Creativity pays off

Ads lauded for creative flair have historically had to contend with the idea they don’t cultivate sales, but David Bernstein is encouraged by new research showing creativity drives results

Will 2010 go down in advertising’s annals as the year that delivered up its Holy Grail? Yes, if we are to believe the words of Thinkbox, the television marketing body for the main commercial broadcasters, ITV, Channel Four, Five, GMTV, Sky Media and Turner Media, in announcing definitive proof that creativity works, more especially that ads that win the industry’s creative awards are the most sales-effective.

Creative awards are almost as old as modern advertising. Often the criteria hovered dangerously close to those of art. The common term ’commercial art’ – meant to distinguish and separate the two forms – paradoxically encouraged a closer connection (some would term it blurring), with aesthetic appreciation overwhelming commercial consideration.

The connection was strengthened with the arrival of commercial television and the creative fraternity’s love affair with film. Before long, advertising aped Hollywood, with its own grand awards at alternately Venice and Cannes.

As a creative director, I received scores of letters of application telling me of successes in terms of prizes. Barely a tenth mentioned sales or marketing communication targets achieved.

In 1980, the Institute of Practitioners in Advertising introduced its Effectiveness Awards, which entailed rigorous examination of campaigns – not just the creative work, but also strategic and media planning. Instead of post-facto rationalisation, the IPA demanded case histories, robustly presented with convincing proof of the ’link between communication activity and commercial purpose’.

As the new awards took hold, some winning campaigns were also honoured in traditional creative award schemes, but not until 2010 had anyone thought to examine a link between lauded ideas and proven marketing success. In the words of Janet Hull, the IPA’s director of marketing, Thinkbox and the IPA decided to bring together ’two gold standard resources in their respective fields: The Gunn Report database of creatively awarded campaigns and the IPA Effectiveness databank’. Thinkbox and the IPA’s research was undertaken by an independent marketing consultant, Peter Field.

The findings, presented in June 2010 at the Soho Hotel, show a direct correlation between campaigns’ performance at creative awards and their performance ’in hard business terms in the IPA Effectiveness Awards databank between 2000 and 2008’. Moreover, asserts the IPA, ’high levels of creativity make advertising campaigns at least eleven times more efficient’.

What is this research telling us? That creative judges always knew what they were talking about, were always business aware? Or that in the past decade (the limits of The Gunn Report) they have become more shrewd? Perhaps the IPA Effectiveness Awards have had an effect, directly or indirectly, on creatives’ judgement?

One question raised by the research is what would have been the correlation in previous decades – and how has it changed? My guess is the correlation strengthened, that creative judgement became more acute, more professional – and less aesthetic.

Art moves: the art of advertising moves merchandise. They are not to be judged by the same criteria. Remember the quotation about rhetoric. ’When Cicero had finished speaking the people said, “how well he spoke”, but when Demosthenes had finished speaking the people said, “Let us march!”’ In advertising, art is a means to an end.

David Bernstein was founder of The Creative Business and is a creative consultant

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