Creative Ideas in Advertising

Once the manager has specified the communication objectives for the brand and, using the core communication objectives of category need, brand awareness, and brand attitude, has selected a specific positioning strategy.  Now, the advertising agency has to create an actual advertising campaign – that is, find a way of effectively communicating the brand position.  The most effective way, in the great majority of cases, requires finding a winning creative idea.

Most-but not all-advertising campaigns depend for their success on finding a winning creative idea.  The baseline procedure would be simply to run a “straight” ad that does little more than state the brand’s position: what it is, who it’s for, and which benefit(s) the brand offers.  A straight ad can be effective in direct mail and in classified ads.  However, in most advertising situations, it is more effective to use a creative idea to convey the positioning message for the brand.

Creative Idea Defined

The “creative idea,” by its very nature, is not an easy concept to define.  It is easy to identify examples of creative ideas but difficult to formulate a general definition.

The complete components of creative strategy are the creative idea, usually, and the ad’s message content and its executional tactics, which together (in the media schedule) must achieve the brand’s communication objectives and brand position.  Thus:

(creative idea + message content + executional tactics) X media schedule = communication objectives and brand position

The message content (what to say) is largely dictated by the manager’s brief to the agency stating the communication objectives and desired position for the brand.  The agency is responsible for how to say or show it best, which consists of a creative idea, in most cases, and executional tactics.

Basically, the creative idea refers to the choice of an interesting way to express the brand position in an advertising format.  The virtual necessity of a creative idea comes from the realisation that rarely can we simply print the brand’s positioning statement on a page (or film the words for TV, or record them for radio) and thereby produce an effective ad.

What is needed is a creative idea to translate the positioning statement into an effective ad. Whereas it must be admitted that some ads are little more than a straightforward elaboration of the positioning statement (and that there are situations, as we shall see, in which a straight ad is recommended), usually a creative idea is needed to breathe life into the positioning statement and thereby turn it into a compelling ad.

A creative idea is one choice from a virtually infinite number of ways of expressing the positioning statement and thus the intended brand position.  Of course, what the advertiser is looking for is a highly effective choice-to provide a “real winner” campaign.  Such winners are usually based on what advertising agencies call a “big idea.”

What’s the Big Idea? 

John O’Toole, former President of the American Association of Advertising Agencies, described the big idea as a “flash of insight that synthesises the purpose of the strategy, joins the product benefit with desire in a fresh, involving way, brings the subject to life, and makes the reader or the audience stop, look, and listen.””

The Power of Simplicity.

It is also the belief of many creative experts that “amazing simplicity” is the hallmark of a great creative idea.  It means putting your proposition forward with such simplicity that people are both astonished and moved by it…. the truly great ads have a certain simplicity and directness of purpose that makes them incredibly powerful.” The creative idea must, however, represent the brand’s positioning statement.

The creative idea can also be defined as:

1.   An attention-getting and catalytically relevant representation of the brand position

2.   Generated in a form that is detailed enough to be executed and tested

3.   And (necessary in most cases) amenable to multiple executions.

Let us now look at  some of the components of the definition.

An attention-getting and catalytically relevant representation of the brand position.  The creative idea must be attention-getting, first of all.

Second, the creative idea must be catalytically relevant.  A catalyst is something that increases the rate of a chemical reaction.  In this case, the chemical reaction is between the brand’s positioning strategy and the consumer’s understanding of it (the result is the brand position).  The creative idea is playing the role of the catalyst by helping to initiate and speed up this reaction.  However, while the positioning strategy is being communicated more effectively by the creative idea, the creative idea must not change the positioning strategy itself

Adherence to the positioning strategy turns the creative idea into an effective ad, rather than just a creative ad.  Therefore, we exclude as irrelevant creative ideas that are “simply creative” without being capable of selling the brand.

Everyone can point to examples of highly creative campaigns in which the creative people seemed to be entertaining themselves rather than helping to position the product

The well-known saying in advertising that “It ain’t creative unless it sells”.  The idea has to be creative and it has to be relevant to the brand’s position-then it will sell.

Most people tend to think of a creative idea-and indeed a positioning strategy-as referring exclusively to the brand benefit or benefits .  However, positioning also requires a product category location decision and a choice between user-as-hero and product-as-hero focus.

What if the creative idea changes the positioning strategy? 

The notion of “catalytically relevant” implies that the creative idea must dramatise the positioning strategy without changing it.  However, in more cases than clients care to admit, the creative idea produced by the agency is so good, or the original positioning strategy so vague-or both-that the creative idea, in a reversal of the normal process, redefines or becomes the positioning strategy (this “tactic-first” approach“-which must be acknowledged as a variant of normal advertising planning-is best used iteratively.

Consumers see the advertising, not the strategy statement. This leaves the door open for the reverse process, whereby a great creative idea can lead to a better positioning-strategy statement than the advertiser had previously been able to formulate.”

Therefore, despite our definition’s stipulation that the positioning strategy remain unchanged by the creative idea, we have to allow for the possibility of a change for the better-that is, the creative idea might actually provide a better positioning strategy than was initially devised for the brand.

Generated in a form that is detailed enough to be executed and tested.    The creative idea must be sufficiently detailed to allow it to be executed as an ad.  Generally, for ad testing purposes, it is a truism that you cannot test an “idea” but only an execution of that idea.  You can only indirectly test a creative idea-by “sampling” it in the form of several executions , A creative idea is not an ad.  Rather, it is a “prescription” for an ad or for a series of advertising executions.  As such, the creative idea must be expressed in sufficient detail to serve as a rough script for its execution.

And be amenable to multiple executions. 

In most cases, a creative idea has to be “campaignable.” We say “in most cases” because sometimes a creative idea only has to be used once.  But, in most cases, the creative idea has to provide the “creative platform” for a pool or series of ads that will be needed in the advertising campaign for the brand.

The theory of random creativity

The generation of “winning” creative ideas can be mostly regarded as a random process.  This does not mean pure luck; obviously, some advertising agencies are more skilled at producing winners than others, as are individual copywriters or art directors.  However, there is undoubtedly a large element of chance in coming up with a winning creative idea-and, if so, the more times you try to do so, by and large, the greater your odds of finding a winner.  This theory is not new.  It was first proposed by Gross in 1967.

Although the creative idea may be a random choice, this does not mean that the whole process of advertising and promotion planning is random.

Rather, after careful and systematic planning of marketing objectives, target audience selection and action objectives, and communication objectives and positioning, it is the agency’s main input that is random-the creative idea.  But it is very risky indeed for the plan not to be there in the first place.  In particular, you’d have no objectives against which to evaluate the potential of the independently suggested creative idea.

The theory of random creativity is based on one major theoretical principle and four supplementary principles.  The major theoretical principle is that the more creative ideas that are generated and tested, the more likely you are to come up with an “extreme positive” idea that is a “real winner.”

Cost Limits

There is a limit to the number of creative ideas that can be generated and tested, due to cost.  In the extreme case, you could spend a lot of money having your agency generate and test a large number of creative ideas-to the point where you have nothing left over in your media budget to spend on the winning idea!  However, we will see that this theoretical limit, where the cost of generating and testing creative ideas exceeds the profitability of the winning idea, is a very large number that is nowhere near reached in practice, even for relatively small-budget campaigns.


10 thoughts on “Creative Ideas in Advertising

  1. The “creative idea” is something that needs to be retaught. This article helps. True creativity is sorely lacking in our current left brain marketing world but thankfully is coming back as marketers realize that bean counting can only go so far in brand and image building.

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