Putting together a reel of TV ads that I have helped develop during my 30 years in qualitative research has brought to mind many important lessons about brands, advertising and creative development. But one over-riding theme leapt out of the screen, a central characteristic of every ad in the reel: they all had a genuine creative idea.
Why is this even worth noting? After all, it has been proven time and again that the most effective advertising is creative advertising. So, surely brands and their agencies wouldn’t let an ad out the door if it wasn’t built around a strong creative idea.
If only. We are surrounded today by ‘idea-free’ advertising: bland, undifferentiated ‘wallpaper’ that leaves the viewer unengaged, uninvolved and unmoved. My kids fear the ad breaks when they are watching with me, knowing that at some point I will be shouting “Where’s the creative idea?” at the screen, lamenting its absence from 30” of… what? They are so accustomed to this explosion that, when a car commercial appears (for these are perhaps the most consistent offenders), they look at me, waiting for the rant to start.
One can posit innumerable reasons for this parlous state of affairs: the dead hand of international advertising; the misguided emphasis placed by modern marketers on short-term sales effects over long-term brand building; client risk aversion; a loss of confidence and assertiveness on the part of creative agencies; ignorance of the relationship between creativity and effectiveness. The brutal truth, however, is that a client who spends money on advertising without an idea will almost certainly be wasting that money and short-changing the brand.
Not every ad can be a Sony ‘Balls’ or a Honda ‘Cog’. But every ad should aspire to be more than the strategy put on the screen, or the brand purpose spoken over some generic visuals, or some reflection of the ‘real life’ of the ‘consumer’. Without a creative idea, it is that much more difficult to cut through the noise with distinctiveness, drive emotional relevance and establish the memory structures that build brands and influence perceptions and behaviour in the long term.
All of this is easy to say, but much harder to do. What even is a creative idea? And how do we know when we have one?
What is a creative idea?
Smarter people than me have endeavoured to define what a creative idea is, but here’s my tuppenny-worth. A piece of advertising contains a creative idea when it simply uses a lateral way to convey the brand communication. If one assumes that the strategy upon which the advertising is based positions the brand in a way that is relevant and motivating to its target (which is, of course, by no means a given), a strong creative idea is one that conveys the brand proposition indirectly in order to drive greater impact, engagement, involvement, brand linkage and memorability than would be the case if it was conveyed literally. Creative ideas are much more than what the brand ‘says’; they are about how the brand ‘says’ it. To go back to the master: Bill Bernbach cited the example of this famous and successful press ad for a correspondence course that ran for years starting in the 1920s, asking “Would it have been as effective… if it had said, ‘They admired my piano playing.’?”
Essentially, creative ideas make advertising more interesting. As Howard Gossage said of print ads:
“People don’t read ads. They read what interests them, and sometimes that’s an ad.”
We should also remember – and this is something that seems to have been forgotten by most modern marketers – that the creative idea itself can say as much about the brand as the message it conveys. The fact that a brand communicates in a clever and original way reflects upon it very positively and can, when done consistently over time, help build emotional associations and values that can strengthen its connection with ‘consumers’.
Looking through my reel of 15 ads, every one of these ads contains a genuine creative idea. And when you begin to think about the nature of the idea, you begin to see many of the lateral approaches characteristic of strong creative ideas. The ads here make use of metaphor, exaggeration and contrast; almost all employ hyperbole and many use fantasy. None of them ‘tells it straight’.
Many of these ideas work by deliberating pushing the brand proposition to the limit. I have advocated before that strategists should aim to think laterally about the propositions they put into briefs; here, we see creatives thinking laterally about how to convey the propositions.
Very often, the idea dramatises the answer to the question: what is the most extreme thing that could happen to prove this proposition true? I suspect this is not a question that good agency creatives are even aware of asking themselves, but something they do intuitively. And my reel shows some of the crazy answers they get: supermodels would attempt to destroy a car; cats would kill for a milkshake mix; a repair man would push your car miles across fields. And by this lateral dramatisation, the advertising lands the proposition in a more compelling and rewarding way.
In 13 of these 15 ads, the dramatisation is completely unreal – the action we see would never happen in ‘real life’: shipwrecks and crashed aircraft are thrown out of the sea; a caped drinks bottle on a stick ‘flies’ through the sky; opposite sides of a street slide across the road to meet in the middle. When would any of that actually happen?
You could describe the action in these 13 ads as ‘mad’… and maybe this is an acronym that can point us to strong creative ideas:
MAD: ‘Make Advertising Drastic’ – or maybe ‘Daft’, ‘Dangerous’, or even ‘Dada’ – take your pick.
But even when the action isn’t MAD, there is still an idea that pushes beyond the proposition. The insight in Rothco’s Christmas ad for Tesco Ireland is as brilliant as it is simple: that the huge effort mothers put into making Christmas a great occasion for their families is generally taken for granted. The strategy picks this up and runs with it, pointing out that Irish mums deserve their families’ thanks; and then the creative idea goes one step further by asking: what is the strongest way of showing someone how genuinely grateful you are for what they have done for you? Answer: you bother to sit down and carefully hand-write a letter that expresses your sincerest feelings.
Similarly, the BT ad – the first in the ‘BT Family’ campaign that ran for 7 years – is not MAD. But it does use an interesting trick to convey the simple and rather pedestrian proposition that BT’s services can help family life work smoothly. It does this by exploring the converse, in answer to the question: when do families really not run smoothly? Answer: when they are broken families. In this ad, BT’s wireless broadband helps to bridge the gap between the children of a divorced mum and her new boyfriend. Of course, it was executed with wit, charm and empathy, but there is a very smart piece of lateral thinking at the heart of this idea.
Creative ideas are often characterised by the cross fertilisation of two apparently disconnected notions. In much the same way that a strong brand proposition is born out of the overlap between a human truth and a brand truth (AKA ‘consumer insight’ and ‘brand properties’), a creative idea is often born out of bringing together the brand proposition and a notion from another field that is apparently completely unrelated. As Jeffrey Baumgartner puts it, “Whenever two or more notions come together to create a unique, all new notion in your mind, a creative idea is born”.
What have caped superheroes got to do with smoothies? What have overworked musicians got to do with lottery winners? What do graffiti and street signs have to do with a fizzy drink?
In every case, you can build a bridge between these notions and the brand proposition. You are helped by the fact that the apparently unrelated notion typically sits in people’s sub-conscious with a range of associations that your creative idea can retrieve in the service of your brand. And, provided that bridge is not too long or rickety, it can form the heart of your creative idea.
For example, we know that supermodels are recognised as icons of beauty, but we probably also think they are accustomed to being the centre of attention and may well be pretty vain too. These associations give the advertising permission to stretch the point, and show supermodels being seriously hacked off at our brand’s beauty drawing attention away from them (yes, I know the Corsa looks pig ugly now but, trust me, it looked pretty funky when it was launched back in 1995). So, the bridge between the Corsa and the ‘unrelated’ notion of ‘Supermodels’ might be ‘envy’ – envy of the attention a rival beauty receives at their expense (this is not, of course, to ignore the pun in the use of the word ‘model’).
What comes to mind when you think of caped superheroes? They right wrongs and save those in peril from the bad guys. So, the bridge in the Innocent smoothies ad is ‘rescue’ – Innocent will rescue the peckish from evil doughnuts!
How do we know when we have a strong creative idea?
I’ve kept you too long already. So, I will address this question in the second part of this article, suggesting ways in which we can work out whether the ad concepts we are presented with contain a genuine creative idea or not. Who knows, maybe the day will come when my children need no longer witness their father ranting at the screen as they sit with me during a commercial break.