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What do we mean by creativity in advertising?

This might seem an obvious question until you try and put the answer into words. Marketers talk about creativity all the time, but rarely seem to define what they mean by it. Futile though it may be, this post is my attempt to describe the qualities of creativity in advertising.

Hugely important
If you are an advertiser, you know that creativity is hugely important. Creativity is how advertising earns attention and delivers a memorable and motivating impression. A couple of years ago the estimable Sir John Hegarty declared,

"Those businesses that don't engage with creativity – they die."

And who am I to challenge that statement? Besides, I believe it is true (although the rot can take a long time to set in).

Defined by example
Maybe Sir John did define creativity in his speech to the World Federation of Advertisers, but, if so, it did not make it into the Marketing Week article. Instead, he seems content to define creativity by example, in an earlier article citing campaigns by Marmite, Netflix and Nike as examples of brands that are still doing "brilliant things." And, he is not alone, few practitioners define what they really mean by creativity.

For instance, when reviewing my files on the subject, I came across a Masterclass titled, "Jeff Goodby and Rich Silverstein Teach Advertising and Creativity." Oh good, I thought that will at least put some boundaries around what they mean by creativity.

Intriguingly, there are only three mentions of "creativity" in the entire document, with no definition, and 53 mentions of "creative," mostly referring to the role, the act of being creative, or a specific execution. Goodby and Silverstein also give examples of creative ads, some of which I can recall spontaneously to this day, like the Aaron Burr commercial, which was part of The California Milk Processor Board's "Got Milk?" campaign.

Even academic papers, which usually go to extreme lengths to describe their subject matter, rarely go beyond using words like novel, useful, and surprising to describe creativity.

Why does this lack of definition matter?
My contention would be that if there is no shared understanding of what is meant by creativity then the practice of advertising will remain largely hit or miss. Which ad agencies tend to win awards for creativity? By and large, it is the ones that make lots of ads.

A fundamental problem facing the advertiser who wants to leverage the power of creativity is that simply asking the ad agency to be creative is not going to do the job. Why? Because the agency definition of creativity is likely not what you need to get the job done. But the lack of understanding cuts both ways. Far too many creative ideas will be rejected simply on the basis of gut feeling and risk aversion.

A fundamental mismatch
Explaining why do most ads not gain attention, Adrian Langford states,

"A big reason why is that loaded word 'creativity'. The definition of creativity implied by creative awards (what's 'cool' as perceived by a literal jury of creative peers), is not necessarily the same kind of creativity that garners popular attention."

Again, commenting on why most ads do not earn attention, Andreas Oddane Gundersen said,

"Martin Weigel said it brilliantly on the On Strategy podcast: people ignore most ads because most ads ignore people."

To my mind, that observation gets to the heart of the challenge of defining creativity in advertising. It really does not matter what the client or the agency believes is creative, it matters how the intended audience responds to the advertising.

People need to experience something that makes advertising worth their time and attention. And as Weigel notes in the podcast, understanding the audience is critical to figuring out what will achieve that goal. In the podcast he states,

"What remains on my mind is our epic disconnect in marketing and advertising from the people we serve."

He goes on to suggest that the ad industry is genuinely blind to their difference from the public at large, which causes them to guess incorrectly what might appeal to their audience.

So, with that in mind, maybe our definition of creativity needs to be framed in terms of what will get the intended audience to attend to and remember advertising, acknowledging that the application of creativity in advertising will always need to be specific to the brand, the strategy, and the context.

Four qualities of attention-getting creative
Based on over 40 years of ad pre-testing and tracking, not to mention extensive reading and research on research, I would like to propose four qualities likely to be possessed by any ad to which people respond well. Now, to be clear, at this point, I am only trying to define the qualities of creativity, not advertising effectiveness. To a point made in a previous post, to be effective creativity in advertising must be applied, it must help do something for the advertised brand.

Arresting: visually, audibly, or conceptually striking

To the point made in my previous post, the biggest challenge is to escalate the audience's attention to the point at which they consciously attend to what is being shown or said. The automatic default response when faced with advertising is to ignore it. Particularly for in-feed advertising, the execution needs to hold the audience's attention long enough for them to anticipate whether it is worth their time to give it more attention. 

As an example, I recently saw this post on LinkedIn which uses a cartoon format similar to that used in graphic novels. The images had a retro, film noire feel to them. Amidst the bland posts and generic B2B advertising, the post stopped me scrolling to learn more. Congratulations to Mats Georgson, Ph.D., for creating such a distinctive look, however, there is more to arresting attention than a unique style. For instance, we have evolved to judge other people as potential friends or foes. So, the right spokesperson, portrait, or even just a set of eyes looking out from the page can be arresting.

