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In advertising, creativity is not an end in itself

nick-fewings-ePkfwrVYoTc-unsplash Credit: Nick Fewings on Unsplash
So much gets said about the importance of creativity in advertising, but it is not enough just to be creative. Creativity must be applied to make an ad effective. If an ad does not help people remember which brand was being advertised and create some impression that influences behavior, money spent on creating and deploying that ad is wasted.

Creative quality is the marketer's single biggest profit driver
Before I go further, let me confirm the importance of creative quality in terms of its impact on profit.

Analysis of by Paul Dyson at Accelero of 28,000 global campaigns finds that creative quality is the single biggest profit driver under a marketer's direct control. Yes, your advertising must first reach the intended audience, but media buying offers relatively little leverage compared to getting the content right. What matters most is whether people attend to your ads, and, as a result, think of your brand when the time comes to buy. On average, improving creative quality from the bottom third of all ads to the top third more than quadruples the impact on profit.

Creativity is about more than gaining attention
Having established the importance of creative quality, let's turn to what we mean by creativity. A dictionary definition might lead us to think of originality, imagination, or ingenuity, but is that what matters when we talk about creativity in advertising? Yes, but only in part.

If the intended audience finds the content to be inspiring, interesting, or enjoyable then it is likely to get their attention and you are off to a good start. However, the role of creativity does not stop there. Advertising is the practice of applied creativity. Creativity must be applied to forging lasting memories that are linked to the advertised brand and help ensure that brand comes readily to mind when a relevant need arises.

Too many unmemorable and unmotivating ads
So, what is the problem? Many ads that I see, either online or offline, might be considered generally creative in that they gain attention, but fail when it comes to highlighting the advertised brand or delivering a compelling impression of that brand. A recent trip to the UK offered me the chance to see a variety of ads on linear TV, mostly for brands hoping to get a sales boost from the upcoming Christmas holiday. The trouble is that many of those ads seemed to be so bland as to be completely unmemorable and unmotivating.

What brand is this ad for? I could not remember.
I'm going to describe one of the ads I saw, and, if you live in the UK, you can try guessing which brand it was advertising.

We open on a guy tasting wine. He wins a trophy shaped like a nose. He says, "It's a gift." Well, I guess he must have a gift, because he won that ugly trophy. Then we cut to a separate scene, a woman is holding a large coffee mug, and maybe wearing a cape? Sorry, I'm a bit fuzzy on that bit because I was losing interest. However, she too says it's a gift. Then the big reveal. The ad is for giving people a unique experience. The experience is the gift, not the person's talent.

Honestly, is that meant to be creative? However, the real problem is that when I saw the ad again about 15 minutes later, I recognized the ad but could not remember which brand it was for. This is not an isolated problem. Thousands of ads fail simply because they do not establish a strong link between the content and the advertised brand. As for the ad I described, can you identify the advertised brand? (If not, keep reading.)

Speak to the audience need
To my mind, this ad is a classic example of creativity used badly. If the creators wanted to engage people's attention, maybe they should have focused on making sure that the audience knew what the ad was talking about. I am sure there are lots of people scratching their heads right now, wondering what to give friends and family for the holidays. So, instead of being too clever, why not keep it simple?

Santa, "Wondering what to give for the holidays?"

Audience, "Yes, I am! Tell me more."

Santa, "Give someone the joy of an experience they will remember forever."

OK, I am not a copy writer, but you know what? I'll back my straightforward communication versus that ad any day. Why? Because my version clearly identifies the problem that the service is designed to solve. No loss of attention because 20 seconds of uninspiring content precede the point at which we learn what is being advertised. Now all we need to do is get the brand across. But maybe all it takes to get the brand across is an on screen and in voiceover brand reference.

Santa, "Virgin Experiences make finding a unique experience for that special someone extra easy."

(Yeah, I know, definitely not a copy writer.)

Now, I am not saying the ad I saw for Virgin Experiences will not sell some of its experiences. After all, the ad is pushing on an open door. Lots of people are actively wondering what to give as a gift right now, and an experience pushes all the buttons du jour.

However, I bet the advertising would sell more, in less time, if the content focused more clearly on the need people want to solve. And if the brand name was better highlighted, maybe people would search for "Virgin Experiences" rather than generic search which might send the searcher off elsewhere.

Amazon's Christmas ad is based on a human insight
In total contrast to the Virgin Experiences ad is the one for Amazon featuring three older ladies who go sledding once again thanks to cushions bought on Amazon. The ad is sentimental. But most people love sentimental. Mark Ritson noted that,

"Campaign Magazine UK thinks the ad is very poor. That it is cliche ridden and a victim of lazy storytelling."

He then went on to celebrate the ad because the intended audience responded well to it, not because marketers did so.

The Amazon ad works because it is based on a human insight. Older people do want to recapture the experiences they enjoyed together when they were young. Case in point. Recently, a bar reopened in town. New owners. New name. Same location. On opening night, we found one of our friends – of a similar age to the women portrayed in the Amazon ad – ensconced in a corner with two of her friends. What motivated them to come to the opening night? The three of them used to frequent the bar decades before, when they were in their early 20s. Being there brought back shared memories.

Unlike my example, the Amazon ad is a fabrication, but it is true to the same insight. As a result, the ad strikes an emotional chord, not just with older people, but with anyone with some degree of empathy. It makes the ad impression memorable, and it lends a positive feeling to Amazon because the brand is an integral part of the story. That is what I mean by applying the power of creativity to serve a brand. And the Amazon ad is not just a one-off Christmas ad. As one of a series over the years, it is clearly positioning the brand to be the first place go whenever you need to send a gift.

A big challenge but a big payoff
To recap, creativity is hugely important to advertising effectiveness. It is the single biggest point of leverage under a marketer's control. But there is far more to creativity than gaining attention. All too often, a creative idea will become detached in people's minds from the very things it needs to communicate: the brand and what it can do for the intended audience.

Finding the right way to achieve that end is not easy. And despite the assessment given in this post, the only real judges of success are the intended audience. So, if you want your advertising to be effective, make finding the right creative for your brand a priority, don't leave it to chance, and check how the intended audience responds before deploying it.

One last point, many marketers feel pressured to introduce new creative on a regular basis, and most expect the new creative to be better than the old. As Paul Dyson notes in his Drivers of Profitability 2023 paper, that expectation may well be wrong, the new ad may be worse than the old. He states,

"So, think twice about changing your creative if it is still on message and performing well. There was lots of evidence that wearout rarely exists so this is unlikely to be a reason to develop a new creative."

In other words, when it comes to creative, resist the lure of change for change's sake. Take the time necessary to develop the most effective creative for your brand. Your efforts are likely to pay dividends. 

Why do you think so many ads fail to apply creativity to the task at hand? Please share your thoughts below. 

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June 23, 2024