In search of the new creative idea

Today's fast-changing media landscape demands a new way of creative thinking, yet few agencies are getting to grips with the challenges posed, largely, by the impact of digital. Laurence Green considers how they can adapt to and thrive in the modern era.

New media, just as New Labour before it, is slowly but surely losing its prefix. That consumers and advertisers alike now stare at a much-changed and fast-changing media landscape is no longer disputed. As planners, buyers and sellers of media, our industry is slowly adjusting to new conditions: most obviously the emerging dominance of the web and altered, arguably reduced, roles for TV and print. But the changing media landscape also provides - by definition - a new canvas for creative agencies, and it is hard to argue that they (we) have kept pace, let alone set it.

Over the past few years, specific moments of creative genius have, of course, exploited the new possibilities: BMW Films, "subservient chicken", "the campaign for real beauty", to name but a handful. But considered, concerted efforts to populate the new media landscape are few and far between, as is a deeper-rooted determination to define more precisely what sort of ideas will flourish in the modern era, whether digitally, experientially, or otherwise.

Amid the new media revolution, shouldn't we have borne more obvious witness to the birth of the new creative idea?

The New Agency Model

Adland, of course, is humming to the sound of "the new agency model". New agencies chant the mantra religiously, while existing agencies alternatively pooh-pooh it or contort accordingly. In an age of flux, it's all understandable, laudable even. But under closer scrutiny, it's troubling, betraying as it does our preoccupation with the delivery system rather than the deliverable: like car manufacturers boasting about their new production process, rather than the cars that emerge from it; or chefs competing on the basis of the kitchens that they run and not the food that they serve.

For all the modern client's fascination with process, with "how we work" and so on, aren't most of them ultimately moved by the quality of the product we provide rather than the backroom organisation we have? By whether our ideas set their brands and business alight or not?

Unfashionable as it sometimes seems, the assumption made here is that our ideas, not our processes, still matter most in the modern comms era. Indeed, the quality of our ideas arguably matters more than ever, with superlative rewards available to our finest. Starting out from here, it's alarming that for all the chat about "new media" and "new agency models", there is at least no established consensus and, at worst, little debate about what the new creative idea looks like.

What do great comms ideas look like in the modern era? Has the web changed the rules or do great ideas still conform to some time-honoured template? What hurdles should the modern creative or client be asking his or her ideas to jump?

I do not have all the answers. What follows is a thought starter, and scientific only in that I have canvassed the opinions of a small number of creative agency peers; a stab at the defining qualities of 2007's very best creative ideas and a loose template for the near future. And it is caveated, of course, by the enduring truth that creativity by nature must break or bend the rules that we write for it.

Original and Appropriate

Let's start our journey in web 2.0, if only for an early definition. Wikipedia warns us that "unlike many phenomena in science, there is no single authoritative definition of creativity. Unlike many phenomena in psychology, there is no standardised measurement technique." But it offers us some helpful initial guardrails nonetheless. "The products of creative thought," the people's encyclopaedia tells us, "are usually considered to have both originality and appropriateness."

As dictionary definitions go, it's not bad at all: a simple checklist for our industry that we might all profit from adhering to. From "the man in the Hathaway" to "grrr" and back, I'd venture that our industry's best ideas have always demonstrated both qualities.

It's a starting premise that, at the very least, outlaws both the depressing bulk of appropriate yet unoriginal creative work we manufacture and the smaller (more noble, yet equally flawed) set of original yet inappropriate ideas.

Good as it is as a starting point, though, it feels to me that today's best ideas do more: that "original and appropriate" are creative hygiene factors, necessary qualities of the new creative idea (just as they were of the "old"), but not in themselves guarantors of the attention and effects we covet on our clients' behalf.

Engagement, Engagement ...

An imperative so well-rehearsed it should barely require repetition, yet still so patchily observed that it demands it.

Life in eyeball-renting times made engagement a nice-to-have, not a must-have, but we are fast migrating from those simpler times. Our media spend no longer guarantees fame; our fame is no longer predicated on spend. At the extreme, this heralds a dramatic reshaping of our working practices and inspiration. As Mother's Dylan Williams puts it: "Most of the stuff that inhabits popular culture starts from audience response and works back to an idea. We in advertising tend to start with our message and work outward. We are spending too much time on what we want to say, rather than what people want to hear. Maybe we should flip the traditional planning process. From message-out planning to audience-back strategy. Dispense with propositions and focus on more thoroughly understanding what people are into. Spielberg said he wanted to make everyone in a cinema feel joy. Then worked back to ET. What would we make if our development process worked this way around?"

Less revolutionary sentiment points in exactly the same direction, pausing only to note that engaging interruption still has a shelf life, and that - right now at least - there's maybe even a little room left for unengaging interruption. But smart clients and smart agencies are skating where the puck's heading, not where it's been.

Be Digital. On or off the web

Today's creative ideas have a new playground: in old and new media alike, but most obviously on the web, where they can be played with, shared, built, rebuilt, proselytised and picked apart as appropriate.

