Giles Keeble: whatever happened to advertising ideas?

I hope this does not come across as an old fart’s lamentation for a supposed golden age. I’ve been thinking about the ads I see these days and number of (admittedly older) people have said that they no longer know what constitutes a great advertising, that so much of it now is a form of sales promotion, or product placement, or that there are no ideas.

But what is an advertising idea? This is not as straightforward as it may seem. One way to look at it is to separate the message from the way the message is put across. This distinction between the ‘What’ and the ‘How’ is the basis of a workshop I have done with Sarah Snoxall with some success. Both parts need some skill, and depend on a good brief (another workshop, if you’re interested). What you want to say, and why, can be guided by good research up front. How you get that across is mainly the preserve of the creative department but not the sole preserve.
Even if you get a single-minded ‘What’, there is no guarantee that the ‘How’ is a good idea, or even if it is one at all.

Unknown-5Agencies talk of The Big Idea’, which implies there are small ones too. What are the criteria? I think what is generally meant by a big idea is one that works in different executions, over time and in different media or channels, as they are now called. (Alan Fletcher, left, one of the founders of Pentagram, once told me a good idea was like a good panama hat – it could be passed through a wedding ring and retain its shape.) So one way of judging whether or not you have a good idea is to see if it works in other executions – that is, is it a campaign? – and in different channels. And is it still the same idea?

The latter point can lead to difficulties. In the days before digital, a campaign was at least three executions and likely to be on TV (when costs were lower and audiences much larger), or in print. Nowadays, the chances are there will be a number of channels used (including PR and POS). At least channel planning has helped make sure they are relevant ones rather than the ‘everything goes’ approach of what was once called 360°. The problem – and the danger – is that if an ‘idea’ has to work in all channels then it may not be much more than a colour or line, or a concept that is the lowest common denominator of the ideas presented.

If an idea really does work in all the chosen channels, great; but I think it is better to make sure it works in the main medium (say TV/film) and then see what aspects work for subsidiary channels. The other point that is often forgotten is that the role of the channels may be quite different: one may need to remind, another to build a database.

Moreover, a campaign isn’t (or shouldn’t be) just a variant of the original execution: a blonde, say, instead of a brunette. I once thought of an analogy when I was creative director of a P&G agency. P&G monitored ‘wear out’ but they had the concept of a ‘pool out’ (it may have been ‘pull out’, I was never sure). I said that a real campaign was like a CD on which one artist (the brand) sang different songs on a similar theme, whereas a ‘pool out’ was like having slightly different singers singing the same song. There don’t seem to be many real campaigns today, though the point still applies.

The mention of P&G brings me to another issue. P&G usually had branded products that had demonstrable category benefits in the days when first mover advantage really was an advantage. These days, if your brand comes up with something new and relevant, it will be copied very quickly. (And as Ehrenberg pointed out some years ago, if it’s not relevant, nobody copies you.) What this means, except for entirely new markets and categories, is that every brand offers the same benefits. So instead of rational points of comparison, the emphasis is much more on the softer, emotional aspects of brands, what they stand for, and how they communicate.

This is much harder for everyone, particularly clients, as they and their agencies do not always spend time doing ‘the creative work before the creative work’ or agreeing the criteria for the brief and for success. So it is increasingly not just what you say that matters, but how you say it. When analysis might show that you have no USP or no true insight (and some clients disappear up their own fundament looking for one), the temptation is to rely on execution, or rather a message plus an execution, side-stepping the need for an idea.

Of course, executions can be ideas. But music is not an idea (though occasionally it can be). A celebrity is not an idea, though he or she can be if who they are fits the brand (see George Lois’ book ‘$ellebrity’, and much of Collett’s 70s and 80s work – below).

Analogies or metaphors – what John Webster called ‘bang bang! speaking of guns….’ are not, though again, sometimes they can be, if the main point is central (Sony’s ‘Balls’ for example). Executions are more likely to be ideas when there is a brand idea in the first place. If a team working on Kit Kat comes up with an ad and someone asks them what the idea is, they will say ‘Panda comes out while photographer turns his back’ or ‘Cops and Robbers pull over for a chat in the middle of a chase’.

