How to make great ads

Is there a formula for making a great ad? When researching a new book, How 30 Great Ads Were Made: From Idea to Campaign, Eliza Williams spoke to creatives, directors, and clients about what it takes to make a successful piece of advertising. From this expert knowledge, she has compiled the following top ten tips for how to make brilliant ads

Have a great idea

An obvious beginning perhaps but one that seems rarely adhered to. Ad ideas come in many forms: they can be funny, they can be poignant, they can provide something useful to audiences or they can be pure fun. But to get people to love them, they have to be great.

Be original/take risks

One problem a great idea faces is that its power may not be immediately clear to some: who would have thought that a car made of cake could prove so charming, or that a man dressed in a chicken suit and installed in a dingy flat would become the first digital advertising phenomenon? For these ideas to come to fruition, people had to take risks: first in coming up with something unexpected, and then in bringing that idea to life.

When tasked to create an internal brand film for Johnnie Walker, BBH creative Justin Moore took an ambitious approach, and wrote a six-minute-long history of the whisky company, to be presented by Robert Carlyle as he walked through the Scottish Highlands. To make things trickier, Moore insisted it all be shot in one take. “Needless to say this caused us all a certain amount of anxiety,” he says. Yet this determination paid off, when the finished film was leaked online and became a huge hit. Moore recognises that their risky approach was quite unusual in advertising today. “We’re rather risk-averse,” he says. “We plan and research and we don’t leave room for mistakes, but mistakes can be beautiful. Mistakes are where you get to new places.”

Work with a brave client

Another essential. It’s all too easy for creatives to blame the client when things go wrong, but a truly great ad requires creative vision from both the agency and the client side. Get a team of people together who understand that, and each other, and you are on your way to making something brilliant.

Get it through research

Regardless of how much creatives may loathe it, research is here to stay. But it pays to be tactical. For example, when creatives Matt Doman and Ian Heartfield were working on the epic Guinness noitulovE ad, which sees three Guinness-drinking pals zip back through evolutionary history, they knew that they had to take a delicate approach to appease the research groups. “To get stuff through research, it’s got to be up, feel-good,” they say. “Anything dark or edgy or weird makes people nervous, so it doesn’t ever get past that first group of people in a room. You have to play a slightly different game…. It’s almost like you don’t research the ad that you really want to make; you make an ad that’s good for research, and then you change it afterwards.”

The Guinness spot went through four rounds of research as it was developed, but made it out the other side, and went on to win the hearts of its audience, as well as every ad gong going.

Know your technology

A must in these fast-moving, constantly changing times. But it also pays to know when not to use technology too. When everyone’s eagerly embracing the hot new thing, it can sometimes be better to take a different tack. An example of this can be seen in the Cadbury’s Eyebrows spot, created by Fallon. When it came to making the children’s eyebrows dance, then-ECD Richard Flintham knew that it would fall flat if they used CGI, so looked for a different method. The idea only came to fruition when director Tom Kuntz got involved. “Tom brilliantly said, ‘I’m going to puppeteer them’,” says Flintham. “So it’s just theatrical tape above and at the side of the eyebrows, and string.”

Go beyond expectation

This applies particularly to digital campaigns. If people have made the effort to search you out online, they need to be rewarded with great content and engaging stories, otherwise they will quickly move on. Burger King’s Subservient Chicken was so successful in part because its makers had spent time researching every possible answer anyone could ask the chicken man, while the narrative depth of BBDO’s Voyeur campaign for HBO proved quite literally that the TV channel could tell great stories. Treat your audience with intelligence and they will repay you.

Be patient

The advertising process, with its many participants, may drive you crazy. Lots of people will have opinions on the best way to make your ad, and while some of these will help, many may feel like a waste of time. But patiently address them you must, while firmly guiding your ad to safety. When Budweiser wanted to turn Charles Stone III’s short film into an ad titled Wassup, Stone was asked to direct but then had to watch while the agency and client alike looked at making changes. “The casting process in the beginning was very funny,” he remembers. “We did three days of looking at everybody and anybody under the sun. Obviously, the quiet mandate came down that we should open it up culturally and put some white folks in there … we probably saw over 300 guys. On the last day it was suggested that the original cast come in … immediately the agency responded, ‘We should just stick with the original cast, the chemistry is obviously there’. And I thought, ‘yeah, no shit’.”

Be tenacious

I’ve made this point already, but it’s so important it gets its own entry. You must protect your idea with your life, making sure it enters the world in its finest form. If you don’t, it will all too easily become one of those ads that are almost good, but not quite. You all know the ones I mean.


This tip is perhaps more crucial than ever in today’s ad industry, where clients are increasingly requiring talent and ideas that may be outside an agency’s typical skillset. Find the right people to collaborate with and you remain in the game. Crucially though, you must allow those you work with to fully bring their talents to bear on the project, and not turn it into a power struggle. “Let them be brilliant at what they’re brilliant at, give them that freedom,” says Michael Russoff, creative on the Honda Grrr ad, on working with directors. “I think sometimes creatives feel a bit threatened by that. It’s just crazy – if you’re going to spend a long, hard time thinking who’s the best person to direct it, when you give them the job, give them the job. Don’t get in the way of it.”

Get lucky

Well, you didn’t really think there was a magic formula, did you? A great many people I interviewed for the book talked about ‘stars aligning’ when they created great work, suggesting that fate played a part in bringing everything together. Certainly, a dose of luck is usually required to turn a good ad into a great one. However, hard work and determination go a long way too: throw a little bit of luck into the mix as well and you might just be onto a winner. 

How 30 Great Ads Were Made: From Idea To Campaign is published by Laurence King in March, and features frank anecdotes about life in advertising accompanied by previously unseen, behind-the-scenes imagery. More info is at

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