption (B) at a greater rate than the consumption being lost (C).

However, it looked like somewhere along the way the agency received (or possibly created) a different brief. Unlike the client’s, this brief outlined that maintaining consumption was the problem that needed to be solved and that a focus on dispelling the misconceptions driving the decline was the best solution. Essentially, the strategy for this very different brief was to maintain consumption (A) by reducing or stopping the loss (C) before generating new consumption (B).

Now, if you consider the end product that was produced in light of these conflicting briefs, it is easy to see why the client would be very surprised that the creative direction taken does little (if nothing) to address or appeal to new Canadian immigrants. Whereas, if you were the agency, you would feel confident that you effectively solved the brief by focusing on the farmers’ commitment to the quality of the Canadian product (addressing the misconceptions directly on the primary website).

While you can subjectively argue that the creative used is too polarizing and “misses the mark,” you could also argue that, given the “reduce/stop consumption loss” brief, it was perfectly crafted for the audience being targeted (those decreasing or ceasing consumption). Thus, by using polarizing creative, you’ve created enough stopping power and controversy to attract attention, and that by focusing on fluid milk as an ingredient versus as a beverage, you were taking a walk-before-run approach to reconverting trial consumption.

Regardless of your subjective like or dislike for the creative, if two different briefs were indeed at play, both parties could technically be correct.

So, how could a campaign this significant go awry as early as the briefing stage? Based on my experience (and I have seen this happen before), I would speculate that the client presented their brief as outlined above (i.e. increase consumption by growing new immigrant consumption). However, somewhere along the way, the agency may have found data that would suggest the brief was potentially flawed. In this case, research may have indicated that it would be exceptionally difficult for any campaign to increase consumption (B) at a rate higher than the rate of loss (C) in order to achieve a net increase in consumption (A).

While this “challenging of the brief” can be a fairly common occurrence, it generally takes place before any creative is produced and involves the client and the agency coming to a mutual agreement on keeping or resetting the brief. The fact that this campaign made it all the way to the end product with such a seemingly large disconnect between the two parties would suggest this didn’t happen. So, as simple as it sounds, something as basic as early client-agency communication may be what truly caused the spilled milk.

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