Does creativity sell brands?

Ad agencies have long cited seemingly compelling evidence that creative excellence brings commercial success, but is creativity enough?

Does creativity sell brands?

It's 2007. Google's unprecedented success in attracting advertising budgets is clearly rattling Maurice Saatchi, an executive director of M&C Saatchi. Writing in the Financial Times, he has the enemy firmly in his sights when he expresses the growing but erroneous belief that 'Google's systematic, logical computation can lead the advertiser into an earthly paradise of universal enlightenment - where all the problems of selling and marketing are solved by the same method: the method of data'.

There follows a masterful piece of rhetoric peppered with brash assertions, non sequiturs and sly insinuations. Finally, Lord Saatchi arrives at his conclusion. 'Human nature is not amenable to prediction based on the trends or tendencies prevailing at the time ... It is amenable to startling creativity of the kind practised by great artists, directors, writers, musicians, actors, who know how to touch a chord in humans everywhere. They ... help advertisers navigate the internet.'

Unique input

He never quite dared state his implication, but it was clear. Creative ad agency folk are on a par with Picasso, Welles, Tolstoy, Beethoven and Bach. They offer business a rare genius it can't get elsewhere: 'creativity'. That's why businesses should beat a path to their doors.

At first glance, it's a slam dunk. The evidence that advertising creativity sells, and sells well, is incontrovertible.

Back in 2010, for example, Peter Field, marketing consultant to the IPA, compared the effects of campaigns that won creative awards with a sample of similar campaigns that hadn't. Accepting that share of voice matters, he focused on those campaigns with 'excess share of voice' (where the ad's share of voice exceeded its existing share of the market). He found the share of market growth of creatively awarded brands was more than double that of non-creative ones (12.6% versus 5.8%).

He then created a metric for 'effective success rate' (ESR): the market-share growth achieved from 10 points excess share of voice. Creatively awarded campaigns had an ESR more than 10 times higher than those without awards (11.1% as opposed to 0.5%).

These are pretty compelling numbers, and there are similarly compelling explanations. In his book The Case for Creativity, James Hurman, planning partner at Ogilvy & Mather Shanghai, finds five simple and academically validated reasons for creativity's success. People pay more attention to a creative ad, recall it better and talk about it more; it creates a positive halo, improving perceptions of the brand, and, by increasing curiosity and open-mindedness, it increases purchase intent. Writes Hurman: 'Consumers let their defences down for more creative (ads), allowing themselves to be sold to more readily.'

He adds another benefit for good measure: the boost the company gets from the quest to be creative. Often, he argues, creativity in advertising is symptomatic of a culture of innovation that extends into the products and day-to-day activities of the company.

Big brand advertisers agree. Jonathan Mildenhall, vice-president of global advertising strategy and content excellence at Coca-Cola, notes that client organisations winning Advertiser of the Year accolades at Cannes also tend to be in a period of 'historic financial success'. 'I'm an absolute believer in the correlation between outstanding creative success and outstanding commercial success,' he adds. (So are the owners of agencies like Bartle Bogle Hegarty and Adam & Eve.)

Steep odds

So why is the link between creativity and advertising effectiveness still so hotly debated? For a start, 'creativity' is hard to define. Field's IPA research tackles this by focusing only on those award-winning campaigns listed in the annual Gunn Report. Trouble is, only a vanishingly small proportion of campaigns ever achieves this. As Field admits, 'the odds are stacked against you' when trying to line up all the ducks you need to win a major award.

Such research therefore runs the risk of becoming a tautology: outstandingly successful campaigns are ... er, exceptional. And there are plenty of campaigns that fail to achieve the business results Field identifies.

Take Cadbury's 'Gorilla', created by Fallon London. If ever there was a creative ad campaign, it was this. It inspired more than 100 Facebook groups, earned multiple awards and seemed to work, with a reported sales boost of 9% when the ad broke. Cadbury's then-chief executive, Todd Stitzer, even talked of 'the Year of the Gorilla' at the firm's AGM. Yet, while Cadbury's adspend had tripled at the height of the campaign, Dairy Milk was actually losing market share to Galaxy, which had a lower-key focus on NPD and partnership deals with the likes of Sex and the City.

