Photo by Scott Wade

Advertising creatives make great experience designers. Here’s why.

Jeff Neely
IBM Design
8 min readNov 19, 2021

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How we built an experience design team with half product designers and half advertising creatives — and why it worked.

Jeff Neely, Design Partner and Mike Bevil, Associate Design Partner, IBM Consulting

Those who find success in professional creative fields tend to have a lot in common. They instinctively practice lateral thinking, making connections that aren’t obvious to most people. They’re makers, always eager to create something new and practice their craft at its highest level. There are, however, key differences between the typical advertising creative — copywriters and art directors, for the most part — and product designers from the enterprise software space. Whether these designers come from the discipline of UX, visual, content, or research, their typical approach, experience and mindset are extremely different from that of the advertising creative. It seems likely a team comprised of members from these two backgrounds would have too much friction to be effective. In our experience, however, quite the opposite is true. We’re convinced that advertising is an untapped resource for anyone building an experience design organization.

Our design organization in IBM Consulting focuses primarily on service design projects for internal transformation, working to make a 100,000+ person global organization more efficient by creating better experiences and designing the backstage processes to enable them. But the team wasn’t designed specifically for that purpose from day one; the nature and role of the design org evolved over time. While I wish I could say the current mix — and its success — was part of a master plan, it wasn’t. We made it up as we went along, hiring an interesting mix of former advertising creatives and welcoming product designers from the software side of IBM and placing them all under the umbrella of “experience designer.” In doing so, we had to adjust to the differences in their approaches. With a little empathy and a lot of iteration, we found the contrast in working styles was a feature, not a bug. There were distinct advantages to taking each discipline’s strengths to empower a high-performing team to do its best work.

INTUITION + PROCESS

Advertising creatives practice agility by necessity. They’re typically facing tight deadlines and a gauntlet of stakeholders who want to leave their own personal mark on the work. These creatives don’t always have the broad, multidisciplined teams that enterprise designers are often able to access, so they learn to make do with what they’ve got — while remaining on the hook to deliver something great. This creates a mindset of self-sufficiency and an ability to adapt to the constant feedback from client stakeholders and internal constituents. As an advertising creative, you develop a thick skin, leaning on your instincts and intuition to develop the kind of work that drives the success of your agency and the growth of your own career.

Photo by Nate Saenz

Software designers create things with considerably longer life spans than the average advertising campaign. This requires them to develop a deeper, more meaningful understanding of complex user ecosystems and diverse technology platforms. But perhaps their most critical advantage is the designer’s methodical approach. Designers have a wealth of methods, tools and processes to frame problems and identify user needs, turning observations into insights — there’s a proven, adaptable path to follow. Having that structure around your problem-solving approach helps designers deliver meaningful outcomes more consistently.

A hybrid experience team has immense capability. As teammates learn from each other, they evolve into a unified team of bold, resourceful experience designers who aren’t afraid to take on different roles depending on the current project’s needs. When integrated, they all become designers who aggressively pursue in-depth knowledge of their project’s domain, aren’t scared of a little ambiguity and have the courage to make intuitive leaps about what needs to be done (as well as the framework to seek out and react to feedback on their designs and iterate accordingly).

CHANGING MINDS + MEETING NEEDS

Advertising creatives’ goal is to move a customer further down the sales funnel. They tend to become very skilled at crafting a narrative. They communicate a vision that feels like it has significance, telling a story that persuades someone to become interested and take action. They’re not always meeting a need, but they know how to encourage a change in behavior nonetheless.

Software designers are tasked with framing problems well and satisfying user needs, which provides a clear path to effectiveness and helps ensure adoption. This model of restless reinvention, rapid prototyping, and iteration based on user feedback is a more holistic approach that provides value over a much longer lifecycle.

A hybrid experience team that combines these two skill sets — and their associated mindsets — generates ideas and solutions that solve real problems. This is a team that can articulate its reasoning and achieve stakeholder buy-in by crafting a compelling narrative around its insights.

