The creative premium has never been higher. The subtlety of the best advertising now often escapes easy description, playing with tone, feel, pacing and irony in ways that the majority of work, compromised and committee driven, can’t compete with. Ideas that sounded great on paper can easily be left as gauche and unappealing failures.
This premium is a direct result of our hyper-developed media landscape. Back in the day, when the bulk of your entertainment came from four grainy channels and dog-eared Dick Francis novels, people were pretty easy to impress. This made marketing quite a bit easier, since we were all capable of producing something that could command the public’s attention span.
But now, their exposure to intricate and plentiful expanses of content has refined their palate to a level of discernment that feels distaste at even the tiniest misstep or incongruence.
This discernment has carried through to advertising, the net result being that whilst its absolute quality is the highest it’s ever been, the relative quality of advertising compared to the public’s standards is at an all-time low.
So how can we survive this situation?
The first approach, obviously, is to produce world-class ideas, executed flawlessly, and without compromise – marketing that manages to sit alongside the very best in popular culture whilst simultaneously accomplishing a commercial task.
Well, good luck with that.
Sure, it’s certainly possible, but a strategy of “do really really good work” isn’t going to carry you very far unless all of your competitors are aspiring to “do really really average work”. Obviously clients and agencies are trying to do their best, but still, somehow, it doesn’t always quite work out that way.
The second route is a touch easier. Quite simply – don’t play popular media at its own game.
The majority of marketing structurally apes popular media. It’s generally an isolated fictional narrative or vignette, residing behind four metaphorical walls. These might be the four walls of a page, of a screen, or, in the case of experiential, even the four invisible walls of a site space. Within this space, marketing tries to put on a show, communicate its message, and hope that people were paying attention.
This is exactly how the majority of entertainment works. Movies, TV shows, theatre, sport – they all take place in their own little world behind these same walls. When marketing plays the same game, it competes against them; the TV ad is compared to the TV show that surrounds it, the magazine ad is compared to the article overleaf, and the brand experience is rather like that show you watched last week – only not as good.
So, it’s fair to say that marketing would do itself a favour if it avoided this competition once in a while, and decided to play by its own rules. How? Just break that fourth wall, and deliver your message through an execution interwoven with a relevant real-life context.
Here, advertising has a trump card over popular media. We aren’t providing entertainment for entertainment’s sake; we’re providing solutions. We’re providing real advice and assistance to real people, and because of this, everything we try to say will have a relevant or useful context we can tap into in people’s real lives. By simply marrying message and context, we can open up a creative opportunity that is simultaneously obvious and original.
Take this Economist example. We can see that nothing about the message or creative treatment is particularly ground breaking. If you transposed the concept to a fictional format (say, a print ad showing a car that had just driven over the middle of a roundabout), it wouldn’t elicit a moment’s contemplation. However by simply interweaving this unremarkable concept with an appropriate real world context, it suddenly becomes a powerful piece of work.
And it gets better. Contextual approaches don’t only transform generic thinking into award-winning creative – they massively stretch your resources too. If you hijack a real-life scenario (which of course you didn’t have to create or pay for), then it becomes part of your idea, achieving scale that you’d never have approached with a fictionalised version.
For instance, the Sky Rainforest Rescue Discovery Trails programme created permanent interactive walking trails throughout forests across the UK. Practically speaking, this whole campaign amounted to a handful of printed bits of wood, and the same budget would have made for a pretty tame “forest experience” in a shopping centre. But then why bother faking it when the real thing is right there for the taking?
A forest on its own is just a forest. A forest with a sign in front of it is an idea.
The beauty of this approach is just how easy it is. It requires no outlandish creative thinking (the concepts can in fact be thoroughly mundane under the surface, though they won’t look it when you’re through with them). It simply requires you to search for a real-life moment or location where you message is relevant, and put the two things together.
So leave the entertaining to the entertainers. We’re persuaders, problem solvers and solution providers – a remit that’s far wider than putting on a song and dance routine. Wider, and for me, more exciting, too.
Published here in Marketing Magazine