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The Cost of Creativity

by Glen Emerson Morris
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One of the recurring themes in Dilbert cartoon strips is the situation where management has set an impossible deadline for something that probably couldn't be done in the first place. It usually results in large numbers of people working overtime to produce something they know isn't likely to work. Unfortunately, this scene is also being played out between advertisers and their Web developers, where it's far less amusing, and considerably more expensive.

Sure, it might be a great idea to put up a special Website for a weekend sale, but is it really possible to have all the art, content, and programming completed, and working reliably, by the time it's needed? Maybe not. Unfortunately, most marketing people don't know the right questions to ask engineers to get a meaningful answer.

The usual question asked is, "Would it be possible?" This, for those unfamiliar with engineers, is like asking a building contractor if they could build you a copy of the Palace of Versailles. Of course they could, and they'd love to, it would just cost a fortune. The real questions to ask are: "What would it take?" How long will it take to do this? How many man hours? Do we have the resources to do this? Without knowing the accurate cost required to implement a marketing project on the Internet, it is very difficult guarantee it will even work, let alone provide a reasonable return on the investment.

Consider this typical case. Last year, one of the major Websites, referred to as company XYZ, decided they wanted to have a special Web promotion to go with a commercial they were running a month later in the Super Bowl. The creative idea was to offer prizes to encourage people to register on the company's free service-oriented Website. It was to be called the Super Bowl Super Prize, or something to that effect. The grand prize would be an all expenses paid trip to next year's Super Bowl.

Wanting the graphics to look especially good, the company had their advertising agency design the promotional Webpage instead of using their in-house design team. The advertising agency, one of the world's biggest and best known, designed a beautiful Webpage that was a perfect combination of ad and registration page, and delivered the design to the company in the form of a Photoshop file.

"The XYZ Super Bowl Super Prize Contest," read the headline. Surrounding it were assorted images of football games, emerging in round and oval shaped frames from a green background. It was about as beautiful as any ad in today's magazines. In theory, all the company's engineers would have to do was a simple HTML markup of the Photoshop image, and a few hours work programming the already existing registration code into the page.

Unfortunately, when the company's engineers looked at the Photoshop file the agency provided they quickly realized that, even after using image compression, the file's size would still be several hundred kilobytes too big to send to people over standard phone connections. To cut down on size, the engineers had to cut out the graphic images of the football players, make them several separate small files, and use them in a page of regular HTML. This was initially estimated to add two days to the project, which proved to be profoundly optimistic.

It was only about two days into the project that the engineers realized they had another serious problem on their hands. The designer at the agency made the background of the page a deep green, to go with the football field graphics at the top and bottom of the page. Unfortunately, the designer didn't use a solid color for the background, instead choosing to use a pattern of fine green and black lines. This choice added another three days the project.

If the background color had been solid, it would have been easy to paint a background color with HTML and seamlessly place the graphics on the page. Even then, the engineers were still able to create the green and black lined background required for most of the page, easily, by a procedure known as tiling. This process simply uses a small image over and over to create a much bigger one (i.e. enabling a 2K file to fill an entire screen in about one second of download time.)

The problem was that the green and black lines in the graphic images couldn't be made to line up properly with the green and black lines in the background. Netscape and IE browsers don't place images quite the same way, so there was no way to make the images look properly aligned on both browsers. The engineers tried for days, but eventually they decided that browser differences make some design techniques impossible.

The engineer's only option was to spend several days retouching all the graphic images, replacing the green and black lines with a solid color. Once accomplished, it was easy to merge the images into a new, easy to create, solid color background. Finally, and over one week behind schedule, the company's engineers were able to demonstrate a working Website that closely resembled the design of the advertising agency.

At this point, someone in the company's quality assurance department asked why the page didn't have the required trade mark credits for Super Bowl, since it was, after all, a registered trade mark. After a few hasty phone calls, it was determined that no one in the company had obtained legal permission to use the name Super Bowl in what was named, more or less, the XYZ Super Bowl Super Prize contest. The company quickly applied for permission to use the name, and not too many days later was flatly rejected. In addition, the company was told it couldn't even give away tickets to the Super Bowl as prizes. As a result, another day was lost coming up with a new name for the contest, and a new set of prizes.

By the time the promotional Website was launched, it was nearly two weeks late. Though far from a disaster, the promotion was severely compromised, and by a recurring and totally avoidable problem. At several key points, people failed to understand what it would really take to turn their creativity into reality, and it really cost. It's a common problem, and it's a real tragedy, because all it takes to avoid it is to ask the right questions, and to be willing to listen to the answers.

Copyright 1994 - 2010 by Glen Emerson Morris All Rights Reserved

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