The Art of Being Different

When should you veer away from the tried-and-trusted formulae of safe advertising? When you want to achieve cut-through and impact, according to Kevin May.

The primary requirement for advertising is for it not to be ignored.

Whatever the other objectives, nothing can be achieved if the target audience remains oblivious to the existence of the advertising in the first place.

It doesn't matter how relevant, beneficial or astonishing the proposition might be if nobody notices it.

While it would be handy if there were a standard code for achieving stand-out, by definition there can be no set of laws for developing ideas that are different. Progress and originality have always had a healthy disregard for the rule book. Great advertising, great agencies and successful clients are born out of a desire to be different, to redefine approaches and to bend the rules. Now, with the economic outlook still chilly and the role of traditional advertising coming under ever-greater scrutiny, to risk being different is more difficult yet more important than ever.

The very notion of rules comes from a desire for containment and predictability.

Rules keep us safe and save us from having to think too much for ourselves.

They minimise risks and minimise cock-ups. The only way to avoid mistakes is to retrace furrows that have been ploughed many times before. But such formulaic repetitions make a commodity of advertising and fail to maximise its potential. When avoiding mistakes becomes paramount, being ignored becomes a likely outcome.

At its core, advertising is about effecting change. Everyone salutes when the mantra about embracing the creative adventure is trotted out, but many baulk when it comes to the jump. As Jon Steel, the author of Truth, Lies & Advertising, observes: "You hear the phrase 'pushing the envelope' everywhere, generally from people who couldn't push envelopes if they became Postman Pat." The creative leap becomes a creative step and, in many cases, no more than a creative shuffle. Despite so many talking the talk, how come so few actually walk the walk?

Perhaps there is less dynamism to many markets than good business sense would expect. Advertising has plenty of established genres, each with its own peculiar canon. Perhaps in these markets advertising isn't expected to effect any change but only act as a reassurance, a comfort blanket to perpetuate the status quo. It becomes a glorified - and expensive - stick to keep the hoop rolling.

And tough economic times tend to bring out the risk-averse in many a businessman. According to Phil Teer, the planning director of St Luke's: "The ambition to be different is stifled by fear. It's ironic that agencies and clients seem keenest to be radical and risky during times of strong growth and are most cautious when times are hard." But even during good times, formulaic advertising abounds.

Research probably doesn't help. Fresh work can make you feel uncomfortable and is hard for even seasoned professionals to say yes to. It's barely surprising that it doesn't always prosper in traditional research. Those intent upon becoming agents of change find themselves weighed down by metrics as they try to take to the air. The desire to measure leads to that which can be measured becoming more important than that which needs to be done.

But laying too much at the door of research is a cop-out. As Duncan Bird, a managing partner at Soul, notes: "It's easy to blame research. It's the agency's job within the confines of the available tools to find ways to break through. Some of the greatest campaigns ever have made their way through research."

The futurists Ryan Mathews and Watts Wacker believe that corporate culture lies at the root of the problem. Not just the culture of clients but of agencies too. In The Deviant's Advantage, they liken it to an organisational prophylactic, "protecting business-as-usual from being infected by new opportunities". Corporate culture discourages deviancy, be it in ideas, behaviour or attitudes. According to Mathews and Wacker: "Despite all their talk of prime-mover advantage, most companies are trapped in a puzzling syllogism: all opportunity springs from deviance. Opportunity is good. Therefore deviance ought to be good - but, in reality, it's avoided at all costs."

Steel agrees that mindset is the issue. "Another cultural barrier is comfort. Most executives making decisions don't have enough at stake personally. People need to be uncomfortable before they make their best decisions." Even within advertising agencies there's often not much more at stake than short-term financial considerations. Lots of agencies adhere to the view that a good ad is a sold ad; not enough have changing the advertising landscape on their agenda.

As Steel observes: "The best role models this industry has ever had came into the business before it was viewed as at all glamorous, let alone as the gravy-train some expect of it nowadays. Those pioneers had a kind of missionary zeal that is no longer com- monplace among today's agency chiefs and so-called 'teachers'."

Or perhaps breaking the law isn't always a great idea. There are loads of "rules" that are beneficial, both in terms of what advertising should be and how to go about developing it. All advertising has to be legal and, for reasons that extend beyond satisfying the authorities, it also needs to be decent, honest and truthful in the broadest senses of the words. Cheap taste and weak observation make poor ingredients. And there's a litany of guidelines learned, sometimes at some expense, by previous generations but still valuable today: don't expect inspiration to come out of the blue, don't copy others' work or resort to cliche, don't settle for the easiest option, do turn up and care. The list could go on.