'Gorilla' is not alone. Guinness launched Enigma lager in 1994. Its advertising creativity was off the scale, even describing itself as 'a bit of an enigma'. The campaign, and product, bombed. Or Strand cigarettes, an advertising sensation in 1959 that garnered an unprecedented 90% brand recognition within weeks of campaign launch. Yet the best market share the brand achieved was 0.3% among men and 0.7% among women - an expensive disaster.

Those compelling explanations of why creativity works also have their doubters. 'Advertisers think that their creativity makes us like ads more and pay more attention to them,' says Robert Heath, author of Seducing the Subconscious. 'What really happens (is) the opposite: the more advertisers attempt to subconsciously seduce us with creativity, the more we like it, the less we feel threatened by it and the less attention we feel we need to pay to it ... and the less well we recall the message.'

Heath's argument is that only when our guard is down and we are not paying attention are we open to influence. If he's right, his findings wreak havoc with many metrics claiming to measure advertising success.

Interpreting effectiveness

If only measurement were simple (see box, overleaf). If you try to measure advertising effectiveness against certain criteria such as association with certain brand values or messages, intent to buy or even recall, other forms of advertising are likely to score better. Indeed, Les Binet and Peter Field's review of every campaign to enter the IPA Effectiveness Awards (in Marketing in the Era of Accountability) found that ads with narrow rational appeals such as '50% off, hurry while stocks last!' work best for short-term direct response - but the effects don't last longer than that. When, or if, the shortand long-term effects of the ad are opposite, you have a conundrum, especially if your decision-making is driven by short-term numbers.

This is all about strategic clarity. When it comes to assessing creativity, Marc Pritchard, global brand-building officer at Procter & Gamble, has his own 'top-secret proprietary methodology'. It's this: 'How does it make me feel? Does it make my spine tingle?'

The trouble is that, as spines go, Pritchard's is well-educated and sophisticated. For him, advertising creativity has a clear role: to bring 'noticeably better products' to life with 'noticeably better fresh creative ideas'.

The ideas he likes, such as P&G's Olympics-focused 'mums' activity, chime perfectly with a previously articulated business and marketing strategy. Notes Field: 'No amount of creativity will make a strategically unsound campaign work.'

Which raises a question about strategy, because lots of the research - including Binet and Field's review - seems to suggest that it is fame, and not creativity per se, that makes ads successful, and these attributes are not the same. 'You can have popular, famous ads that are not creative, and you can win creative awards and not be famous,' notes Binet. True, the two tend to go together, but, as Field observes, because it's easier to drive buzz than to be outstandingly creative, perhaps fame should be most clients' first port of call.

So yes, creativity sells ... if it's supporting a good product, and it's articulating a clear brand strategy, and the brand strategy is on the button, and it helps the brand become famous. But all this still begs another question: just how well will it sell?

Force or influence

The way Lord Saatchi talked in his FT article, adland's creatives are the new Pied Pipers, reaching into consumers' hearts and minds like no other, drawing them inexorably down the path to purchase. However, there's now a big body of research - much of it assiduously ignored by the ad industry's keenest promoters - suggesting that, at best, advertising can only be a 'weak' rather than a 'strong' force. Sure, it can have an influence, a positive business impact; but, except on rare occasions, it's likely to be a small one.

'The strong theory argues that marketing communications are a powerful force that can significantly manipulate consumer behaviour. The weak theory argues that marketing communications exert only a weak influence on consumer behaviour,' explain Binet and Field. Their conclusion: the IPA evidence is 'consistent' with the 'weak' theory. So if creativity sells, it's not a 'get out of jail free' card. Winston Fletcher, a former chairman and president of the IPA, comments: 'Difficulties arise because advertising practitioners imbue the word "creativity" with far more weight than it will bear.'

