Newspaper Advertising - The Creative Potential: What makes a great newspaper ad

The most memorable ads to grace newspaper pages take advantage of the medium by conveying bold ideas through striking imagery and clever copy, Alasdair Reid writes.

What makes a great newspaper ad? It is fascinating how many people, when they are looking for a place to start, end up back in 1959 on Madison Avenue. The agency in question is Doyle Dane Bernbach and the ad they have in mind is a legendary piece of work for the Volkswagen Beetle called "think small".

It is, of course, one of the most written-about and mythologised ads of all time. More than one cultural historian has argued that it marks the point at which corporate culture met counter culture and gave birth to the 60s.

More importantly, from a purely advertising point of view, in many people's eyes it is just the finest example of a beautifully simple, audacious idea, brilliantly executed.

The "think small" clarity of vision should continue to inspire too. Gerry Moira, the UK director of creativity at Euro RSCG London, was one of the press award judges at Cannes 2005. A gruelling four-and-a-half days spent absorbing 11,800 entries reminded him of a golden rule - keep it simple.

"Ads that do well tend to talk to fairly elemental human needs, not complex marketing objectives. I know it, you know it, but it's amazing how quickly we forget it," he summed up.

Which is perhaps why the issue of colour is so complex. In the past decade, publishers have made great leaps in the quality and availability of colour in their titles - and there is no question whatsoever about its desirability on the editorial side.

But on the advertising side, the argument is not so clear cut. Many advertisers continue to argue that the clean simplicity of black and white offers much in the way of cut-through.

And at least some of this is down to the fact that newspaper advertising still relies heavily on the power of the written word and copy etches itself most clearly on our consciousness when it is set in familiar type.

We prefer to read in black and white.

Which brings us to a related point. Not so long ago, there were those who argued that newspaper readers were becoming too busy (or, perhaps, too dumbed-down) to spend much time reading copy. It was expected that newspaper ads would increasingly resemble scaled-down versions of poster executions.

But the trend has moved the other way. The poster sector is currently filled with angst about its creative future, amid worries that many outdoor executions are basically blown-up press ads. In other words, reports of the copywriter's demise have been greatly exaggerated.

Most experts agree, however, that press ads must have a clear message.

"Bold, simple, thought-provoking ads catch people's attention," Tiger Savage, the head of art at M&C Saatchi, says. She believes that some of the best newspaper ads take advantage of the nature of the medium.

"The great thing about ads in newspapers is that they can be out the next day, you can react quickly and capture the moment," Savage says.

"I particularly remember the 'happiness is a cigar called Hamlet' campaign when it featured a photograph of that naughty Ian Botham smoking a Hamlet after being caught smoking a huge spliff."

Where in the world can we now find the best work? Is it still Madison Avenue? Well, although it is true that VW is still among the foremost exponents of the newspaper ad, you would be hard pushed to single out any particular national centre of excellence.

As Marie-Catherine Dupuy, the vice-chairman and chief creative officer of TBWA\France, points out (see opposite), globalisation does not just affect brands - this modern phenomenon also has significant implications for brand communications.

Neil French, the former worldwide creative director of WPP (and, incidentally, newspaper advertising's king of long copy), says that there are lessons to be learned if you head east.

"In Singapore, media owners have made efforts to impress upon creative people the opportunities the newspaper medium affords," he says.

"Newspapers are still extraordinarily important - and they attract advertising that reflects this."

JERRY HILL - Executive vice-president EMEA, Initiative

"There are two ways of judging a great press ad - one as a newspaper-reading consumer, one as a newspaper-recommending media man. Either way, my opinion would be the same - one set of intrinsic qualities makes a press ad able to stop, engage and convince.

"Great ads combine headline, layout, illustration and copy with a creative dynamic to add news value and talk in my language. I know it's often said, but in1959 the Volkswagen Beetle changed the face of press advertising forever - and the ad still stands as one of the best. Over the years, work from Absolut, iPod and Barnardo's has been memorable.

"More recently, the growth of media innovation has amplified great artwork. The proliferation of shapes, positions and colour has added real impact - early use of 'share squares', 'fireplaces' and title domination (Microsoft's sponsorship of The Times for a day in 1995 broke the mould) has been liberating. Editorial context can also make a huge difference - Vauxhall's targeting of van drivers via tabloid sports pages was a deliberately differentiating strategy.

"Essentially, the acid test of a great ad is whether or not I feel rewarded for having my reading interrupted."

JEREMY CAPLIN - Marketing director UK and Ireland, Nestle Purina Petcare

"My favourite newspaper ads have to include the April Fools' Day ads that BMW runs. The headline will be: 'Have you got a genuine BMW?' There will be two pictures of BMWs side by side - and one will have something ridiculous wrong with it. Or there will be a coupon you can tick and send off to get someone to come and check your car.

"So, yes, humour is important. But fundamentally I value a good combination of image and message in an eye-catching way. You want something that makes you say: 'What's going on here?' The visual itself can be simple.

"Obviously, the medium has moved on from black and white to colour, but many advertisers, including one of our brands, Felix, are still using black and white very effectively.

"The medium lends itself to smart placement and I think people really respond when you do something that's both clever and appropriate. This is where newspapers have an opportunity - if they are prepared to give the right priority to the ad and be flexible in their approach, within reason. That's when you can achieve the maximum combination of the medium and the message. It's about the right message presented in the right way at the right time."

ERIC PFANNER - Bureau chief and columnist, The International Herald Tribune

"Newspapers have become better looking and more colourful over the years, so there's no reason the ads in them should be ugly. I'm definitely a sucker for visually striking newspaper ads. Take the fashion ads that run in The International Herald Tribune, for instance. In the broadsheet, the models seem nearly life-size.