Triggering the instinctive reaction that your ad is going to be worth someone's time will be difficult to do if your ad follows category conventions or employs ideas that have been used before. Remember, your brand is competing with others in the same category, your advertising is competing against everything else vying for people's attention.

Effortless: easily appreciated and understood by the intended audience

Creativity in advertising is different from that found in an art gallery. People go to an art gallery to enjoy the art (assuming they are not there for lunch in the restaurant). Even then, not every piece of art appeals to every visitor (witness my snapshot of people arguing over the merits of a painting in a Museum of Contemporary Art Shanghai).

Most people would rather not see advertising, so do not expect them to invest time or effort in trying to understand what an ad is trying to show or say. Furthermore, video, radio, or podcast all rely on presenting ideas sequentially, with no time for reflection. Rather than getting attention, abrupt transitions, unresolved emotions, and out-of-synch images, text, and voiceovers tend to undermine attention and comprehension.

Remember, as the advertiser, you cannot judge whether an ad is easily intelligible. You know what the ad is intended to communicate, your audience does not. The ad is important to you, but not to the audience. You see the ad a lot, far more than they do.

Meaningful: delivers a memorable experience

Getting people's attention is one thing, holding it is another. The initial few seconds of attention may create the anticipation that an ad is worth giving more time, but that anticipation will only go so far, and besides, advertising needs to be memorable, it must leave a lasting impression.

What do we remember? Things that are meaningful to us. Compared to truly memorable, emotionally charged events like a great vacation, your wedding, or the birth of a child, advertising leaves little trace, it needs repetition if the impression is to last. However, by making the impression as meaningful as possible, we create the potential to make advertising more memorable than it would be otherwise.

This is why Tom Roach emphasizes the power of storytelling in his Marketing Week article. Stories are not just the means to get attention, they are the means to create meaning. However, I do worry that people will take the idea of storytelling too literally, as in "once upon a time." The story might simply be to inspire desire for a sumptuously presented chocolate pudding. In the M&S ad, music, imagery, and tone of voice combine to deliver a meaningful impression.

So, yes, stories. But perhaps a better description might be experiences, because that allows the freedom to think more broadly about what might be memorable: colors, symbols, juxtapositions, metaphors, mnemonics, mood, evocation of the senses, music and more. Memorable advertising is meaning full.

Transformative: evokes a new emotion or creates a new understanding

After 40 years of staring at advertising of all sorts, it seems to me that true creativity conjures a new feeling or understanding, or, in the case of long-running advertising campaigns refreshes or reframes something people think is familiar. Goodby and Silverstein aim higher, stating,

"Advertising should feel like you're constantly hacking and rearranging culture—it's thrilling to see something familiar suddenly look alien."

So, to be considered truly creative, advertising must change the audience's perception of the world in some way, it must make new connections.

This said, I am not convinced it needs to be a major shift, but if the ad leaves someone feeling a little happier, inspired, curious, proud, content, or reassured then there is more chance that emotion will transfer onto the advertised brand. Does the M&S chocolate pudding ad hack culture? No, but I bet it helped drive sales.

Creativity in action
At the risk of undermining my own definition, here are three ads that popped into my head while I was writing. I believe they are arresting, effortless, meaningful, and transformative. Enough so that I remember them long after I last saw them.

Coca-Cola's "Happiness Factory" creates a sense of childlike wonder, while being entirely right for the brand.

Volvo Truck's "The Epic Split" is just amazing in so many ways and "Only Time" from Enya is so right for it.

Lurpak's "Weave Your Magic" casts a spell over me every time I see it, but then it was designed to appeal to cooks.

I think the amazing thing about creative ads like these is that I am happy to watch them again and again. And a willingness to attend to an ad repeatedly is a huge potential benefit to any brand.

In conclusion
The next time you are faced with a discussion about the creative merits of an ad perhaps it would be a good idea to keep these ideas in mind.

First, likely you are not the intended audience. The key question is not whether you think the ad is creative, it is whether the target audience will pay attention to it. And to answer that question there is no substitute for an in-depth understanding of what their lives are like and what they value.

Second, when assessing a proposed advertising idea or execution, try to decide whether it has the potential to be arresting, effortless, meaningful, and transformative to the intended audience. If you cannot answer, then maybe you should check how they are likely to respond.

Third, you will notice that I have not listed originality, although it is implicit in the need to be arresting. Why? Because an awful lot of content that people spend time with is not that original, and yet it holds their attention. One could argue that given the lack of interest in advertising, leveraging familiar ideas might actually be a positive, not a negative. So, ask yourself, is it original enough to get the job done. 

But what do you think of my proposed qualities of creativity in advertising? And what ads would you add to the roster? Please share your thoughts in the comments box below.

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June 24, 2024