For all these reasons, advertising creativity has a knack of disconcerting the average boardroom. It's hard to measure. It's not easy to distinguish triumphs from duds. It's easy to exaggerate the likely benefits. A slippery beast in a risk-averse environment, creativity will never get a smooth ride. But before we start pointing the finger at risk-averse boards, we need to remember adland's part in this long-running saga.

Trust in the relationship

'People do not know what they want until a brilliant person shows them,' declared Saatchi in his FT article. The supposed subject of this observation was lowly consumers, who desperately need the undimmed brilliance of advertising creatives to lead them to what they really want, but can't articulate.

Saatchi's real message was for the boardroom, however. Without adland's creativity, his implication was that the boardroom is lost. Business needs creatives' superhero-like qualities to help it deal with the 'inconvenient and stubborn fact that outside Newton's universe, where physical laws govern reality, the world is conditioned by perception'.

He may be right. But do you catch a whiff of arrogance? 'None of you is on a par with Beethoven, Bach, Picasso and so on,' Saatchi seems to be saying. 'But we are. You can never properly understand the creative genius we bring to bear on your business. You may be able to craft products and services, but only we can craft your customers' perceptions. Instead of using data as a pathetic prop, you should put your faith in our intuition.'

What adland sometimes seems to want is chief executives like Stitzer, who bowed to the brilliance of the creatives he couldn't comprehend. 'I am a 55-year-old person who has lived through a different advertising experience,' he said of Cadbury's 'Gorilla'. 'In the end, I trusted in the young and talented people who came up with the idea.'

Hmmm, trust. Until adland can demonstrate not only that creativity often works, but also how and why it works better than anything else, in what situations, and to what degree - until it can manage expectations - sceptics will continue to resist. Not because they think creativity is a bad idea, but because they don't want to be taken for a ride. That's what the creativity debate is really about. Not about 'effectiveness' per se, but the client/agency relationship.


Read, comment on or join the discussion at Alan Mitchell's blog, Reinventing Marketing

Let's continue the debate - visit my blog at marketingmagazine.co.uk/reinventingmarketing

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Real insight vs pseudo-science

When economist Friedrich August von Hayek accepted the Nobel Prize for economics in 1974, he chose to call his winner's lecture 'The Pretence of Knowledge'.

'Unlike the position that exists in the physical sciences, in economics and other disciplines that deal with essentially complex phenomena, the aspects of the events to be accounted for about which we can get quantitative data are necessarily limited and may not include the important ones,' he argued.

'While in the physical sciences it is generally assumed, probably with good reason, that any important factor which determines the observed events will itself be directly observable and measurable, in the study of such complex phenomena as the market, which depend on the actions of many individuals, all the circumstances which will determine the outcome of a process will hardly ever be fully known or measurable.'

Question: is today's obsession with accountability - measuring advertising effectiveness - a truly scientific endeavour, or is it, as former IPA president Rory Sutherland describes it, 'profoundly dishonest'?

The attempt to measure the overall effects of advertising is an 'insurmountable' conundrum, he argues. That's because 'a lot of the things which are important to people simply aren't mathematically expressible, and even if they were, the mathematics of mass human behaviour is simply impossible to solve mathematically'.

Better data can be liberating, since it allows companies to experiment much more widely, imaginatively and inexpensively, claims Sutherland. But 'the need for mathematical certainty is at times dangerously constrictive, since the most important things may not necessarily be measurable'.

Nowadays, complains Sutherland, the world's businesses are so in thrall to what Hayek called 'scientism' - the 'decidedly unscientific' idea that all truth can be captured by a number; that 'you cannot advance an argument without some spurious mathematics to support your case. But this is quite often merely bullshit data masquerading as science because the argument is presented in mathematical form'.

What's the status of your metrics? Are they bullshit data masquerading as science, or do they offer real insight?

Alan Mitchell is a respected author and a founder of Ctrl-Shift and Mydex. Alan.Mitchell@ctrl-shift.co.uk