Marketers need to put creativity back in its place

Marketers need to put creativity back in its place

Creativity will be lauded this week in Cannes, but it is just one of several drivers of effective marketing that also include strategy, media and brand.

Oh Christ, here we go again. It’s mid-June, which means a small proportion of the global marketing community are heading to Cannes and the rest of us will have to survive a jungle of posts about the 70th annual Festival of Creativity as this week progresses.

Don’t get me wrong, I like a bit of advertising creativity as much as the next marketer. For the majority of us, after all, that was the thing that first caught our attention and dragged us through the career hedgerow and into a life working on brands. And, despite its appeal, there have certainly been times when the whole industry ignored the C-word in favour of its more established, measurable sibling, media. I’d put that period roughly between 2005 and 2017.

We lived in a media bubble, in which traditional fought digital and every channel produced its own syndicated data proving its supremacy over the alternatives. And, while marketers debated the relative merits of different delivery pipes, we started to ignore what we were sending down them. The great quote of that era, as told by David Abbott to Dave Trott – that “shit delivered at the speed of light, is still shit” – is only half funny. It captures exactly the painful obsession with media and the ignorance of the creative quality that took place during this dark, sub-optimal period.

Advertising Profitability Analysis, 2023 from Paul Dyson.

But I’m not sure it’s anywhere near that bleak anymore. So many marketers have made the case for creativity in recent years that the potency of the C-word has been more than restored. Paul Dyson’s recent third iteration of his famous advertising profitability research makes the point that creativity should be venerated as a crucial driver of advertising impact.

It’s data that will almost certainly receive significant play during Cannes and the digital diaspora that surrounds it. Almost every session pays homage to the C-word.

According to this year’s programme you can find creativity “on the terrace”, inside Faye McLeod, in the driver’s seat of a Bentley, and coming out of the music of Tetsuya Komuro. You can learn how DE&I “unlocks” creativity and how accessibility must be its “core pillar”. How “technology is creative”. How to follow a “journey of creative risk-taking”. How AI is revolutionising it. How brand performance can be accelerated through “data-powered creativity”. Even how to “measure creativity, creatively”.

If anything, as Cannes now demonstrates, marketing might well have swung its pendulum too far towards the C-word and – forgive me for even suggesting this – at the expense of the other elements of the mix. Don’t get me wrong, I am glad creativity is getting the credit it deserves. But, as usual, marketers cannot multitask, and it’s ALL about creativity at the expense of the other elements that make marketing and advertising successful.

Take the inestimable Paul Dyson and his famous table. It’s important to note that creative quality can be a 12x multiplier on the ultimate impact of a campaign (up from 10x a decade ago). But it’s not – as too many marketers observed last week – the most important variable we can influence. For starters, we should remember the biggest insight from Dyson’s data – just how unfair advertising is and how much a giant share of mind and shelf will tip the table towards the big boys. Whatever they spend and however bad their ads are, big brands usually win.

That might be the explanation for why Cannes Lions – the awards that are doled out this week – are such a terrible predictor of actual effectiveness.

Mark Ritson

Second, because creativity cannot be atomised into component parts like media, it appears as a singular construct and thus more important than it really is. If we were to agglomerate all the various media decisions into a single multiplier, Dyson’s table would look very different. Despite the lack of detail, the overall insight is probably more telling in this format. Suddenly we see a more balanced picture not dissimilar to the Nielsen research of nearly a decade ago, which estimated creative contributing 47% to the sales impact of advertising with the rest derived from brand and media decisions. Important. But part of a broader and more nuanced picture.

Adjusted Advertising Profitability Analysis, with apologies to Paul Dyson.

Third, the focus on creativity does rather come at the expense of strategy in all of this. If we step away from the isolated and abstract focus of Cannes and look at how creativity plays a role in the marketing process, it usually follows strategy. I know there are plenty of ‘creative strategists’ out there, and more than a few ‘strategic creatives’, but I have always assumed that these people were either taking the piss or, more likely, simply had no idea what the fuck they were doing. I’ve met a lot of great creatives and strategy is not their forte.

