Giles Keeble: when is an advertising idea actually an idea?

“Nobody knows anything”- the late William Goldman’s famous words about the movie business. Does that also apply to advertising? Is advertising an art or a science? Of course, it’s a bit of both.

As in science, you need to ask the right questions to know what the problem is- problem as in something that needs to be solved. You need analysis to look for the best strategy, and then you need creativity to bring it to life and make it memorable. There is plenty of evidence that creativity and effectiveness are linked, but it may not always be clear until hindsight how that worked. Paul Feldwick once cited a successful Israeli ad that was effective but deliberately gibberish. We all have examples of work where we were confident the strategy was right and the work was great but the results were not. Hunches or gut feeling can work, but what Goldman calls an ‘educated guess’ is a result of experience and being interested in people and the world.

In advertising, perhaps the best we can do is to go with the best hypothesis, but the hypotheses are needed. James Webb Young’s little book ‘A technique for producing ideas’ makes the point: understand and question the brief (another area entirely), immerse yourself in the product and the market, be interested in what is going on in the world (not just art and culture), drop everything, let it ferment, and you will get an ‘idea’. Though as Young says, there is no guarantee it will be a good idea. What you come up with needs to be ‘tested’ (not necessarily by research but by getting opinions). But that leads to this question: what is an ‘idea’?

I bumped into Paul Weinberger recently and we agreed that most advertising these days is ‘slice of life’ and lacks an idea, though of course an ad with an idea can be dramatised realistically. But what an idea is, is nebulous. I don’t think ‘you know one when you see one’ is good enough though. When Sarah Snoxall and I wrote and ran workshops for senior marketeers around the world we tried to break it down into the ‘what’ and the ‘how.’ The ‘what’ is the message: what do you want to get across? The ‘how’ is the way in which you do that, and in simple terms is the ‘idea.’ Even then, it isn’t easy because an ‘idea’ isn’t simply an execution: say a talking head rather than two women in the kitchen telling you the ‘what.’ And of course, it gets difficult when you are looking for a campaign ‘idea’ compared to an ‘idea’ for a new ad in an existing campaign: for example,

KitKat’s campaign idea was ‘Have a break’, which fitted both the occasion and the product characteristics, but if a team was working on a new ad for the campaign and came up with a script, they’d still be asked ‘What’s the idea?’ which would be an executional idea – a photographer trying to get a shot of a panda in the Zoo (below) rather than Andy Capp.

So why aren’t there more ‘ideas’? Perhaps they’ve all been done already – but then find a fresh way of doing, say, a side by side. Perhaps the disciplines have changed so that social media etc has not settled down enough for clients and agencies to seek ‘ideas’ as a differentiator? However, a recreation of people using/enjoying the brand is not in itself an ‘idea’. And please, if you do do slice of life advertising at least cast well and make the film believable. Music is not in itself an idea either.

I’ll finish with a few examples. There is a Dacia car called a ‘Duster’. The music for ‘Ghostbusters’ has been bought and the words changed to ‘Go Duster’ with various badly shot and acted scenes in which people shout the phrase. Does it communicate there is a new car? Yes. Is it a good ad? No. So once again it comes down to whether or not the people involved really care.

McDonald’s has an ongoing campaign about getting your money’s worth, an expression of a ‘value proposition’. They have come up with some well observed ‘executional ideas’, often an amusing expression of the proposition. Finally, a good ad for KFC. I can only guess the brief but it must have been something about chicken not being the bird of choice for the Xmas period (I doubt whether that’s a serious sales issue or not but it led to a different approach.) The result is a Sergio Leone Western stand-off between a turkey and a chicken. Of course, the chicken wins, because a turkey comes and goes.

Happy New Year.

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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.