Courage, mes braves

Clients must not be allowed to use the downturn – and the risk avoidance it encourages – to emasculate and neuter the creative process, argues David Bernstein

Good ads have one thing in common. They surprise. Of course, not all surprising ads are good. The qualification is brand relevance.

Surprise is of two sorts. The first elicits the reaction, ‘Wow’. The recipient is taken aback by the strangeness or originality of the message or image. The second elicits a more subdued, but more deeply felt reaction, ‘Of course’. The surprise is one of recognition, of having your own thoughts confirmed and more sharply expressed. ‘Of course’, you say, because the solution is a perfect fit, it seems obvious. Why hasn’t anybody thought that before?

Creative peers may ask a related question, ‘Why didn’t I think of that?’, or possibly ‘Why didn’t that think of me?’. The inspired solution was seemingly already present in the ether, ready to drop into a receptive mind. It could have been anybody’s.

To believe that, you probably need a mechanistic view of the creative process. Sadly, many people on both sides of the consultancy/client divide hold such a view. To some, ads and designs are no different from manufactured items.

One major advertiser has spent decades attempting to institutionalise creativity. Preferring prescriptive rules to descriptive guidelines, it would attempt to devise systems to control the manufacture of ideas. I was called in late last century to join a working party. Prior to my initial meeting I was given a document outlining the group’s thinking so far. It was entitled ‘Germination’.

I was encouraged. The word suggested organic growth, the crucial nurturing of ideas, careful cultivation.

The text, however, suggested no such things. I had mis-read the cover. The actual title was ‘Gemination’ – the concept was ‘mining for jewels’. Ideas, it seemed, were already there and accessible if you knew where to look and excavate. There was little sense of creative generation. I withdrew.

I worry that the economic situation may encourage clients to attempt to treat creativity mechanistically, whereas their participation lies not at the heart of the creative process, but in setting a proper brief and in providing criteria by which the end product, the idea, is to be judged (both agreed with the agency).

In the recession of the late 1970s, I visited a major New York ad agency. Its creative director was downcast. Too many bean counters. Caution was the watchword, safety the quest. I am convinced that today’s environment calls for bravery. I am not advocating irresponsible risk-taking – with the brief and criteria in place, that is unlikely to happen.

What I fear are the inhibitions which fear imposes, such as choosing the safe option or de-risking an idea to the point of emasculation. The creative has to be resolute. Inner doubts can so easily be amplified by others’ caution. Compromise early and there may be no idea left worth fighting for.

One proviso. Product reality must be fused with brand excitement. Cost-conscious consumers will need reassurance of product performance. But that does not mean earnest recitals of attributes, or preclude the entertaining presentation of a distinctive brand personality. I think the biggest surprise we may be in for is a rediscovery by advertisers of what their brands are truly about, the essential promise, the specific competitive edge, rather than generic borrowed interest.

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