Indeed, it is hard to think of any modern comms brief or challenge - and certainly anything purporting to be "above the line" - that can be satisfactorily met without due reference and, most probably, due use of the internet. Viewed from the other end of the telescope, it's increasingly perverse - although still commonplace - to encounter a brand or advertising idea offline that is not anchored, represented or echoed somehow online.

And even when there is no strategic or executional online element to our campaigns, we can still benefit from "thinking digital". Most simply by asking: how can the consumer - or other parties - interact with, engage with, or use our idea? Have we invited participation somehow, even if our invite goes unanswered?

Today, the creative idea is the start of something rather than the end. "Campaignability" was once the domain of the agency's creative department: shorthand for whether further scripts might flow effortlessly from an idea. By contrast, as Williams points out: "When judging an idea today, we should be looking at elasticity, malleability and richness. Can it spark a series of manifestations across a whole array of media? Or will it just be analysed, codified, turned into a formula and played season after season on TV until it dies?"

So, the new creative idea should be original, appropriate, engaging and at least conceptually digital. It will speak with the brand's voice, not the agency's. But, of course, there's more ...

Do Something

Actions speak louder than words. An ancient wisdom, but never truer of brands and communication than it is today, with our record levels of commercial noise and unprecedented scrutiny of the organisation beneath the promise.

The advertising business was forged in the late 20th century crucible of mass audiences and one-way communication. Branding became, in large part, the business of promise, not delivery: the persuasive lodging of favourable impressions unlikely to be undone by the product experience (typically reliable), by corporate reputation (unseen), by investigative journalism or consumer activism (both then underdeveloped). As Hurrell and Dawson's Shaun McIlrath puts it: "Yesterday's commercial messages were highly polished pieces of corporate propaganda ... as we lived in an era of deference, we gave them credence."

Today - and not least because we live in an era of service brands - our brand impressions and a brand's fortunes are informed by so much beyond our "controlled messaging". Ingredients and supply chain alike are scrutinised, commercial messaging instinctively (even subconsciously) tested for plausibility and integrity. Quite simply, we do not march to the beat of promise in the way that we used to. "Today we live in an era of reference, we ask our friend, search out information on the net. New ideas understand this," McIlrath concludes.

The implications of this are myriad and the possibilities endless, so long as one can migrate from a marketing mindset of "control" to one of "influence". For every Facebook group that successfully leads a consumer revolt (see NUS versus HSBC), there is another persuading Cadbury to relaunch Wispa.

Perhaps, as Bartle Bogle Hegarty's Kevin Brown suggests, "active selling propositions" are the new holy grail. "We've evolved from USP to ESP and now towards ASP ... not just what a brand needs to 'say', but how it should behave."

Brands, then, must now do and not just say. And ideas that go unsupported or get contradicted by actions - however beautifully crafted and in whatever medium - will cease to flourish. By extension, the best creative ideas will actively encourage client or consumer actions that benefit the brand, rather than just creating a favourable surface impression. Increasingly, perhaps, they will actually be actions themselves that happen to be advertising, too: such as Run London, the National Gallery's Grand Tour or Unicef's Tap Project at one extreme; "open shoots" such as Bravia at the other.

All characterised also by less reliance on old-fashioned media budgets to bludgeon their way into submission. Why write a big cheque to a media owner when you can make it out to your consumer?

Dare's John Owen summarises it thus: "Yesterday's ideas were essentially advertising ideas, whereas what we are now talking about are ideas that can be advertising."

Solving The Real Problem

We all style ourselves as problem-solvers, yet pause too rarely to check we are solving the right ones on our clients' behalf. Over the decades, we have learnt what "advertising" is good at, and restyled client problems accordingly. Too often we write problems that advertising can solve, rather than excavating the underlying task that creativity can address. The National Gallery's Grand Tour bypasses the strategic straw men and uses communication to solve the underlying problem - too narrow an audience connecting with its collection - with admirable directness, and no little creativity.

Creatives, planners and clients alike then need to ask new questions of the ideas they hatch: not just "Is it good?" but "What can we do with it? What can the consumer do with it? Does it work without broadcast media?" and so on.

The new creative idea also asks questions of our rewards system, a creative awards culture that lionises craft and execution. "A great creative idea may often lead to quite simple advertising because there is no need for surreal showboating - you will have created something consumers want, you just need to tell them," McIlrath comments. "Creatives who are generally interested in the new will need to content themselves with the novelty of their ideas and the client rewards it will bring, rather than the acknowledgement of their peers."

There will always be ads, some good, some bad, most indifferent, a tiny handful great. But the winning creative ideas of the future will be bigger, deeper and richer. They'll engage above all else, spring from the brand, invite participation, solve problems more directly and cost less in pure media terms. The ultimate reward, as Dye Holloway Murray's Justin Holloway puts it, "is the potential for our ideas to inform and influence the activities of the entire company". They may be harder to hatch, then, but they'll be more valuable to your clients than ever before.

- Laurence Green is the chairman of Fallon London.