The year ahead for creativity

Advertising in 2015 will remain preoccupied with real-time marketing and big data, but those who can apply true creativity to these disciplines will succeed. By Russell Ramsey.

Russell Ramsey
Russell Ramsey

One hundred and fifty years ago, James Walter Thompson started arguably the world’s first ad agency. Originally selling ad space, he recognised the power of the content of communications. This was not just about reach but could and should be about engagement, entertainment and persuasion.

So here we are, 150 years later, and we’re all trying to do the same. But now we have more channels, more information about the consumer and very sophisticated production techniques. Ultimately, what we’re trying to do is use our creativity to capture people’s imagination and make communications more effective.

]I’ll stick my neck out straight away and predict that UK agencies won’t do as well at Cannes this year as they did in 2014. The four Grands Prix for Harvey Nichols will not be repeated. Not next year, and not the year after. This doesn’t mean, however, that it can’t be another good year for British creativity. Just look at the creative websites and blogs around the world and you’ll see they are still hungry for ideas and content from the UK.

I think we’ve got our confidence back in London but, as always, there will be challenges.

Real-time marketing

Real-time marketing or moment marketing are the new names for topical advertising, and it was the growth activity of 2014. It’s going to go into overdrive in 2015. Every brand will feel the need to be able to respond to anything that moves in an instant. They will be deploying an "always on" marketing plan.

Everyone wants to do the next Oreo "dunk in the dark" or Kit Kat "#bendgate". You won’t even be in the game unless you’ve got a real-time marketing command centre tracking every event in the world to identify something big, small, relevant or irrelevant for your brand to comment on.

Your command centre may just be three interns locked in the stationery cupboard, but it will illustrate to your clients how nimble, responsive and "real time" you really are.

Check out the John St spoof videos about "reactvertising" to see how crazy this can get. They show agency executives stalking their clients for approvals of topical Tweets, Facebook posts etc, ambushing them in restaurants, in the office and quite literally sleeping with them so they are right there to take advantage of the real-time marketing opportunities.

Expect 2015 to look something like this. Eventually, the brands that are more disciplined and deserving will be the winners rather than those with a scatter-gun approach.

Big data vs creativity

In 1894, The Times estimated that, by 1950, every street in London would be buried nine feet deep in horse manure. It came to this conclusion because it had studied the data. The data showed that each horse was producing 15 to 30 pounds of manure daily. Multiply that by the number of horses and times that by the number of years, and you have an accurate prediction of the future problem. It didn’t work out like that, did it? Data can be a dangerous thing in the wrong hands. Finding the story behind the data is the most important thing.

Similarly, research was championed as the way we could predict how consumers would behave but, as we know, there are many poor decisions taken in the name of research findings. Creatives want freedom to use their intuition. Doing something new means doing things differently and not following the rules. Wisdom, they say, is knowing which facts to ignore and, as far as I’m concerned, creativity is knowing which data to ignore. Creatives don’t want to hear: "Computer says no." The algorithm for creativity has not yet been written, although many people are trying. It won’t be written in 2015.

Activation and content

2014 saw the astonishing Blood Swept Lands And Seas Of Red. This was the activation idea of the year: 888,246 red ceramic flowers, one for each British and Commonwealth soldier who fell during World War I, were placed outside the Tower of London. Yes, it raised money for a good cause, but it caught the imagination of the nation in a way that no-one predicted. Four million visitors, tremendous traction in the media worldwide and £15 million raised for various military charities.

Wisdom is knowing which facts to ignore and, as far as I'm concerned, creativity is knowing which data to ignore. Creatives don't want to hear: 'Computer says no'

This was a hugely ambitious project and required the faith of the clients and all those involved. Well done to them for not putting this in the "too difficult" box. Will anyone better this in 2015? I doubt it, but there will surely be a huge growth in activation or participatory ideas for other charities, as well as for brands.

Everyone is after ideas that capture people’s imagination and lead to amplification in free media. Ideas such as the Ice Bucket Challenge or the British Airways interactive poster in Piccadilly. Ideas that add up to more than the sum of their parts. Something newsworthy that provides content for broadcasters and bloggers, and spreads the word. These kind of ideas can be brilliant but need a hell of a lot of organising and belief. My plea for 2015 is that more clients should back them. The rewards can be huge.


Integration has long been the ambition of every marketing director. Pulling all their communications together under one idea and having all the channels interlinked so the consumer can move seamlessly and effortlessly between them to purchase. This has eluded many brands so far, but 2015 will see more achieving it or at least getting closer to it.

This will be done by rationalising creative partners or encouraging more diversity of skills on the part of agencies. Bigger teams working together in concert to deliver the whole idea, not just the parts of the idea that fit the tried-and-trusted media plan. At the centre of it, of course, there needs to be a great idea; but each channel should be used to its best effect and not just be matching luggage. Harvey Nichols’ "sorry, I spent it on myself" being a great example: film, print, online and retail all working to maximise the idea. Honda’s "the other side" is also a great idea, fully integrated with a clever use of technology. But let’s not kid ourselves that traditional channels will disappear. A pre-Christmas Saturday Telegraph came with four catalogues (including John Lewis) and five leaflets. Some brands clearly think this is still effective media.

The growth of more integrated platforms will be liberating for creatives. Their ideas will know no bounds. That character you created for the TV ad can be the star of a half-hour sitcom. The digital campaign can be realised at point of sale. An outdoor idea can be a full-blown activation. And what a joy for the consumer. They can hear a brand speaking with one voice.

The general election

General elections in the past have proved to be a hotbed for creativity, and the next one should be no dif­ferent. Remember "Labour isn’t working", Blair’s evil eyes and the morphing of Hague and Thatcher? Not to mention the party political broadcasts, Labour’s story of the "Tory pork pies" and its attack on Nick Clegg in "the uncredible shrinking man".

The rise of Ukip should give the hustings a little more spice. Just look at the fuss created by the picture of a white van parked outside a house in Rochester with two flags of St George. This was surely the image of the year. The caption was an innocuous: "Image from Rochester." It won’t be lost on creatives trying to find the pictures and words they hope will fly around the media and stimulate debate and PR. Nigel Farage should provide plenty of material.

I’m predicting the main parties are going to fight dirty in 2015. This should be fertile territory for crea­tivity. Some of the best election communications have played on the negative. There’s not much mileage in the earnest politician speaking to camera. The use of one-to-one targeting and social media will be unprecedented. All the data they have been collecting for years will be analysed and turned up full throttle. Let’s see what the creatives make of it.

Russell Ramsey is the executive creative director at J Walter Thompson London

Top creatives respond to Ramsey's predictions, here