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Giles Keeble: why there’s still a role for creativity in the age of social media and ChatGBT

After my last column about how many of the award winning as ads of the 70s and 80s would not be acceptable (or approved) today, I got one comment: ‘OK Boomer.’

Without doubt, many things have changed, not just what is or isn’t acceptable. On reflection, I thought I’d feed the 40 plus pieces I’ve written for MAA into ChatGBT and see what emerged.

The message is not necessarily the Idea. The Idea is the way in which the message is put across and can be the difference between an ad that is boring and forgettable and one that is engaging and memorable. A message without an idea is likely to be all stimulus and no response. Agreeing what an idea is, however, is not always easy. While it may be true that – as agencies sometimes claim -you know one when you see one, for most clients that is not a satisfactory explanation. You can differentiate an idea from a message but you also have to differentiate between a good idea and bad one. That is ultimately the job of a creative director, but ideas can come from anywhere and anyone, and it’s the team that can make or break them.

Humour is important. That is not to say all ads should be funny or witty just that creativity is – as Arthur Koestler once wrote – ‘most clearly revealed in humour and wit.’ Wit refers to humour and to inventiveness. In his view, creativity covers three areas: Haha! Aha! and Ah…! Responses of amusement, of understanding and of emotion. One definition of creativity is that it is the combination of previously unconnected things.

What is the role of the advertising? In client workshops I helped run, many of them didn’t know what this meant. Yes, the ultimate purpose is to sell, but how? To get across a new ingredient? A new positioning? By an appeal to a new audience? What do you want people to do as a result of seeing the advertising? I have mentioned Stephen King’s ‘Scale of Immediacy’ more than once. It is a useful tool.

A good brief is important, but so is the briefing. By the time a brief is finally agreed with a client, the creative team may have already come up with some ideas. The process leading to the final brief should be based on a good understanding of what the brand’s issues are and whether advertising can help, followed by open-minded exploration of possibilities. These should be based wherever possible on good data, hard or soft. That would be a good start. But a brief needs to be single-minded: a tight brief is liberating but a brief should not be prescriptive, which can lead to messages not ideas. In a fishing analogy, Jeff Goodby said a good brief can suggest places that might have fish but not how to catch them. While the examples in it are old, Jon Steel’s book is terrific on the brief and briefing. Use simple questions: What? Why? Who? How? Where?

Good creative people are often good planners; and good planners need to be creative.

There aren’t many true insights. The danger is that in being determined to find an insight you end up with one that is irrelevant. This may start in R&D with the search for a new ingredient or flavour or gizmo. I think it was Ehrenberg who pointed out that if you come up with something that makes a difference to sales, then your competition will soon follow. You will find out it’s irrelevant when nobody copies you. Good, accurate, relevant human observation is better than a pointless insight.

Underlying this is Research, often a dirty word in creative departments. The problem is not research itself, but the fact that much of it is rubbish. We measure what we are able to measure, which is not the same as what needs to be understood. Research needs intuition and creativity as well as data-based logic. Not just what but what if? It is very hard to research something which is completely different, so much of ad research is judged by what is what is already known not what is unfamiliar. This results in a recession to the mean. Clients who spend a lot of money on research to meet predetermined criteria and satisfy their bosses often risk much more money on the media cost of running boring unmemorable ads than on making great ads.

So what is the future of creativity in advertising? Film as a medium isn’t dead though ads on TV are on the critical list. There are print ads and posters, but the art of copywriting seems to need resuscitation. AI may be a threat to writers, art directors and therefore to ideas. What AI is capable of doing is advancing fast. For example, it can now come up with jokes, a few of which may – in a modern monkey and typewriter way – even be funny. But would one robot ever find another robot’s joke funny? So I believe there will always be a role for Creative Directors to apply their instinct, experience and humanity to what AI comes up with; and that applies to the whole team. Algorithms will need to be accompanied by critical thinking. Otherwise, advertising will just be a business run by account people to sell things without any care for, or understanding of, the role of creativity. But I suppose that isn’t so different from what it always has been.

Yet the role of creativity for brands is to help sell them. Many clients believe the opposite, despite the strong evidence for the link between creativity and long-term effectiveness presented by Peter Field and Les Binet for the IPA based on 24 years of advertising awards. Long-term is the key but it seems that a combination of channel proliferation, especially ‘social media’, has resulted in more short-term campaigns (if they can be called campaigns) and creative juries are giving some of this work awards. It isn’t that some of the work isn’t outstanding, just that it has meant the correlation between creativity and effectiveness has significantly weakened because we are not seeing the kinds of long-term creative campaigns of the past. This will be a great challenge for agencies and their clients.

Perhaps the creativity that exists within the business can be applied more broadly than just to ads. New products, new markets, new ways of looking at things. And maybe it will help tackle some of the many difficult and important problems the world is now facing. A tribute to Howard Gossage sums up what we should still aim for: he “struggled to make advertising something that involved people at the upper levels of their capabilities; that searched for the audience’s highest common denominator rather than its lowest. He advocated and created a kind of work that invited involvement from the audience, that went out to them on their own terms and got them to laugh, think, send something in, make a suggestion, appreciate something they might never have noticed.” I think that is a timeless ambition.

So, to adapt the words of the late John Ebdon, this Boomer would just like to say: if you have been, thanks for reading.

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