STAKEHOLDERS + USERS

Advertising creatives often find that managing stakeholders can become its own full-time job. Even the most solid of creative ideas can become fragile in execution, easily taken off course by the subjective (and sometimes capricious) whims of stakeholders both within the agency and on the client team. Often the primary difference between a junior and senior creative is the ability to “sell the work,” which means being able to rationalize your creative decisions (even when they were just pure instinct) and think on your feet to address potentially crippling feedback on the spot. A successful creative builds trust on all sides.

Software designers are very adept at working with users, listening to what they say and observing what they don’t say, understanding which opinions may be universal and which are outliers, and framing the problem and discussing it in a way that leads to the most valuable insights. A successful designer builds trust with their users.

A hybrid experience team offers a powerful blend of these “people skills.” The rapport the team builds with its users ensures the work will be relevant and the iterations meaningful. And the rapport the team builds with its stakeholders ensures the work will live to see the light of day in an uncompromised form.

QUALITY + QUANTITY

Advertising creatives often get one shot to see their creative idea perform. From the moment it launches, the metrics must show success — in whatever way it’s been defined — is achieved. So, there’s a much greater focus on initial quality. That’s why agency folks will go back and forth for days — even weeks — on a creative brief. It needs to be just right, with alignment all around, to ensure you don’t waste time creating something that doesn’t check all the boxes.

Software designers live and breathe iteration. They’re much more comfortable in taking risks and building things that are “good enough.” The minimum viable prototype (MVP) is an industry standard for a reason. This focus on restless reinvention results in solutions that become more and more adept at meeting users’ needs over time.

Photo by Nate Saenz

A hybrid experience team offers the best of both worlds: a solution that’s pretty darn solid right out of the gate and only gets better with time. It’s a subtle shift in mindset for all parties. Admittedly, it’s one of the areas that can initially cause the most friction, as the ad folks are uncomfortable without a more detailed brief and the enterprise designers might prefer to release the MVP a few iterations earlier. But in our space, where driving adoption of our solutions is as important as the solution itself, a few more turns of the crank on initial quality can greatly reduce the number of users who experience the MVP and never come back to see its future improvements.

SUBSTANCE + STYLE

There’s a myriad of skills and habits each side brings to the table. Many of these behaviors aren’t mutually exclusive, but a contrast is often evident based on each person’s unique experience.

Advertising creatives are often brimming with confidence — mostly because they get so many “at-bats,” starting from a blank canvas whenever a new project arrives. It doesn’t take long to gain a wealth of experience in different situations and accumulate a bag of tricks to fall back on when deadlines loom.

Photo by Scott Wade

Software designers are usually very strong collaborators. They’re accustomed to connecting with a wide variety of people from different disciplines, with different roles in the process, and have learned how to navigate (and facilitate) any number of diverse groups.

Advertising creatives are used to juggling many different balls at once. Multiple clients, projects in various stages of completion, different media, competing deadlines — they’re just accustomed to getting things done, period.

Software designers are very comfortable with ambiguity. They’re not dependent on a detailed brief for guidance, as they’re more familiar with maneuvering a very complex world where all the answers — and often the questions — have yet to be defined.

A POTENT MIX

On a hybrid team, advertising creatives make software designers better. Software designers, in turn, help transform advertising people into truly capable experience designers with healthy new perspectives and attitudes. Creatives from the advertising world bring a commitment to doing great work that can breathe new life into the team. As they learn the deeper responsibilities and more rigorous approaches of design thinking, they find this new expertise gives them a framework to harness the passion they bring to new ideas. Meanwhile, software designers become more flexible, more open to intuitive leaps, and better at telling the stories that elicit the response they desire. The result? A team of experience designers who deliver more meaningful business outcomes, faster. There’s no better testament to the exponential benefits of this hybrid approach.

Jeff Neely is a Design Partner and Mike Bevil is an Associate Design Partner at IBM based in Austin, Texas. The above article is personal and does not necessarily represent IBM’s positions, strategies or opinions.

Special thank you to Andrei Cervantes and Andrew Womack for their contributions to this article.

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