WORLD: STUART ELLIOTT IN AMERICA

Everyone in advertising has heard of the mantra espoused in the 70s by Benton & Bowles, the consummate New York packaged-goods agency, in response to the vaunted creative revolution of the 60s: "It's not creative unless it sells."

These days, the mantra may well be: "It's not selling unless it's creative" - selling to clients, that is, instead of to consumers. As a result, what constitutes creativity is undergoing more drastic changes than the California governor's mansion.

When it comes to the content of campaigns, creativity has almost become the c-word, a veritable curse, used to disparage or denigrate work deemed self-indulgent or self-serving. For instance, a recent review by the ad critic of the trade publication Advertising Age, Bob Garfield, carried this approving headline: "This time Miller Lite gets it right by forgoing 'creativity'" - yes, with those arch, ironic air quotes.

In other words, the new Miller Lite beer campaign, by Ogilvy & Mather, is a hit because it eschews what is sarcastically described as "the next brilliant creative breakthrough".

The highest praise the review offered was this: "The creative concept is ... well, there is no creative concept."

Well, if creatives can no longer be relied on to be creative, who can?

Talent agencies and entertainment marketing consultants - some of them part of the agency-company conglomerates - are eager to fill the void.

They are offering clients a strategy dominated by sponsorships, product placements and other methods of embedding paid messages deep within programmes and articles. The goal: keep the pitch from being pitched by ad-weary and ad-wary consumers, especially as new technologies such as TiVo personal video recorders make avoiding advertising as easy as romancing pastry in American Pie.

Alas, all that does is bring marketers back to where they were 50 or 60 years ago, when they and their agencies controlled the content of radio and TV by delivering programmes to the networks that packaged the talent along with commercials - some of them even delivered by the talent. Seems a lot of effort for what may be little more than a 21st-century revival of Lux Radio Theatre.

Those who dismiss the idea of product placements as the solution could be looking to media agencies to rekindle the creative fires. Indeed, the term "creative media plan" is gaining traction as shorthand for a carefully thought-out media schedule that includes not only shrewd choices but also content ideas from planners and buyers rather than copywriters and art directors.

The Starcom MediaVest Group, for example, is striving to establish its credentials for creative media with efforts such as a multipage insert in Maxim, sponsored by Miller Lite.

The idea for the insert, centred on the beer-fuelled antics of a group of friends visiting New York, came from Starcom, not O&M. To be sure, the content is sophomoric, though perhaps it has to be to blend in with the editorial environment the insert lurks in. And it's a long shot ever to win a Clio, Andy, Pencil or Lion.

But check back when the American Marketing Association gives out its Effie Awards for measurable effectiveness in realms such as awareness and sales. Don't be surprised if the insert gets called creative, as in the client having to create space on a shelf for an award.

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