What needs to be resisted isn't the following of rules per se, but the adherence to formula. As Jeremy Craigen, the executive creative director of DDB London, notes: "Avoiding being formulaic isn't the same as having to break rules." The search for good ideas should challenge convention, but not in a way that descends into anarchy. Craigen continues: "There's no value in contriving to break a rule just for the sake of it. Rules should be broken effortlessly."

The skill is knowing how to break rules appropriately and usefully, in pursuit of an idea original enough to engage a specific audience. There's no magical point in the process when you pause to check that particular rules have been broken adequately. The effortlessness that Craigen refers to is more a mentality that's constantly present. It's not the easy option it might sound, rather an instinct to want to stand for something other than what is readily on offer.

But the industry needs to guard against self-indulgent creative solutions that offer limited service to the brand. The rejection of formulae isn't a clarion call for the cavalier aesthete.

Advertising is exclusively a commercial pursuit. Despite pretensions to the contrary, advertising is not art. As Alison Jackson, the photographer who shot "double take" for Schweppes, commented in a recent Guardian interview: "Art work is inconclusive. It opens your mind up ... advertising, using exactly the same photograph, closes things down. It makes it conclusive. It sells a product, and that is its primary function." The only value of originality to an ad is to help it achieve its business objectives.

As Bird puts it: "A creatively challenging solution is only right insofar as it provides a route to greater effectiveness; foremostly it should be relevant for the specific brand situation."

Advertising needs to be creative because its role isn't just to disseminate information. It isn't enough just to seize the attention: minds also have to be engaged and responses provoked. And these things need to happen concurrently, not sequentially, so the whole package needs to sing out.

The only thing worse for an advertiser than being ignored is to be noticed and reviled. Being aesthetically challenging helps secure attention, but it also helps secure interest and affection.

If the majority of the public comes to equate advertising with an overwhelming sea of commercial blandness that oppresses day-to-day life in the 21st century, then everyone suffers.

The business of advertising isn't about doing as much as possible in pursuit of ubiquity, in the vague hope that some of this activity might actually work. Reaching beyond the obvious isn't a matter just for certain individuals: cutting-edge iconoclasm can't be the preserve of a few trendy agencies. It's a job for the whole industry.

Advertising benefits from having artistic merit if it makes it stand out. If responses to advertising were rational, rather than aesthetic, then everyone would respond in broadly the same way to any given piece of stimulus.

That's why so much energy is expended trying to understand audiences: not just who they are, but what they think and how they feel.

This may sound flimsy, a convenient line put together by an industry yearning to justify the pursuit of arty-fartiness. In fact, it has its basis in the latest scientific thinking. Steven Pinker, a professor of psychology at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, notes in his book How the Mind Works that a part of the brain, the amygdala, colours all experience with emotion, and "sends signals to virtually every other part of the brain, including the decision-making circuitry of the frontal lobes ... the emotions are mechanisms that set the brain's highest-level goals. Once triggered by a propitious moment, an emotion triggers the cascade of subgoals and sub-subgoals that we call thinking and acting."

Even in the baldest of hard-hitting retail ads, it's not merely a case of conveying information. The objective is still to persuade, to elicit the emotional response that says: "That offer is right for me." The rational does sometimes play a part, but only as the handmaiden of emotion, never an equal partner in the decision-making process. There's no formula for striking through and touching people emotionally. The best-argued pitch doesn't always win, the most qualified CV doesn't always get the job, the nicest boy doesn't always get the girl. It may not seem fair, but playing within any supposed set of rules is little guarantee of success.

Perhaps the reason most stick to a variation of the tried-and-tested is because it's a lot easier. It is just so bloody hard to be original.

A section of Route 50 stretching across the middle of Nevada has been officially designated The Loneliest Road in America, with warnings not to attempt it unless you are sure of your survival skills. It's one of the busiest highways in the state. Sometimes you can end up mimicking even when you think you're being adventurous.

It's probably asking too much of advertisers to go out on more limbs.

But which path constitutes the greater gamble? As Andy McLeod, a creative partner at Fallon, comments: "The real high risk lies in not breaking rules and not letting advertising stand out. 'Brave' clients aren't brave, they're just bright. The really brave clients are the ones who are prepared to spend a lot of money on advertising that no-one can be bothered to look at."

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