Truly creative advertising travels on a gravel road. Here Laurence Green, co-founder of 101 and chairman of Fallon during the time of Sony Balls, Skoda Cake and Cadbury’s Gorilla, offers some advice on how to navigate some of the twists and turns on the path to greatness…
It’s a sign of the times, maybe, but fewer clients seem to be demanding great work these days, let alone doing their bit to make it possible, writes Laurence Green. It’s positively thrilling, then, to meet the ones that do, and especially to meet those who are asking how to get to great rather than just asking for it. Because, as it turns out, that line of enquiry throws off some seriously helpful pointers for both agency and client … and not always the ones you’d expect.
So how do you get to ‘great’ creative’, the stuff that shapes rather than steals from culture, that pays back disproportionately? Too often this quest for the Holy Grail gets reduced to ‘a great idea’ or, on occasion, ‘a brave client’. But I realised that there are some under-represented and even quite contrary aspects of creative development as you tilt for great. The four things they don’t teach you at ad school, if you like.
A good brief is good enough
Strategists will often make the case for a great brief as the fount of creative inspiration, or at least take credit after the event; whole awards schemes are built in their honour. Sadly for them, the truth is that much great work springs from briefs that are merely good (and, whisper it quietly, some from no brief at all). And, indeed, that briefs that themselves aspire to greatness – perhaps inevitably – often inspire work that falls far short of that mark.
It’s partly, of course, because the ‘interference’ surrounding creative development is so material: opinion, chemistry and confidence all buffet the progress from brief to execution. Partly because a brief – however expertly reduced – will still comprise more hopes, dreams, intent and information than most creative ideas can possibly serve, and so the most useful thing for a creative team is less the whole thing being perfect than that at least one corner of it is interesting (a surprising objective, say, or an original audience insight).
Mainly because a brief is a means to an end, rather than an end itself (and therefore a weird thing to fetishise as some are inclined to do). More often than not, its job is to guide creative people imprecisely rather than precisely to some idea sweet spot, and to energise them along the way.
Here’s to the (least) Crazy Ones
I believe creative people remain the most valuable in our agencies and industry. One step removed from the problem, wired for distinctiveness and drinking from different watering holes to brand manager and strategists, they – and they alone – have the alchemical ability to reimagine brands in the blink of an eye. But the tallest of their tribe have a rare ability to inform their quest for an original solution with a sense of what’s appropriate: to the category, brand or audience.
These ‘strategic creatives’ don’t get mired in PowerPoint and indeed hold much research in tender contempt. What distinguishes them as strategists, in my opinion at least, is a genuine desire to solve the real problem (not necessarily the one that the client has passed on to the agency, or indeed the ‘account team’ to their creative colleagues; too often we set the problem we can solve most easily) and an acute sense of brand personality: of ‘what it can be’.
When Richard Flintham and Andy McLeod, my creative partners at Fallon, were briefed almost 20 years ago to celebrate the tangy taste of Marmite, and so grow penetration, they (quite rightly) rejected it. Rich loved Marmite; Andy hated it. No amount of good advertising was going to convince Andy to overcome his visceral dislike of the product; what advertising could do was to reinforce Rich’s loyalty and affection for it.
What’s more, Rich and Andy figured, any brand attached to such a polarising product could and should itself be boldly unapologetic. And so ‘Love it or Hate it’ was born, a campaign that remains as rich and true as ever despite multiple executions and reincarnations since then.
Great work is itself Marmite of course. If your idea doesn’t scare you when you have it (or scare your client when you present it) the chances are it’s not great.
Sometimes agencies kill great ideas before a client ever gets to hear about them
It’s true. For all their styling as creative radicals, agencies can be timid. Indeed it’s often the ones that shout ‘creativity’ loudest who support it most fitfully or conditionally. (Never trust the account guy who plays ‘Ride of the Valkyries’ on his car stereo en route to a creative presentation).
Agencies have the same differences of opinion as any client company (well, almost) and are just as prone to be swayed by politics, to be bullish one day, cautious the next. A mea culpa is illustrative. We presented the Gorilla script in Cadbury’s offices a week after recommending that Skoda launch the next generation Fabia not with shots of the car snaking down winding mountain passes but rather with headlights made of jelly and windscreen wipers made of liquorice. Aware I was now chancing my arm at the Creative Saloon, I sent my then Creative Director Rich Flintham a text that read: “Not sure a gorilla playing a Phil Collins drum solo wins us the Dairy Milk account.” I have kept it for years as a reminder that agency folk shouldn’t throw stones.
You don’t need a client who can buy great work. You need a client who can sell it
There is no larger fallacy in our business than ‘great work sells itself.’ Truly great work is often if not always distinguished by breath-taking originality, a break from convention of some sort that demands expert framing and impassioned advocacy. The stuff that ‘sells itself’ is the mundane retreads of existing category tropes; the very work that you must be wary of. Never is this truer than when the idea has left the client/agency frontline (where the environment for ideas can generally be considered clement) and begun its journey through the client organisation proper: most obviously those notorious badlands ‘Sales’ and ‘Legal’ but not forgetting ‘The Canteen’, a place where it seems both food and ideas go to die.
It is no consolation that your idea was ‘bought’ by the brand team when it is then ‘unbought’ by their peers. In today’s matrix management world, an idea’s best friend is not so much someone who can buy it as someone who can sell it: who not only recognises its value (or just trusts its authors) but can also navigate the falls. This will take gumption and stamina at the very least, considerable brinkmanship and even self-sacrifice: Sony Balls survived a year of scrutiny and corporate scepticism before go-ahead; Gorilla six months of the same; our original Skoda client was stood down in disgrace from the company’s European marketing committee (a few months after the campaign aired, he was promoted to CMO of Volkswagen in Asia. There’s a moral in there somewhere). And the selling must carry on once you are ‘on air’; today’s (misplaced) fashion for immediate effects demands that stakeholders keep the faith.
Great ideas are rare. Our cultures and our practices shape our ability to develop and deliver them as much, if not more so, than our imaginative potential. Whisper it quietly but our odds are much improved by a good enough brief; a creative who’s thinking about the problem, not ‘awards night’; the absence of friendly fire; and a client who can sell. Oh, and, of course, a client who asks for it in the first place.