What They Said: Believing in the Creative Idea

I am an inveterate collector of quotations. I keep a book at home filled with favorite sayings, quotes and poems; at work, I have a running list of quotations specific to advertising, design, creativity, and the inner workings and daily activities of this crazy business.

While digging for a quote recently, I rediscovered the following paeans to the power of a great idea, offered in the right medium to the chosen audience:

Creativity is one of the last remaining legal ways of gaining an unfair advantage over the competition.

- Ed McCabe

Properly practiced, creativity can make one ad do the work of ten.

- Bill Bernbach

You might argue that these two ad agency creative mavens had the good fortune to work in advertising’s Golden Era, when agencies were given virtual carte blanche to create terrific campaigns, and serve them to a mass TV audience for maximum effect. I would argue that McCabe, Bernbach and their brethren (and a few sisters) made the Golden Era memorable with their “big idea” approach to marketing. At a seminal moment in the ad biz, these creative icons shifted from mere selling to brand-building, and made those brands the focus of water-cooler conversations and kaffeeklatsch discussions across the nation.

Today, branding is more involved, tangled across multiple channels and trying to reach disparate audiences, working without the huge benefit of a single “mass” vehicle. TV remains strong, but its reach has been more than halved in the past 15 years as younger digital audiences migrated to other channels; print and radio reach has also declined, and ad skipping has become routine. This fueled the rise of brand storytelling, where multiple channels are incorporated in brand building, inviting loyalists and new audiences to discover and interact with brands. Only on Super Bowl weekend do we really see a return of the mass audience television once delivered… which is why so many brands jump into the Ad Bowl every year.

In an environment where traditional channels’ reach and impact are greatly reduced, can the “big idea” survive? Look around, and you’ll find many examples.

  • Snickers’ “You’re Not You When You’re Hungry,” six years old.
  • Coca-Cola’s “Open Happiness,” a six-year campaign just wrapped in favor of reviving a past tagline, “Taste the Feeling”
  • Geico’s Gecko campaign, now in his seventeenth year (although I really enjoy the “It’s What You DO” spots – the Tarzan a & Jane entry is a winner)
  • Travelocity’s Roaming Gnome, “Go and Smell the Roses.”
  • Subaru’s “LOVE” campaign, saluting the product’s legendary longevity.
  • IBM’s “Smarter Planet” effort, begun in 2008.

In truth, the big idea is now even bigger, as it must span a wider range of media and touch points to engage with multiple audiences through multiple tactics and devices. The keys to this creative approach are consistency and good storytelling. Snickers launched it’s campaign with a Super Bowl ad featuring Robin Williams; a more recent entry spoofs the Marilyn Monroe subway grate scene from “The Seven Year Itch” with Willem Dafoe as the “not you” persona. Subaru continues to roll out adorable golden retriever “Dog Tested” ads, mixed with off-road adventures and trusty longevity ads built around passing the family Subaru to the next generation.

A well-crafted message only has worth if it leaves the hands of the craftsman and makes it all the way to others’ hearts.

- John Maeda, interaction designer and president of the Rhode Island School of Design, 2010

So, as we try to craft campaigns and messaging for our clients, remember that a great idea still has the power to move people, and draw them to a brand.

[The big idea -] Solving a specific communications problem with an audacious blend of words and images that catch people’s eyes, penetrate their minds, warm their hearts, and cause them to act.

- George Lois


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