By and large, advertising is an industry of convention. The creative teams at the core of many agencies have changed little since Bernbach put art director and copywriter together in the ‘50s. So it should give us pause to see the diversity of work being lauded as successful advertising at Cannes in recent years.
There is certainly still a core of ‘traditional’ work. Beautifully crafted, well-told stories and eloquently expressed ideas – from Nike’s ‘Find your greatness’ to ‘Dumb Ways to Die’ and the eloquently simple Coca-Cola ‘Hands’. This is the work we expect from a copywriter who is able to turn a phrase, working with an art director who can turn that phrase into something visually compelling.
There are other well-told stories that draw on reality in unexpected ways – from Dove’s ‘Real beauty sketches’ to the Macedonian ‘10 metres apart’. If our copywriter and art director are to create work like this they need to be able to dig deep into our psyche and behaviour, unearthing insights rather than expecting to be handed them. And this is exactly what the best creative teams bring to the table.
The last type of work is of a very different nature. It’s hard to categorise because of the diversity of shapes it takes. It can be a fitness platform built on a wearable product innovation (Nike+ FuelBand), a radio show that repels mosquitoes (Go Outside), or a LED-covered car that vanishes as it drives by (Mercedes ‘Invisible F-CELL’).
While very different, these share a common trait. In every case, creativity has been applied not just to the content of the work, but to its form or function. Each breaks with what is expected, by deploying technology in new and unusual ways. And while this work rarely comes from traditional agencies, increasingly clients are turning to those agencies to deliver it.
The problem is that this requires a very different set of skills. Rather than crafting beautiful stories in established formats, it needs a deeper understanding of how those formats and technologies actually work, to challenge conventions and create new ways of doing things. This is the difference between creativity and innovation.
If we are expecting our creative teams to deliver innovation, we need to make sure they have the necessary skills. That means less storytelling and more tinkering. Less deep craft and more curiosity about how things work. If we want this kind of thinking in our creative teams – and that’s the place it needs to be, right at the core of our ideas process – we need to stop hiring traditional creatives and start hiring ‘innovatives’. Creative generalists who surprise us with how far their thinking stretches.
Unfortunately, these innovatives are unlikely to be able to create a witty, well-crafted TV spot or a powerful, moving long-copy ad. And unless you work for a very edgy agency, there’s still plenty of that to be done. So let’s not fire all of the creatives just yet.
Which leads to an interesting thought. What we haven’t seen much of at Cannes is work that uses the storytelling craft of our more traditional creatives in concert with the functional innovation of innovatives. Having a suitable balance of people will be hard, and building processes that get them working together will be harder still. But agencies that succeed are the ones we’ll be writing about a few years from now.