Is the 'crisis of creative effectiveness' overblown?

A new book suggests advertisers are overlooking the importance of right-brain thinking.

Lemon: book launched to coincide with EffWeek
Lemon: book launched to coincide with EffWeek

Are half of our brains being neglected?

It would appear so, according to the IPA's new book Lemon, published last week for the EffWeek conference. The book, authored by System1 chief innovation officer Orlando Wood, went so far as to claim the industry is going through a "crisis in creative effectiveness".

The reason, Wood argues, is that advertisers are overlooking the importance of right-brain thinking – the rational half of the cranium. This is due to a more polarised political climate and more short-term attention spans; advertising apparently now appeals more to "left-brained" thinking with a more narrow focus.

This means that work has become "flat, abstract, dislocated and devitalised", Wood says.

Lemon's findings are supported by the venerable Les Binet and Peter Field, while Ogilvy vice-president and strategy guru Rory Sutherland praised the work as "wonderful".

However, critics like Iain Jacob argue that claims of a decline in creativity are "lazy thinking". 

Jacob said: "[Clients] are just going to a broader range of places to find their creative gold. The hegemony of the old system might be what is actually in crisis."

So, is the crisis overblown?

Orlando Wood

Chief innovation officer, System1

If there are signs of hope, then I couldn’t be more delighted – and the quantity of advertising has never been in question. Individual examples aside, however, the broad picture from large data sets is clear – advertising isn’t moving audiences today. It’s less noticeable and less memorable than it used to be. Creativity is alive, but it’s operating against gale-force headwinds – a wind tunnel that flattens and homogenises.

Creativity is increasingly "single-use" and its long-term effects are withering on the vine. But there’s a real hunger for solutions and I’ve been hugely heartened by the breadth of support I’ve received from across the industry, from those who commission, make and carry advertising.

Adrian Rossi

Creative chairman, Grey London

Victorian follies were buildings constructed primarily for decoration – extravagant constructions that had no practical purpose whatsoever. In light of this, the question could be reframed to ask whether Cannes Lions is approaching a critical mass of advertising follies.

Bar a few very notable exceptions, it is an awards show that now encourages left-brained work. Why? It is human instinct to follow what is successful, but the majority of awarded work has failed to achieve the right balance. So it is not surprising people are then creating one-off, unemotional ideas.

But where there is plenty to seek encouragement is outside the bubble of Cannes. There is wonderful, effective work being produced, but it is not on-trend. We need to reclaim the word "creativity" as a force for effectiveness, not one of folly.

Bridget Angear

Joint chief strategy officer, Abbott Mead Vickers BBDO

Peter Field is not a man known for his use of hyperbole or dramatically colourful language, so when he says there is a crisis of creativity (which he did in June of this year), we should sit up and take notice. And most of us at the coalface of developing ideas will have witnessed this pressure to focus on short-term, sales-driving tactics, often at the expense of longer-term brand-building initiatives.

Whether we buy the explanation that it is because we have all become too left-brained or not, it has never felt more important to acknowledge and reward clients who still believe in building brands for the long term. As the APG Awards last week did. And perhaps we all need to learn to love consistency as much as we love change and encourage our clients to do likewise.

If we do that, then perhaps just as Mark Twain quipped in response to rumours that he had died, "reports of my death have been greatly exaggerated".

Jo Arden

Chief strategy officer, MullenLowe London

We love to catastrophise in advertising. In an effort not to, let’s think of this as a correction, not a crisis. There’s clearly a divergence of what gets creatively awarded and what actually works. But the fact that we’ve clocked that and we’re collectively a bit worked up about it suggests we can also sort it out.

The solution is threefold: reconnect with audiences and build deep empathy with them; make work that addresses problems first and juries second; and be proud only when creativity and effectiveness exist together, not trade one off for the other.

Rory Sutherland

Vice-chairman, Ogilvy UK

I, for one, don't think the crisis is entirely overblown. The more the industry attempts to be efficient, the less effective it becomes. An obsession with metrics and quantification only works if you are measuring the right things. We aren't.


Phil Barden

Managing director, Decode

The idea of logical/creative differences between brain hemispheres is one of the ‘extreme and long-abandoned brain myths’ according to neuroscientist Thomas Ramsoy (Journal of Advertising Research, September 2019).

There are differences but, without applying scientific rigour and understanding, there’s a danger of simplistic reduction to left = logical/rational, and right = creative/emotional or, even worse, left = System 2 and right = System 1. Allocating mental processes such as implicit/explicit or goal orientation to one or the other hemisphere lacks scientific rigour. Also, this division is not helpful as it establishes and reinforces the same old trade-off that we’ve suffered for years: thinking of rational/emotional as two antagonists from which one must choose – and this is an obstacle to effective advertising.

A more rigorous and helpful approach comes from a behavioural science perspective: advertising is effective if the message fits the ‘jobs to be done’ (motivation) and if the way the brand is staged as a means to this end – to deliver against the jobs – is dramatised in an emotionally engaging way. The emotional response watching an ad is a response induced by the ad that helps to process the ad’s content. Emotion is the effective vehicle to convey the right message, but the motivating aspect of communication is the message – not the emotional response while watching. To be effective we must combine both: the motivating proposition (what) staged in an emotional way (how) – and this doesn’t require a trade-off.

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