Atomic’s Jon Goulding: to solve the creative crisis in advertising we need a sledgehammer, not a lemon

One of the big take-home lessons of Eff (Effectiveness) Week 2019 was that there seems to be a growing and glaring creative crisis in advertising. The UK’s Institute of Practitioners in Advertising (IPA), which ran the event, made clear its concern that media agencies are taking over from creative in setting the client agenda, and that data is beginning to direct and dictate everything. Janet Hull, the director of marketing strategy of the IPA, said it was time to “transform our creative culture for the digital era.”

All the information surrounding long-term effectiveness proves beyond doubt that there is a crisis of creativity in advertising. All such evidence suggests that the epicentre of this crisis is the bigger, above-the-line broadcast media, where the work can too often be unoriginal, even prosaic. But as marketers continue to focus on data-driven and responsive campaigns — and therefore rational, rather than emotional, creativity — you can’t help but wonder: is the tide of short-termism too strong for creative agencies to swim against?

What we do know is that the IPA’s rallying cry to the creative industry is much needed. And the IPA’s new publication, ‘Lemon’ by System 1’s Orlando Wood (below), contains some good ‘hints and tips’ on how to reverse the trend. But our ability as an industry to genuinely embrace this challenge goes beyond promoting the virtues of emotionally led creative ideas. So in the spirit of offering some additional practical help, here are some thoughts.

Solve the talent problem

First, we have to stop the creative talent drain in the industry. Advertising today simply does not attract the same calibre of creative talent as it did 20 or 30 years ago. High-rolling, high-end content-creators such as Apple, Google, Netflix and Amazon are draining the pool of emotional and entertaining creative talents. It’s pretty tough to compete with companies like these, but we must at least incentivise creative talent properly, with better salaries and long-term ‘skin in the game.’ This is a minimum requirement if we want to create work that has a lasting emotional effect. We might just create an ad that’s better than the TV content it sits in between.

Don’t settle for the mediocre

Then there’s the question of budget. Unfortunately, great emotionally-led advertising ideas cost money. Budgets are not rising overall, and so clients are under pressure to spend the same production budget across an increasingly dizzying array of channels. A £300,000 production for an above-the-line campaign this year becomes £200,000 next year, and the difference is spent trying to operate across 25 more channel formats than we had before.

We need media agencies, with creative agencies and clients working together, to resist the temptation to be everywhere with something mediocre. At the same time, creative agencies need to affirm their ideas if they truly believe in them and put their money with their mouths are. If, on the basis you’ll make a blockbuster ad for your client, you take on risk (just as talent does in Hollywood), that client is more likely to buy it.

Create work that goes ‘high’ and ‘across’— not ‘diagonal’

Creative agencies must also take responsibility for the emotional quality control of the ideas they create and present to their clients. The industry seems to be stuck in the view that the proliferation of digital and response-driven channels means rational creative thinking is polluting its ability to create emotional work. But it wasn’t long ago that advertising, direct marketing and sales promotion flourished in rational and emotional silos: a proliferation of rational, response-driven comms didn’t seem to harm our ability to make great ATL campaigns then.

We need to be more disciplined as agencies so we can create campaign ideas that can go emotionally ‘high’ as well as rationally ‘across’ the customer journey. What we see today are more ‘diagonal’ ideas, which work well across every channel—but don’t exactly get the pulse racing.

Improve as well as judge

But the so-called ‘creative measurement experts,’, such as System 1, also play their part. They may be a fashionable means of measuring whether advertising is effective, but, by their own admission, they cannot help agencies or clients become more creative in the first place. In my experience, there is a world of difference between having a research company mark your homework half-way through and finding someone highly creative who can genuinely improve it.

Research companies and the tools they provide must be approached carefully, then, because they have the ability to snub out creativity before it gets a chance to fly. As the great Bill Bernbach — Mr Lemon himself — once said, “an idea can turn to dust or magic, depending on the talent that rubs against it.” The reality is that companies like System 1 are an example of that ‘talent,’ and how they foster creativity is as important as how they judge it.

As the leader of an independent creative agency, I have to believe this trend is reversible, however challengingcthat may seem. The IPA, meanwhile, has taken up the task of reversing the creative crisis with zeal, and that can only be a good thing for the agencies it represents. What the IPA mustn’t do now is talk only to itself: the agencies it speaks for are aware of the creative crisis and the need to solve it.

What we need to do instead, to inspire real change and tackle some of the issues I’ve listed above, is to get clients involved in the conversation. If that happens, then the productive work can begin. And that means getting the IPA and ISBA — the voice of the client in the ad world—in a room together. A joint commitment to improving creativity can follow and we’ll be on the right track.

Jon Goulding is CEO of London creative agency Atomic.

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