The other day, I attended an advertising conference of brand marketers and ad agency people. During lunch, I overheard a comment made by a CEO (name withheld) who said: “So many creative people think they're above it all, like Superman”.
His words hit me like a ton of bricks. I was reminded of the recent Fournaise Marketing Group study I read in Campaign Asia-Pacific, which stated: “78 per cent of CEOs believe their ad agencies aren’t sufficiently performance-driven, and talk too much about creativity as the savior without really being able to unquestionably prove or quantify it”.
Look, up in the sky! It's a bird! It's a plane!
When I was a kid about six years of age, I wanted to be like Superman. Fly faster than a speeding bullet; leap tall buildings in a single bound; bend steel in my bare hands; have bullets bounce of my chest; save people from disasters and get them out of harms way. My embodiment of the Superman persona was one of strength and heroism, yet combined with a sense of purpose.
To this day, I still like going to the movies whenever the latest adventures of Superman hits the theatres. I sit there with a new generation of youngsters with their smart phones and a similar appreciation for the man from Krypton.
When I started my career in the ad business, I wanted to do some great creative work and be like a Superman of the ad industry. I had a self-imposed mandate to produce great advertising. I feared doing anything but great advertising. I wrestled with people who got in my way, not just the clients, but agency people who feared their clients. I wanted to create ads that worked exceptionally well. Ads that were worth much more in value than the run-of-the-mill formula stuff.
Back then, I had my super-heroes. I looked to them for inspiration: Bill Bernbach, Hal Riney, David Ogilvy, George Lois, Tom McElligott, Ed McCabe, Tim Delaney, Phil Dusenberry, and David Abbott.
The more things change, the more they stay the same.
There is a battle going on in our industry that requires more super creative people to come to its rescue—because we are living in an age when the evils of dull, boring, commodity thinking is taking hold and threatening creativity. Some people in our industry believe that big data is being extolled as more important than creative ideas, and because of that, standards are dropping. That’s a worry.
After all, we want to live in a world of great advertising campaigns, where our work is engaging, and a joy to behold by viewers. We want to create rich interactions and meaningful connections that extends a brand’s influence with consumers, rather than the dull, boring kind that puts them to sleep.
This brings up the question whether creative work or data holds the key to unlocking brand value? Marketers are currently being sold on data as the new oil. Data availability has exploded with the advent of social and mobile so that companies are awash collecting and analyzing consumers’ personal details, contact and messaging preferences, and trying to figure out what people are saying about their brand both within their own conversations as well as on social networks. I suppose, Marketers are thinking if they could get their hands on all that data, analyze it and ignite an insight, they could set the marketing world on fire.
Too much data. Not enough insight.
The general sentiment amongst creative people seems to be that we now rely on too much data and not enough on real consumer insights. The real problem as I see it, is not the data itself, but the fact that there aren’t enough people in the right positions within agencies today who know how to turn that data into the insights that creatives can use to do great work. I suppose not much has changed. For years creative people have talked about ‘research’ much the same way they talk about ‘data’ today. There was a lot of it, yet the real insights that enabled creatives to make a giant leap were far and few. Today, my own experience with data tells me that when data and creative are seamlessly integrated, the boundaries of what is possible are sure to expand.
There’s a lot of average work in the marketplace today. Without the integration of data and creative, marketers and their agencies are rolling out “me-too” ad campaigns that look and say the same things. Creative people argue – with some justification – that targeting the right people means nothing if the finished article is not eye-catching enough to provoke some sort of response. We are in this business to create great advertising. Great advertising can only ever be advertising that works, not just advertising that wins us awards—although great advertising often does.
The creative “warrior”
In the most recent Superman movie, Man of Steele, Jonathan Kent (Superman’s father on Earth) says: "I have to believe you were sent here for a reason. And even if it takes the rest of your life, you owe it to yourself to find out what that reason is.”
The creative person’s role is and always will be to find a solution to overwhelming odds, sort things out, and whip up a a bold idea that overcomes a convoluted situation. Like Superman, a knight in shining armor, the creative person is the one expected to give the story a happy ending.
And just as Superman must engage in defeating evil, today’s creative “warrior” must defeat the rise of commoditized, generic thinking that is bereft of consumer insights. The kind of advertising that puts the consumer to sleep. The kind that comes from over-think and countless meetings that seem to assist in producing run-of-the-mill work.
In today's homogenized advertising world, the best call any advertising agency can make is a call for strong creative leadership. Few people and companies consistently come up with fresh ideas. Of those who do, the creative leader who inspires and motivates insights into “big ideas” sets the standard beyond the norm. Leading creativity from the top has been and always will be the key to shaping an innovative and successful ad agency. We need more of these super men and super women to challenge convention, and to ignite others to be creative too.
We do have our A-list of superheroes today but the list is not as exhaustive as it once was: Lee Clow, Jeff Goodby, John Hegarty, Dan Weiden, David Droga, Tham Khai Meng, Neil French, David Lubars, Alex Bogusky... These people continue to make the A-list, due to their decades of consistently high-level creative output. Some of them are making their voices heard on behalf of creativity —Sir John Hegarty (BBH) being one of the most outspoken. Open, honest and direct, he made it quite clear that he rejects marketing's reliance on data, and insists that advertising needs to up its creative game.
Superman during Cannes interview
Hegarty recently quipped: “Most clients want what they’re doing to be a science. It’s why there’s so much research and data, because it proves something. We know research doesn’t work. But clients go on using it. Why? Because it makes their job easier and safer in the organization they’re in... Don’t get me wrong. Data are important, because it’s knowledge. But the idea that it has the solution within it, is wrong. Everybody’s reading the same data. If it has the solution within it, everyone will come to the same conclusion.”