Advertising: From Creativity To A Commodity

Advertising: From Creativity To A Commodity

In his latest post, B&T’s favourite industry veteran and rabble rouser, Robert Strohfeldt, argues many agencies these days are overthinking and over-cooking the whole creative thing when, in reality, it need not be that difficult…

Recently I wrote a withering criticism of a young planner who was critical of the past – nothing wrong with that in principal. But planning is supposedly a science, evidence-based, not hearsay.

The past was far from perfect, but one element that has been lost today is the importance of creativity – the pursuit of great creative, irrespective of the medium, was the primary goal of any decent ad agency. (The creative execution always factored in how the particular medium was “consumed” in its execution.)

A major problem today is the proliferation of advertising, or bluntly “It is fucking everywhere”. I am waiting for ads to appear on the soles of peoples’ shoes. Go into a petrol station and there is “Pump TV”. The data could be put together to mount a compelling argument, but what people forget is that with every quantitative deduction there are qualitative elements. The intangible. Every vehicle must fill up, there are X number of vehicles on the road, spending an average of Y minutes in front of a pump putting fuel in.

Sounds great, until you factor in that when the sun is on the screen you can’t see the bloody thing, most people are more concerned about the dollars going into the tank than the message coming out of these pissy little screens. There are many qualitative factors that cannot be accurately measured. So much media, new and traditional, is confounded by one factor that cannot be accurately be measured or predicted – human behaviour.

Urinal TV would be a better bet. How many bars, pubs, clubs, sporting venues are there in the country? How many men (I’ll get to women in a minute) visit one of these venues each week? How many leaks does each guy, on average take and how long, on average, does it take him to have a piss? We know men look straight ahead when urinating (It is poor etiquette to check out other guys’ whangs whilst draining the dragon). So, it would not be hard to calculate how many uninterrupted advertising minutes are in front of men’s eyeballs.

A similar calculation could be done for the backs of toilet doors in the ladies, but a “constant of staring” of men versus women would have to be calculated. Inside a cubicle the women’s eyeballs are not as captive as a man’s when he stands in front of a urinal.

Sounds silly, but I could actually do some research and give you accurate (well, kind of) numbers.

There are so many media options now and since the splitting of media and creative they are now separate disciplines.

I will say it for the 100th time… Advertising = Media + Message.

One of the great, but lost arts of advertising, is designing the message specifically for the medium. When radio first came on the scene, it did not take too long to work out that simply reading a press or print was a boring as watching pain dry. In the days prior to TV, the comic geniuses of Spike Milligan, Peter Sellers, Harry Secombe, Michael Bentine etc. of The Goon Show used sound and voices to create “theatre of the mind”. They created mental pictures.

We have many more mediums and platforms today, some far more effective than others, but the art is to develop creative that is in-line with how the medium/platform is used.

With so many media options, media has usurped the message in importance. Yes, by far the majority of the advertising budget goes into the media, but unless the message achieves it desired objective, all of that money has been wasted.

Advertising is a social science, unlike say physics, geology or chemistry when the subjects are inanimate objects. People change their mind, sometimes from day to day. Changes occur to rocks, stars and chemicals, but changes that can, after observation, be explained by formula. As a trained mathematician, I have a great respect for the value of data, but I also know its limitations and how easily it can fool.

Creativity is not something that can be formularised, in spite of what the purveyors of AI try and tell us.

In many articles I mention Professor Mark Ritson. I don’t agree with Mark 100 per cent of the time. But when it comes to the key issues facing the industry, he is nearly always spot on.

His article in The Australian earlier this about the new John Lewis Christmas TV ad was very enlightening.

  • If TV is so passé, why is there so much industry anticipation about what will the John Lewis TV ad serve up this year. All two minutes of it!
  • In one sentence, he sums up what advertising creativity is all about “But the great thing about amazing advertising, and I mean amazing advertising, is that it can turn everything around in seconds”.
  • There is no doubting a lot of strategic thought goes into the John Lewis Christmas TVCs, but without the leap from strategy to creative execution, all you have is a PowerPoint presentation and a few graphs. The John Lewis strategy does not change each year. It is the creative execution that brings it alive and adds the magic that captivates the audience,
  • The “magic” comes not just from the creative team, but also the director and producer. Think of the great movies you have seen. A great script is a pre-requisite, but without a great director to bring the concept alive, all you have is an idea. Which is a long way short of a movie.
  • The TVC is an image, long term play. We have become so overwhelmed with short term tactical “sell tomorrow”, the art of building long term brand wealth has all but been lost.

Going back to my attack article earlier in the week. It was obvious that I was angry, angry that inexperienced people are being put in charge of the long- term health of brands. Brands are everything.  Brand image is like money in the bank. Forgot about the longer- term brand image and continue with short term tactical activities and eventually you detract from the brand’s value. Keep taking money out and one day there will be nothing left.

Not all advertising and communications has to have the objective of “sell”. It is the old retail versus brand balance. Retail or “sell now” advertising is much easier to create. The offer is the proposition.

Image advertising is a totally different animal. Great image advertising is a rarity today, the effect difficult to measure in an age where short term results are demanded. Long term image is often derided as an expensive wank, a waste of money that could be used to drive short term results. The sad fact is that because it is rarely called upon and not appreciated, many attempts at longer term image building do end up as nothing but expensive, self-indulgent wanks. But that does not mean the concept is flawed, just the executions.

The obsession with technology is the driving factor. IT people think totally differently to creative people. Instead of honing young creatives’ skills in developing their creativity, we have IT people using AI to write ads – take the recent TVC for Lexus, written by AI. “Dreadful” is being too kind. The “machine learning” elements were obvious, with scenes and snippets taken from past luxury car advertising. How it could be spun off into into other media was obviously not a considered as there was no idea, no central thought/compelling proposition to build a narrative around in other media, or even merchandising.

Great creative has lost its primacy, replaced by media, data and strategy. Music is a great analogy. Take The Rolling Stones and the walking corpse Keith Richards. When Keith plays a G chord, the structure is something any basic guitarist can replicate – it is a very simple an easy chord to play.

But what is difficult, nah almost impossible, is to get the feeling, the soul Richards puts into a simple chord. Be very easy to get AI to play G, but bloody impossible to get the soul, the feel that only a great musician can add. (Of course, if you are a DJ or rap aficionado, this point will be lost on you. Though I believe if you drop enough ecstasy and go to a techno concert you can get a similar feeling.)

Advertising has now become a world of the quantitative, with the intangible qualitative being lost. I stated my life as a quantitativist, but by having the good fortune of working with some very talented creative people, I saw a world numbers cannot replicate.

I am hoping that 10 years’ time there will still be a creative department. If not, I doubt there will be any advertising agencies as well.






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Advertising creativity Robert Strohfeldt

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