Category Archives: Client Relations

And the Winner Is …

How one campaign wins four awards.

Wondering if you should enter your work in a workplace communication competition? Here are a few thoughts about choosing what to enter and where. 

I had a nice surprise in my inbox yesterday morning. I received notice that a communication campaign I worked on last year—a wellness program launch for CommonSpirit Health—earned its fourth accolade. 

I’ve earned awards throughout my career but not four different awards from four different organizations for a single campaign. In fact, I don’t think I’ve ever entered a single campaign in more than one or two competitions. So, what made this one special? Why did it win? 

If you’re looking for some recognition for your communications team, here are a few thoughts on what to enter and where to enter it.

Je Ne Sais Quoi

I work on several campaigns for several different clients every year. Not every one of those is award-worthy. 

When I say a campaign isn’t “award-worthy”, I don’t mean the work isn’t good or that it failed. I simply mean it lacks that je ne sais quoi.

This lovely French expression, literally meaning “I don’t know what”, is sometimes used to describe an elusive quality that makes something appealing or distinctive. Based on my experiences, entering, losing, winning and judging these competitions, I think winning campaigns have that. 

When I sense the following while developing and executing a campaign, I start to suspect I might have a winner on my hands.

It feels different from the beginning. Not every communication project sets out to drive major change. The goal might be maintaining the status quo, not rocking the boat, or (in the world of HR and benefits communication) meeting a regulatory requirement. These kinds of projects are important, essential, but they have a different vibe from the outset. They don’t necessarily stir the passions and they’re not as likely to produce the kind of work or results that turn a judge’s head. The CommonSpirit campaign was different right from the beginning. The project had visibility at high levels in the organization and it was clear that the project team had high hopes. They were passionate, energetic and eager to push the boundaries. They weren’t just trying to get this thing over with. They wanted to make a difference. I knew this was going to be a creative challenge and a special opportunity.

By the way … be open to your campaign’s potential regardless of its subject matter. Some of the most interesting, creative work I’ve done has been on topics ranging from annual benefits enrollment to workplace safety to compensation surveys. Sparks can ignite anywhere.

It looks and feels special. There are certain campaigns I look back on that surprise me. I wonder: How in the world did I come up with that headline? I can’t believe the client approved this photo! In retrospect, good creative can feel like the obvious choice. Sometimes it is and sometimes it isn’t. For the CommonSpirit campaign, we brainstormed for days, combing through samples, brand guidelines and company communications, which led us to scouring the Bible. During the ideation phase, after we get out all the obvious ideas, I will sometimes feel like I’ll never figure it out. We’ll go down dead ends and end up in unexpected places. These steps can be frustrating, but they are necessary and good. I think effective creative employs uncommon words and images in a way that will be immediately welcomed by the audience. That’s the needle to thread. But a lot of good creative ends up in the recycle bin precisely because it pushes the envelope. Fresh ideas can feel risky and they can make clients feel uncomfortable. But when those risky ideas elicit a positive response, you know you’re on to something.

It achieves something special. The CommonSpirit campaign had clear goals from the outset—and they felt aggressive to me. I had never worked with this client before and it was a big project. A lot was on the line. Before the launch, I felt confident that, on their own, the deliverables we had created could win awards. But when the results of the campaign started coming in—70,000 new wellness program registrations in three weeks—I knew we’d touched our audience’s hearts and minds. We had achieved something special.

Know What You’re Getting Into

While I was studying creative writing and poetry in college, I entered a poem in a contest. In a few weeks, I received a letter indicating my work had been selected for publication. Beaming with pride, I took the letter to my professor. He quickly pointed out the contest was sponsored by a “vanity press.” They’ll print your work if you buy their publication. Basically, the only people reading that book will be the people who wrote it. Hopes dashed. Lesson learned.  

Entering communication competitions can be expensive and time consuming. And, they will get your hopes up. I’m not going to place a bet of time, money and emotion on something as mysterious as “I don’t know what”. I want a level of confidence that I have a real chance at winning something that is worth winning.

If you think you have a winner on your hands, here are some basic steps to take.

  1. Make a list of competitions you want to win. Google searches will pull up all kinds of results. You likely know some of the big ones, but there are other good competitions out there that are regional or have a particular focus. Make note of all of them.
  2. Narrow down your list by time frame. Some competitions are annual. Some accept applications on a rolling basis. They will all have guidelines about when the campaign happened. Choose competitions that make sense based on when you did the work and when winners will be announced. If you missed the boat on an award you’d like to win, put it on your calendar for next time.
  3. Align with the criteria. Before you start working on your entry, be sure you understand the criteria. I categorize competitions into two main types:
  • Quality. These competitions base judgement solely on an evaluation of the work itself. They don’t ask for results and they’re not interested in context. Basically, these are creators evaluating the quality of what you’ve created in and of itself. If you have a stunning piece of work, give these a shot. They can be great validation of the work you’re doing and a nice recognition for your team. Check out lists of previous winners. Are these organizations you’d be proud to stand alongside? If so, enter.
  • Quality and Results. These competitions place great importance on achieving results. They’ll want a solid case study outlining your strategy and outcomes. If you have a stunning piece of work backed up by an insightful approach AND compelling evidence of results, take the time to enter. These kinds of competitions (e.g., IABC, Ragan, Communicator Awards) have higher standards and there’s more competition but they come with greater notoriety and, I think, an overall higher sense of achievement.

