21/03/14

Experiential: a crutch for bad ideas

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By Alex Smith, Planning Director

 

I read a great quote recently (from whom I can’t remember so I’ll just have to take the credit), that essentially said: “I don’t know why people complain about 90% of ads being shit; 90% of everything is shit. That’s the way the world works.”

I love this truism and as an excuse for disdaining everything it’s hard to beat. However, what’s particularly appealing about it is the implication that people are more than happy to buy shit.  Most families buy shit cars, most wives marry shit husbands, and of course most clients happily, if unknowingly, buy shit work.

(I suppose following it through to its logical conclusion it would also mean that 90% of clients and 90% of agencies would be shit too, which would explain this, but perhaps it’s best not to pull at that particular thread.)

 

The path to creating and buying what’s good is a complex one, paved with intelligence, taste, luck and a thousand other factors. Unfortunately, the work being “experiential” is not one of these factors – in fact, quite the opposite.

Experiential is inherently richer than other (not to mention newer) forms of advertising, and it tends to act as a shelter for weak ideas. The sophistication of the communication concepts behind most pieces of experiential wouldn’t last two seconds under ATL-level scrutiny, and as such if 90% of TV is shit, I’d venture that, sadly, 95% of experiential is.

A simple riposte to this would be to say that, outside of the highly controlled and nuanced narrative world of TV and print, experiential has to be simpler. This is absolutely true. However simple should never be a synonym for stupid or boring. All good communication ideas should be simple. Unfortunately, experiential often suffers from barely having a discernable idea at all.

Many’s the time that an experiential campaign has responded to delivering a standard message – say, “low in calories” – by slapping it as a bullet point on a leaflet or stand, or getting a member of staff to recite it as a “key message” without any thought to gaining cut through or relevance – because, hey, we’re experiential, we can do that.  The truth is identical communication challenges exist across media, because they’re all dealing with a busy, cynical, over-stimulated public – and as such it’s time to apply the same standards to judging experiential ideas as we do to ATL ones.

How is this to be done?

Put it this way. If I tell you what a great ad said, you’d get the gist of what the brand is trying to communicate – you don’t even need to see it first hand.  Take this ad for example; neat idea, delivers the message, you get a lot about the brand out of it:

With experiential it works exactly the same way, only I’m telling you what the brand did.  Action (as opposed to words and images) is our currency.  And whatever it is that the brand did, that’s the idea, and that should communicate the brand’s message – whether you experienced it first hand or not.

If I told you about that experience, even ignoring the celebrity angle, you’d totally get it, and be impressed.  How many experiential campaigns can you say that about?

Strategically smart message, nailed by fun and simple creative.  It won’t stop there being bad work out there, but it will open the floodgates for great work – and in experiential that’s a very exciting prospect.

21/03/14

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