Close-Up: Can an ad be creative and effective?

Some 'workmanlike' ads engage consumers emotionally as well as inform them.

Taken at face value, the list of last year's most effective campaigns, as defined by TNS Research International, does little to stimulate adland's creative juices. In fact, VCCP's work was the only campaign in the top ten in TNS's Most Effective Ad Campaigns of 2009 list to pick up a creative award, winning two golds at the Campaign Big Awards.

Even worse than that, one of the top ten has previous form. The "psycho nightmare" spot for Premier Inn, starring Lenny Henry, was made a Turkey of the Week in Campaign.

The polite - if condescending - description of such commercials is "workmanlike". That is to say they do their job - no more and no less.

But if the TNS findings are to be believed, maybe "workmanlike" is what consumers want. Is the industry trying to force-feed creativity to an audience that simply needs to know that a product will do exactly what it says on the tin?

Paul Baker, the head of TNS Mercury, a research project that measures 250 ads over a year and calculates how likely consumers are to act on them, says the findings don't necessarily mean that what the industry thinks is creative isn't effective any more.

Scrutinise the top ten more closely, he claims, and you notice they don't just inform but also engage people at an emotional level.

In particular, he cites the Abbott Mead Vickers BBDO Gary Lineker commercial for Walkers that spoofs the cycle ride sequence from Butch Cassidy And The Sundance Kid and cleverly taps into the ever-growing public taste for nostalgia.

At the same time, Comparethemarket reflects a much more user-friendly approach to advertising by financial services in general.

Sally Cowdry, O2's marketing director, whose iPhone campaign takes the number six spot on the list, agrees that what can seem like a straightforward, hard-working ad may be more than it seems.

"The iPhone advertising may look functional but it taps into people's emotions," she says. "It not only shows how easy it is to use an iPhone but also what an aspirational and beautiful product it is."

Russ Lidstone, the chief executive of Euro RSCG, whose ad for Dettol's Surface antibacterial spray tops the TNS poll, believes the findings partly reflect the paucity of good creative work over the past year, but also the prevailing consumer demand that brands must "cut the whimsy and show me what you're made of".

Lidstone adds: "It's not that creativity and effectiveness are mutually exclusive. It's just that there's been a need to go back to basics, and the impact of this will be felt for some time.

"Consumers don't want advertising that gets caught up in its own hyperbole. They want it to say: 'Here's the product, and here's the reason why you should buy it.' In order to do this, it may be that some creativity has to be sacrificed. Certainly, advertisers will need to show more humility than before."

Because the Mercury research has never been carried out before last year, Baker admits there's no way of judging whether functional ads are here to stay. He believes that much will depend on how the economy behaves: "The emphasis at the moment is on getting people to go out and buy. It doesn't mean that creative ads can't be effective. But it may be that the simplest ones will work best."

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ANALYST - Paul Baker, head of Mercury, TNS Research International

"I don't think our research shows that the ad industry is out of kilter with consumers.

"In fact, if you look closely at the top ten ads, you'll see that they aren't just functional but engage with people at a very emotional level.

"For example, the Dettol ad that tops the list may look like a Procter & Gamble demo from the 60s. But it cleverly taps into what has almost become the public's paranoia about germs and allaying fears about their children not being protected.

"Meanwhile, the fifth-placed Kenco Eco Refill ad well reflects people's concerns about too much packaging."

CLIENT - Sally Cowdry, marketing director, O2

"Creativity has always been subjective. The most important thing for me is that our advertising is born out of deep insight and is relevant to our customers, rather than winning awards.

"That's not to say ads can't be both highly creative and effective, and I'd argue that a lot of the work on the TNS list is both. The Walkers work is cheeky and provides a bit of the fun people are looking for during the downturn. And you have to remember that Walkers is selling a product that isn't easily differentiated.

"Work doesn't have to be overly creative. What's much more important is that it's saying the right thing."

CREATIVE - Damon Collins, executive creative director, Rainey Kelly Campbell Roalfe/Y&R

"It's not often that work that does well in D&AD is seen in lists like the one published by TNS.

"That's not to say those ads are not effective. Many extremely creative campaigns win IPA Effectiveness Awards.

"Residual feelings from ads are more important than immediate reactions. I reckon that if you went out in the street and asked which brands people love and are predisposed to buy, you'd get a totally different list to this one.

"What we focus on is trying to ensure the loved/effective quotient is as high as possible."

PLANNER - Craig Mawdsley, joint head of planning, Abbott Mead Vickers BBDO

"I'm very sceptical about this kind of research. Effectiveness means so many things to so many people and I think this is more about promoting a particular methodology.

"All our Walkers work is linked to very specific objectives and if you look at campaigns like the Cadbury drumming gorilla, you realise that it isn't just about selling more chocolate but positioning the company so that it can sell more product in the future.

"This kind of 'one-size-fits-all' research doesn't account for the fact that the advertising may not be inviting the consumer to take a specific action. It can have all sorts of aims."