Let’s Connect

Do you have a campaign coming up that needs award-winning strategy and creative? What tips and insights would you share about entering communication competitions? We’d love to hear from you. 

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How to Give Better Feedback to Graphic Designers

Better graphic design means better communication. So, being able to communicate effectively with the graphic designers on your team can enhance your ability to achieve your goals.

All else being equal, pictures are remembered better than words,1 we learn from images more successfully than from text, and strong visuals can connect with an audience faster — and with more emotion — than words alone.2

In fact, humans have been using images to communicate for about 30,000 years longer than we’ve been using written words.3 You’d think we’d all be really good at giving graphic designers constructive feedback by now. Unfortunately, this isn’t always the case.

At Smith, our creative work is a collaboration between writer and graphic designer. Regardless of who’s leading the project, both communicators have a stake in the project’s success, and both are charged with creating highly effective and creative communications for our clients. One role is not more important than the other and the   blend of these complementary skill sets generally sparks a better outcome than if just one of us were working alone.

I’ve been collaborating with graphic designers for more than two decades, but I’m a writer by trade and training and partnering effectively with graphic designers was something I had to work at. Still, I’m not immune from giving my design colleagues at Smith the kind of feedback that sometimes just isn’t helpful. So, I asked them to help me put together a few basic tips to help those of us who aren’t graphic designers to provide more useful feedback. 

Here goes …

1. Instead of Telling the Designer What; Tell Them Why 

If the designer doesn’t know why something is broken, they can’t properly fix it. Rather than telling a designer what to do, try to explain why you want something done. I’ve found that, when I do this right, the designer is more likely to come back with a solution that is far better than anything I imagined.

Instead of …Try …
Replace the photo with the attached.Can you find a new photo? The brand guidelines ask for natural situations and the people in this image look too posed.
Clean up the sketch I provided.Create an engaging visual that simplifies the data I’ve attached.
Make this brighter.Can you call more attention to this particular element? – OR – Can you confirm these colors align with the brand color palette?

2. Keep it Objective

When it comes to employee communication, good graphic design is not about personal taste. Usually, the aesthetic is determined by the organization’s brand identity system and not about what we like or don’t like. When we approach a project, we put our personal opinions aside and try to execute within the guidelines we’re provided.

Because we work with a wide variety of clients, we work with a wide variety of brand identity systems. But we know our clients don’t enjoy that same variety. Each client has only one brand identity system that they see day after day … project after project … year after year. It’s easy to feel trapped within the confines of the same colors, the same fonts, the same graphics … over and over again.

We also know that some agencies out there don’t always feel obliged to stick with a client’s established brand. They can sometimes find quick favor with a client by “pushing the envelope” or being “fresh,” but going off-brand is not a recipe for success. Sooner or later, the agency or the internal client will find themselves at odds with the marketing and brand teams. They also run the risk of confusing their audiences.

So, when reviewing work that must adhere to an established identity system, it’s important to evaluate it based on how well it aligns with that system, not on how much you may personally like or dislike it. 

Instead of …Try …
I’m tired of [company’s primary color].Can we use more of the secondary colors from the palette to distinguish this campaign?
My boss loves dogs. Can we use a photo of a dog somewhere?On our new Pet Insurance flyer, can you … 
I love this. / I don’t like this. This layout perfectly aligns / doesn’t align with the brand standards.This image perfectly reflects / doesn’t reflect the workforce.This is a great use / misuse of the color palette.

3. Be Concrete

For those of us who aren’t graphic designers or visual artists, graphic design is shrouded in a certain amount of mystery. I struggle to find matching socks, so color theory is beyond my comprehension. But, getting color, composition and imagery right is not guesswork. It’s not a hunch and it’s not magic. While creative people have their natural abilities, the craft of design takes study, practice and effort. When you find yourself tempted to say something nebulous like, “It needs something,” “Make it pop” or “Work your magic,” ask for some time to chat with the designer. Feel free to think big and bold, but try to describe as concretely as possible what you want your audience to think, feel and do. Good designers know how to listen, to probe and to understand what you’re struggling with. Give the designer a chance to understand and address the real issue — especially if you’re not sure what it is!