Perhaps one of the problems is that advertisers can no longer afford to run more than one ad at a time and lose sight of the long-term nature of both the brand and brand communication. Some people suggest that every brand communication should be different, to get the brand constantly looked at anew, rather than the older approach of keeping the relationship fresh. Depends on the brand, the consumer and the relationship. But is there a short-term view of brands that mirrors a short-term approach in business generally? Surely brand value is partly calculated on the future worth of the brand, not just its present sales and stocks?

A recent McKinsey study looked at how many companies fail to strike a balance between long and short-term goals. Many businesses complain that financial markets focus on quarterly results not strategies for longer term value, but the evidence suggests this isn’t the case: “expectations of future performance are the main driver of shareholder value.” Yet according to McKinsey, in a recent survey the majority of managers would give up a decent return on capital if they were going to miss their quarterly earnings expectations. So, what hope the marketing director and his department? What hope a long-term campaign based on a ‘big idea’?

The digital age is an age of metrics. But the old challenges still remain: to distinguish what can be measured from what needs to be measured, and why. Possibly the most cited measure is the number of YouTube hits. Being a viral success means that people are involved with your ad enough to pass it on – a bigger, more immediate version of the pub or water-cooler ‘did you see that ad last night?’ If the client and agency are confident enough that their ad will go viral, this is one way of reducing the advertising budget. (Early examples were the great Honda ads like ‘Cog’ and ‘Grr’ which had people going to the website – see below) However, if the main aim of an ad is to go viral, there is a risk that the brief will be more an instruction to be funny, or to do something controversial, or be too cute for words, rather than a disciplined approach to produce the advertising the brand needs. A viral hit, as with an award, should be a bonus rather than the objective.

I misguidedly looked at the Super Bowl ads for inspiration. However, I did come across a blog by David Sable of Y&R, who writes: “today, in pursuit of the holy grail of clicks and shares, advertisers are pre-releasing the finished ads, too. So much for building engagement through suspense. If we think pre-releasing is such a great idea, why not pre-release the game? Seriously, folks, I’m missing the logic. If we really believe in digital channels, we are not pre-releasing — we are actually beginning the campaign…what a concept. And by the way, what ever happened to targeting?” However, I also found what I think is a pretty good advertising idea for eSurance: be the first ad in the break immediately after the game, and give away the money they saved as a prize through Twitter. They had hundreds of thousands of responses in minutes. A creative idea of a different sort, surely.

So what ads have I seen that in my view are based on an idea? Very few. (Maybe any readers could suggest some ads they think have an idea, and tell us what that is?) The new Guinness ad (below) started me thinking. For me this is essentially sponsored entertainment, which seems to be increasingly popular, as digital channels don’t suffer the same restrictions on time or content. Despite its hanging comparative, I guess Guinness does have a campaign idea, and I’m sure the hunt is on worldwide for people who are in some way different (in a moreish way). To me, the Heineken ‘Legends’ campaign is similar in approach.

The new Axe/Lynx ad is an interesting departure, which this time puts love before sex. (One way Axe has kept its campaign fresh over the years is through the naming of the variants, in this case ‘Peace’.) Whether or not this is seen as amusing or exploitative, I’m not sure, but Axe has been a great campaign of this generation (to compare with, among others, the Heineken, Hamlet, John Smiths and Stella ads of old).

The Thomson Holidays spot (below) is a good old-fashioned idea that stands out from the usual January travel industry ads (though I hope it stands out enough for brand attribution, as it is a generic concept). The new Old Spice campaign is an amusing enough take on the insight/observation that boys grow up and leave their mothers (not in a recession they don’t!), and using aftershave is one rite of passage. Finally, for the moment, the new Land Rover ad: perhaps a more subtle idea, but a perfect fit between the brand and what it stands for, with gentle and very English wit in the filming as well as the idea.

One last plea for good campaigns, which need to be based on ideas: one ad constantly repeated will irritate or be fast-forwarded pretty damn quickly.

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About Giles Keeble

Giles Keeble started as a rep (account man) at JWT before moving to BMP. There Stanley Pollitt told him that JWT’s Stephen King had wanted him to become a planner. John Webster encouraged him to become a writer but after a number of years Giles moved to French Gold Abbott and, for a while, did become a planner of sorts. Returning to writing he went to David Abbott’s new agency AMV followed by WCRS and was then ECD of Leo Burnett for six years. He then returned to AMV before moving to Publicis and then Lowe in Hong Kong at the inception of the ‘World’s Local Bank’ campaign for HSBC. He now works as a writer and strategist as well as running advertising courses for senior clients.