"Certainly, looks aren't everything. Because newspapers are one medium that still champions the value of words, I think it's entirely appropriate to have text-based ads, too. But they'd better be clever or funny or something. It is even easier to turn the page than it is to click your personal video recorder.

"The US approach to advertising generally, not just in print, seems to be very focused on selling rather than entertaining and in newspapers this may be particularly so. It's not only because of American pragmatism but it is also down to the structure of the newspaper industry, which is more locally oriented than most European markets, with their strong national dailies. So you get a lot of ads for local retailers announcing price cuts on rib-eye steaks, for instance. This isn't pretty stuff, but it probably works. European print ads are probably more striking on the whole. But that may simply reflect the advertiser mix."

MARIE-CATHERINE DUPUY - Vice-chairman and chief creative officer, TBWA\France

"When it comes to books, feature films and paintings, I'm very eclectic in my tastes. With advertising, it's the same - but I know what I dislike. If I don't remember the brand, if I have to ask who is talking to me, then that is wasted money from the client's point of view. I also dislike it if, even if I remember the brand, I don't feel a link between that brand and me.

"Art direction is crucial. You can find the best idea - but if it's not well art directed, it's killed. I say that even though I'm a former copywriter. For me, art direction is 80 per cent of the effectiveness. That's also the place where artists from every side can express themselves and bring their full talents to the ad.

"Is there a continental European approach? No. The European market doesn't differ at all in its approach from any other markets. Brands are becoming increasingly global. People often travel and read the same newspapers.

Now, when we see an ad, very often we absolutely don't know where it has been created.

"My favourite ad? This isn't a scoop - it's 'think small' for Volkswagen from Bill Bernbach. Nothing to add. It's just perfect."

LINDA QUIGG - Senior director, international advertising sales, USA Today

"When I first started in this business, advertisers always wanted to know what the return on investment was going to be. There wasn't so much talk about that for a while. But the growth of internet advertising means people are asking about ROI in newspapers again - and this time the response mechanisms are interesting. The clip-coupon ad is still used but now there are phone numbers and invitations to go online. Which is interesting because it affects creativity.

"For me, one of the best campaigns we've seen in recent times in the US is the Milk Council's 'milk moustache' campaign and its healthy schools challenge. It features celebrities, especially athletes, with milk moustaches. The ads were beautiful but a student athlete scholarship programme provided an added engagement - and it has been very effective with young people. It has been about the whole programme and a response mechanism - including websites - rather than just an ad.

"I'm not saying it's an easy thing to do. You must have something that will motivate people to respond - that's the trick. It's tough to create an ad that combines image and branding with a response mechanism that is not necessarily price-driven - though obviously a lot of newspaper advertising is price-driven."

CARLOS BAYALA - Creative director, Madre Latin America

"I liked a bank ad that I read in an Argentine newspaper some years ago. It had a very simple headline: 'ARE YOU STUPID?' And, in a very straightforward multiple choice exercise, there were two boxes, one for 'yes' and one for 'no'. Below the 'yes' there was nothing. Below the 'no' box there was copy explaining the interest rate and conditions (which were great compared with those offered by competitors) of one of the bank's mortgages. I loved the brutality of the ad and, of course, its sense of humour - it was so basic that you couldn't even be annoyed by it. It's probably not the best ad I've ever seen, but it taught me a very important lesson: when you have something good to say, say it in the most direct possible way.

"When you create a newspaper ad, you need to think it will be published in a context of things that matter, like earthquakes, inflation rates and suicide bombers, all stories that needed to go through a lot of hard work to make it there. So you'd better say something relevant.

"I personally love Japanese newspaper ads because the Japanese allow themselves to be surreal in a very real-life medium. If we could take more of that approach into western advertising, I am sure we would reward readers, at least with better-looking newspapers."

BEN PETERS - Nicorette sector marketing manager, UK/Ireland/Central and Eastern Europe/Russia, Pfizer

"Press is good for complex messages and subjects that the consumer really wants to investigate. This is because newspaper readers are seeking information and consumers are used to informative levels of copy in the press.

"Press can really help drive home the supporting reasons behind the advertising and it has the potential to be retained by the target readership for future reference.

"The best executions are those that are developed specifically with the press in mind and pre-testing is an important tool to help refine executions. The approach should be no less rigorous than the development of TV advertising.

"Key learnings that we have found at Pfizer include making sure the core message is communicated, that the reader is engaged quickly and can easily read the supporting text. The execution must also be placed in an appropriate section within the newspaper.

"Press advertising should ensure the branding remains prominent within the creative to ensure that consumers who scan the paper will still be aware of the brand advertising."

OWEN JOHNS - Senior brand manager, Knorr UK

"In 2004, I was fascinated to learn of the Newspaper Marketing Agency's work on the effectiveness of newspaper advertising. In the past year I've worked with the NMA and DDB London to develop two newspaper campaigns.

"Two key learnings jump out from this experience. First, how newspapers can amplify a launch mix and, second, how newspapers offer a rich canvas for creative development.

"We found our target audience was very open to newspapers as a source of information, and certain moments of the day offered great opportunities for branded messages - such as a mother's morning break with a cuppa and the paper. The ability of different newspapers to target specific demographic groups or regions reinforces this suitability.

"I've found it highly stimulating to work with DDB London on creative development in a newspaper context. The opportunity to create stand-out work was something the whole team found highly energising. For example, the predominantly textual format of a broadsheet offers a great opportunity for visual stand-out. In refining creative, we found exploring creative with consumers to be highly useful, both in evaluating and developing the creative idea and in honing the execution."