4. Familiarize Yourself With the Tools and Craft of Design

The technology available to graphic designers can make the impossible seem possible, but “photoshopping” isn’t always a solution. Be curious. Ask your designer how they do what they do. Ask them what applications they use. Let them share some of their behind-the-scenes work with you. This will give you a better understanding of the work involved and help you become a better creative director.

Bonus Tip: Make Your Copy Edits Impossible to Misunderstand

The tips above are focused on giving feedback on the design, not the words. When giving copy edits to a graphic designer, keep in mind they are not the writer and making changes to copy is not the same as editing it. Try to leave no room for interpretation in your mark up. For example, rather than describe the edit you want (“insert language from page 2”), copy the exact copy you want into your comment and indicate exactly where it should go. 

Let’s Connect

Do you have any tips or techniques for communicating your vision to a graphic designer? Are you struggling to get your ideas executed? We’d love to hear from you. 


3 The oldest known figurative art 35,400 years old. That likely makes it the oldest-known example of figurative art anywhere in the world.

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Great Work

Awards for Excellence

We believe doing great work isn’t a selling point. It’s a starting point. 

Smith is proud of the work our consultants do for our clients. We’re especially proud when that work earns well-deserved recognition. This year, we were honored to receive the following awards.

Well done, everyone.  

1st Place, Pension & Investments 2020 Eddy Award, Financial Wellness (Corporate over 5000) 
Platinum Winner, Hermes Creative Awards, Public Relations/Communications | Strategic Programs  
Gold Winner, Hermes Creative Awards, Public Relations/Communications/Strategic Programs
Communicator AwardIndividual-Training
Communicator Award, Employee Publication-Benefits
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Get Time on Your Side

Four Ways to Maximize Time on Your Next Communication Project

Four Ways to Maximize Time on Your Next Communication Project

“You can feel the industry-wide pinch on time and budgets. We saw a lot of ideas that could have been great with better execution.”

“With the speed of the industry, we can lose the craft of good storytelling and attention to detail.”

These are comments from two of the jurors who selected entries for the Communication Arts Advertising Annual 58. While the industry they’re referring to is the advertising industry, we’re seeing the same trend in internal communication. Projects are starting later, compressing timelines. Budgets, too, are shrinking as organizations try to do more with less.

It’s all understandable and not always a bad thing. Deadlines and budgets can force better decisions and maintain focus. And, besides, racing against time and having limited resources is all part of the creative challenge we communicators thrive on. As one of my heroes, Robert Frost, said about writing poetry without the self-imposed strictures of rhyme, meter or structure, “Writing free verse is like playing tennis with the net down.” 

Working without obstacles just isn’t as fun. But facing near-insurmountable obstacles increases stress and threatens quality. It can also diminish the creativity needed to help your message break through. 

Here are four ways you can increase the time available to work on your project, even if you can’t increase your budget. 

1. Don’t Wait to Engage Your Communication Team

We understand. You want to wait until you have everything figured out. You want your decisions approved, your strategy in place. But there’s a lot your communications team can be doing as your project takes shape. Every project requires discovery. We need to learn about you, your organization, your audience and your specific issues. We need to take in a lot of information before we can ever put out a first draft. Every project also needs some set up time. We need to assign a team and take care of a few administrative details. You never see these steps on a project schedule, but they still need to be done. Loop us in early and, when the iron is finally hot, we’ll be ready to strike.

2. Don’t Pay by the Hour

This will sound nearly blasphemous to many in the consulting industry. If you’re used to paying for consulting and creative services by the hour, you know what the underlying motivation of your partner is: Bill more hours. So, you may think that allowing less time to work on your project will help shave dollars off your bill. When we founded Smith more than a decade ago, we decided to bill flat rates. Quality, not time, is our focus. Our motivation is to understand your needs up front so that our final bills are in line with our initial statements of work. So, once you’re sure you’re going to need help with your project — even if you’re not exactly sure what your needs are — invite us to the table. Give us the opportunity to get to know you and prepare for what lies ahead.

3. Get Your Cowcatcher On

Ok, that metaphor is a bit folksy, but it’s a good one. Think about what could derail or delay your project at a critical moment. One of the more common hazards we see is a content reviewer who chimes in late. This is often a senior leader who doesn’t want to see things until all the kinks are worked out. We understand the logic, but the closer a deliverable gets to its final form, the longer it can take to make changes. While you don’t want your VPs wasting time on a draft that has too many holes in it, you also don’t want them to veto the talent in your video the day before your video was set to debut. (It happens.) Talk with us in advance about the process and the players so we can create realistic schedules and steps.

4. Don’t Hesitate to Run Something by Us

If you have an initiative in the offing, let’s chat, even if you’re not sure about where things are going. Let’s pick out some key considerations early. It could save precious time later.

I have a simple formula. Talent > Time. But with a good communication partner, you can get both on your side. 

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