Sunday, April 28, 2013

Made Any Good Mistakes Recently?

Love this new campaign for Snickers, from AMV.BBDO in London.

Using Adwords and an alogorithm, it shows 'You're not you when you're hungry' ads to people who type mis-spelled search terms into Google. View the case study here.

And it reminds me that we have a slight obsession with mistakes in adland.

I think 'fail harder' is actually a motto of Wieden & Kennedy. They certainly had the phrase up in their reception, as a rather beautiful artwork made entirely from push-pins.

People in adland love to trot out proverbs like: "If you never make any mistakes, you're not trying hard enough." Or they talk about the need for "rapid iteration", meaning that it's actually helpful to make mistakes because you learn stuff that you can put to good use later.

However, in my experience I've found this kind of talk to be just that - talk.

The reality is that if an agency makes an ad campaign that is a failure, they normally get fired.

If an individual within an agency makes a mistake, they normally get fired. 

The people behind last week's Hyundai 'garage suicide' ad will quite possibly get fired.

And everyone in the pubs and in the ad blog comments will say that they're totally in favour of people pushing the boundaries, but just not in this particular case - in this case the creators made a serious error of judgement, and the ad should never have been made. But when other cases come around, guess what, they too will be exceptions to the rule that it's okay to fail. I've never seen anyone in advertising point approvingly to a failure.

Well, I'm calling bullshit on this whole "it's okay to fail" thing. Clearly it isn't.

The Hyundai suicide ad should never have been made, because it's not acceptable to use that subject matter to sell a product. By way of contrast, 'Dumb Ways To Die' featured multiple people killing themselves with unbelievable gruesomeness, albeit accidentally, but it felt fully justified because the subject was transport safety, and the treatment was cartoony. 

The Hyundai ad has suffered worldwide criticism. Dumb Ways To Die has earned worldwide praise.

The reality is that there is very little margin for error in this business. That is why most clients and agencies make work that is safe.

And yet making work that pushes the boundaries - successfully - remains the only game in town.

Sunday, April 21, 2013

Should The CD Also Write Ads?

This question was asked by a commenter last week.

And the answer is 'no'.

Because the danger is that whatever the CD writes, they will think is brilliant. This is normal - we all think our own stuff is brilliant. But normally, there's a CD there to tell you it's actually piss-poor... unless you are the CD, in which case everyone will tell you it's great, because you're their boss.

The agency will have lost one of the most important advantages of the CD system: objectivity. And it will most likely have gained a bad ad.

The boss actually thought his own ad was pretty darn good

Furthermore, if the CD writes something, and it gets bought, who's going to make it? The CD won't have time, so it will probably get shoved onto some young team. Which will be awful for them. No one gets into advertising to make someone else's ideas, everyone gets into advertising to make their own ideas. And they won't do as good a job as if it were their own idea - we all do a better job when we feel ownership. 

I understand why CD's sometimes write ads. Sometimes, they just want to. (Ego.) Other times, they're frustrated because they feel their teams aren't producing the goods (which in reality is their own fault). And sometimes, they want to 'set an example' to the teams. (Ego again).

But probably the biggest reason is they want credit. A lot of the work a CD does - working with the strategists to refine a brief, working with the teams to refine an idea - is 'invisible'. So CD's are often tempted to write stuff themselves, to 'prove their worth'.

Now comes the tricky part. I've been careful to say up to now that I don't think CD's should 'write ads', by which I mean they shouldn't do the whole thing. But that doesn't mean CD's shouldn't have ideas. They should. Hundreds of them. 

Firstly, they should be working collaboratively with the strategists to come up with ideas around what the brief should be. (You may be surprised to hear that many CD's put virtually zero effort into the brief, feeling that it's 'not their job'. Bullshit. Working with the strategists to get to a great brief should be a huge part of their job).

And secondly, they should be working collaboratively with the creative teams (in fact, the whole agency) to get to great ideas. That could mean throwing out an interesting 'half-idea' that the creatives can build on, or it could mean finding a way to turn a half-thought of someone else's into something great.

So in summary, a good CD never 'writes ads', but instead comes up with hundreds of half-ideas. And takes zero credit for them. Sounds tough, but that's the job as I see it.

Monday, April 15, 2013


'Presenting' is a technical term that refers to how baboons display themselves
for copulation purposes. It is not what this post is about.

I've always thought it strange that creatives do the presenting.

An agency hires creatives to come up with new and lateral ideas. Hence, creatives think differently to most people. They might be a bit weird. Maybe introverted.

Meanwhile, the agency hires account handlers to manage the client relationship. They normally have great people-skills, and will typically be confident and charming.

So who does the agency ask to stand up and present to clients? That's right. Not the confident and charming ones, but the weird shy ones.

I once wrote a post about why creatives shouldn't present.

But... I think I've changed my mind now.

I still think account handlers would do a better job of the actual presenting. But the current set-up makes for a more harmonious atmosphere within the agency. Back in the old days, when account handlers still presented the work, the creatives would be furious with them if it didn't get sold. Even if the client had bought the work, but been so bold as to request any changes... the creatives would react as if they were proposing to graffiti a Picasso. Now, not so much. We're all in the same room. We're all on the same side. We're all motivated to solve the client's problem. And that can only be a good thing.

Sunday, April 07, 2013

Our Real Job Is Smuggling

It's often said that ads need to be entertaining because the entertainment allows us to 'smuggle in' a product benefit - the bit that is the commercially effective part of the ad.

I agree with the smuggling theory, but I actually think it works the other way round.

In other words, I reckon the function of the product benefit is to justify the entertainment. And it's actually the entertainment that is the commercially effective part of the ad.

Take this new ad in the Got Milk? campaign.

The product benefit is "if you drink some milk before bed, you sleep better." But this is just a pretext. The overwhelming volume in milk comes from kids drinking it, and adults putting it in their cereal and coffee. The reality is that very, very few people drink a glass of milk at bedtime and even if this ad were to double that number, its impact would have been negligible. No, the sleep enhancement may be a true product benefit, but it's not the business-enhancing part of the ad.

The ad will be effective because it's cool and funny. (Okay it's not the coolest or funniest ad ever, but my point still stands). So people will continue to feel good about buying it. The worst thing for any product is to become lame. Products that are seen as dated or naff don't sell. Period. This ad will do a good job of keeping milk seeming fresh, if you'll pardon the pun. So the effectiveness of the ad IS the entertainment.

Of course, that doesn't mean the product benefit is irrelevant. Far from it. As I said above, the product benefit is essential, because it allows the agency to smuggle in the entertainment. A comedy sketch (like this ad) has to be about something, and furthermore we find it satisfying when an ad is well-constructed around a product benefit, because it makes the sketch seem cleverer, and the comedy more justified.

I wonder if it would ever be acceptable to say to a client "the strategy we propose is that you do ads that are cool and funny." Probably not.