Why advertising needs creativity now more than ever

Advertising is more ubiquitous than ever before, but with ubiquity has come resentment and irritation. As the industry indulges in yet another round of soul-searching, it’s time for creative thinking and risk-taking to return to the forefront

A recent article by Ian Leslie in the FT did an excellent job in laying out the ad industry’s woes. In the rush towards digital, it said, advertising had forgotten its core strength – using emotion to create work that was funny, powerful, lovable – and had become obsessed with data and new technologies.

Ads on Facebook, apps, all over the internet – remember when we were told that the old days of ‘interruptive’ advertising were over? These new formats are more interruptive – and annoying – than ever. Which is why audiences are increasingly turning to ad blockers.

Leslie’s portrayal of an industry that’s lost its way is not a particularly new story – anyone involved in advertising would have noticed the malaise over the last few years, with once-great agencies, known particularly for their creativity, increasingly making mediocre and often obscure work. (Obscurity is a quality that should never, ever be associated with advertising, but in the rush to try and keep up with new tech trends, this is what we’ve come to as agencies and brands create work for platforms that will be seen by a tiny minority of the public. And unfortunately this kind of work is often encouraged by awards schemes.) Leslie’s ability to lay it all out in stark, jargon-free terms was compelling though and as a result has begun to be be used as a rallying call for a turning away from digital and a return of the ‘golden age’ of epic TV ads.

This, to me, is to miss the point. Yes, great TV ads work (The John Lewis and Sainsbury’s Xmas ads prove this in spades), but most TV ads nowadays are forgettable too. And when exactly was this supposed ‘golden age’ anyway? As this recent Ad Age article points out, there never really was one, we just filter out the bad stuff and only remember the goodies.

It isn’t the medium that is really the issue here, it is the dearth of really great ads appearing in any form anymore.

For with the creeping introduction of data and an obsession with reach and efficiency, has come a slow erosion of bold creative work, the kind of work that gets people talking, and, crucially, sharing – surely a primary goal in the digital age.

While the most obvious place to see a resurgence of creative work is via TV (after all, we’ve had 30 years to hone this craft, so certainly know how to do it well), it is not impossible to make great, creative work for the digital world too – Stinkdigital’s recent project with Google which took viewers inside the Abbey Road Studios, for example, or Chris Milk’s groundbreaking Wilderness Downtown project for Arcade Fire, or even, looking further back into the past, Burger King’s Subservient Chicken are all fine examples of how the web can be a medium for expansive, and fun, creativity. It is hard to do these kinds of projects of course – the digital age is still in its infancy and we are all trying to figure out how best to use its immense possibilities – but when we get them right, they can be just as compelling as blockbuster TV ads.

Abbey2
Stinkdigital and Google take viewers inside the Abbey Road Studios
Stinkdigital and Google take viewers inside the Abbey Road Studios

Even social media can be a useful and fun place for brands, if they find an interesting, and yes, creative way of using it. Brands such as Waterstones and Marmite have built huge followings on Twitter and Facebook by posting witty, interesting and relevant content, while back in 2010 Old Spice used social media to brilliant effect in its Responses campaign.

And while we may whinge about all the advertising on social media, apps and the web, by our gleeful embrace of ‘free’ content online, we are partly responsible for creating this beast. Facebook, Twitter – their business models rely on advertising.

Maybe we would be more accepting of ads in these spaces if they were just better. A recent campaign by Diesel, for example, proved that creativity could even enliven programmatic advertising, which by feeding you ads from sites you have just been looking at is often the creepiest form of advertising around.

From Diesel's recent campaign by Spring Creative
From Diesel’s recent campaign by Spring Creative
Burger King's famous Subservient Chicken
Burger King’s famous Subservient Chicken

So while there is indeed major cause for concern about advertising and the ad industry, this is surely not a time to obsess over whether we should be making TV ads, or digital ads or hey, even radio ads. What we should be concerned about is why there aren’t more bold, exciting, fun, creative risks been taken, whatever the medium. For that is the work that really gets people talking, sharing and yes, even caring about brands.

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Kingston University

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