The big idea: There's an algorithm for that

It's easy to find big ideas with the 20/20 vision of hindsight, but the industry lacks a formula for creating them, says Havas LuxHub's global strategy director.

Slogans: ad professionals claim Nike’s 'Just Do It' tapped into runners’ culture
Slogans: ad professionals claim Nike’s 'Just Do It' tapped into runners’ culture

"Let’s prove to the world," said DDB’s Bill Bernbach, "that good taste, good art, good writing can be good selling." The whole advertising industry since has been based on this simple assertion. 

Because of it, the industry created the elaborate brand communication programs and tracked their effects on parts of people’s behaviour that they could see: their product purchases. 

Then it tied these effects back to their brand communication and claimed that this communications play a critical role in how consumers choose products. 

The only problem is the mechanism of this influence has been, at best, different each time. The same as with such constructs like influencer marketing, Super Bowl ad buy or viral marketing – there is still very little agreement in the industry about the ways that make them successful in commercial and cultural sense. 

In fact, the situation is so dire that analysis of the top 15 slogans of the twentieth century reveals there is not a single rule on what makes an efficient slogan.

There is an opinion in advertising that artistic savvy, inspiration and a healthy dose of mystery should be celebrated. "The great idea in advertising is in the realm of myth," American sociologist and marketing expert Leo Bogartonce said. And people still believe it; just look at Ogilvy, DDB and BBDO and their strong cult of the founder, despite the fact that those same founders haven’t been among us for decades.

The only mystery here, sadly, is the assumption that industry professionals are able to predict what so-called great idea will have an effect, and what this effect will be. When admen use examples of successful brand communication, they always do it in retrospect.

Simply, they do not know which brand message or a campaign will become successful — until it does.

One would think that this prodigious example of circular reasoning would stop the ad industry from treating each success story as a sufficient explanation – a proof of its own success. No such luck.

Advertising professionals claim that Nike’s widely known slogan 'Just Do It' tapped into runners’ culture, that 'Got Milk?' campaign resonated well with the target, and that Coca-Cola’s 'It's the Real Thing' was successful because it conveyed brand essence.

For slogans and logos that failed to rise to prominence, the explanations are similarly retrospective. They "missed the target," "projected the wrong image" or "didn't resonate with the audience."

But why and, more importantly, how, a specific brand message or a campaign creative rose to its commercial and cultural prominence remains blissfully obscured.

It is best to admit that we simply do not know how a campaign ends up having a commercial and cultural impact. Sure, there are the Effies, the Webby Awards and the likes, but they also measure the already achieved results. They simply say, "Hey, this campaign was successful! Let’s give it an award."

In simpler times, when brand communication depended on mass media, the industry had to assert the cultural and commercial impact of its brand messages.

It shouldn’t surprise us that this industry-media dynamic failed to take into account how everything else besides brand communication also influences consumers’ choices.

What’s our excuse today? We can observe, track, measure and optimise all those hidden and unexpected connections and influences that are external to brand communication, automatic ad buys and influencer programs, which critically shape consumers’ preferences and product choices. 

The fastest growing businesses of the past five years are already doing this. Alan Tisch, co-founder of the hottest app in town, Spring, will tell you that he and his team knows exactly the Net Promoter Score of each of his customers and that they prorate their email drop based on whether and how often those emails are opened up.

Spring’s repeat customer rate is about 2.5 times the typical rate for other e-commerce platforms.

Rent-the-Runaway is a game changer, not because it brought collaborative consumption to luxury, but because its software algorithms juggle the inventory of 65,000 dresses across 5 million members.

Netflix can not only recommend to you what to watch next, but it created a several Emmy-winning shows based on its viewership and content preferences data crunching.

There’s no mystery here and that’s a good thing. Offering amazing service based on customers’ behaviours sounds drab by traditional advertising standards, but, in fact, it requires creativity, savvy and imagination unseen in the industry.

The role of the next generation of advertising professionals is to come up with ideas that work, as validated in their real-time commercial and cultural impact.

Once we are able to create a business case for an idea, efficacy of advertising won’t anymore be asserted – but proven.

Ana Andjelic is senior vice president, global strategy director, for Havas LuxHub

This article was first published on

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