And one of the greatest gifts strategists can give themselves is the humility to appreciate that tactical ideas are neither their strength nor their responsibility. Setting up goals and scoring them are two very different things. To do one well you usually need to ignore the other. Ask Ryan Giggs – one of Manchester United’s greatest ever forwards. While Rooney and Ronaldo were bagging a goal every other game, Giggs hit the back of the net only every nine or ten matches. The Welsh Wizard knew he was not a natural goal scorer, his place was out on the left wing setting up his killer strikers. I know there is that achingly worthy proclamation that “good ideas can come from anyone in the organisation” but that’s the patent horseshit of those that don’t actually work with creative people. Each to their own, of course. If you believe it then go forth and empower everyone to be creative. But while you’re asking Gary the security guard about his ideas for the new brand refresh, I’ll be briefing the killer team at Fuckyou, Expensive and Inscrutable on the challenges ahead.

And don’t underestimate the briefing part of that process. Strategy is not lesser than creativity, because it pre-empts and prepares it for victory. A brand must travel through the confusing forests of targeting, positioning and objectives before it can set up camp on the fertile field of creativity. The bridge between these places comes in the form of a client or marketing brief. And – as the Better Briefs team showed us a year ago – that brief and the strategic thinking that constitutes it are just as important as any creativity that follows. And most marketers know it. More than 80% of clients and the agencies that create for them told Better Briefs they don’t believe good creative work is possible without the strategy and the brief first being in place. The Giggsian key to all of this is knowing your place in the process. Not trying to be creative, but building the strategic platform from which it can be achieved in the maximum interests of the business.

So, despite the rosé-tinted view at Cannes this week, can I suggest a more balanced perspective? One in which creativity is absolutely part of the success formula for effective advertising. But one in which it is measured properly, against and with the other factors of influence, which are generally seen as equally important.

Let us place creativity in context against its equally important brethren. First, strategy and its pre-emptive and often unseen role in setting up and directing creativity. Then media and its all-important function to deliver the hopefully wonderful creative execution to the target audiences that have been identified. And, finally, brand. Not the qualitative dimensions of brand meaning that usually absorb us, but the more basic brute size and pre-existing presence of the brand and the multiplicative effect this has on any message – irrespective of creative quality.

Advertising Success Factors, entirely made up by Mark Ritson.

Seen this way, a brand can certainly benefit from creativity but it’s not the prerequisite for success that our Cannes-bound colleagues might believe. You can still produce effective and incredibly successful advertising without enormous amounts of creative panache and risk taking.

I’d like to nominate WeBuyAnyCar as one of the least creative companies in the UK and one that produces particularly uncreative advertising. Seriously, its advertising sucks a lot of ass and regularly features – in its current and former formats – on the list of ads that most annoy the British public. It uses an obvious idea. With no redeeming creative or executional attractiveness. And then just repeats this same stupid, stupid ad (featuring different actors and cars) on a doom loop of tedium. And yet, because the company has a big brand, good media planning and a decent-sized budget, and knows exactly what it is doing strategically, the company’s ads are insanely effective and the company is booming.

And that might be the explanation for why Cannes Lions – the awards that are doled out this week – are such a terrible predictor of actual effectiveness. There is little evidence that winning a Cannes Lion will presage anything in terms of impact on the market.

System1 – the ever-present ad tracking company – has been assessing how well ads build brand for years on a scale of 1 (shithouse) to 5 (exceptional). When it compares the basket of campaigns that win Cannes Lions in the UK or US with the total set of ads in those two countries, the difference is usually negligible. In 2022, for example, the distribution of bad to good ads is roughly the same for Lion-winning campaigns as it is for the broad set of all advertising. And it’s been like that for a decade.

Cannes Lion Winning Campaigns US/UK 2022 versus UK/US Average. Source: System1

It’s almost as if winning these creative awards means nothing. That could be because the people who attend Cannes are judging the work through an industry lens. Which, if you know anything about market orientation, is a very shit-coloured lens made all the shittier by living inside an industry bubble for five days that features relatively few references to the other C-word. The one that carries even more weight than creativity.

But it could also be a function of the limitations of creativity. Yes, the limitations of creativity. Whisper it quietly. Especially around the Riviera if you are heading that way this week. Creative quality is an important factor in advertising success. But there is more to it than that. And having restored creativity to its rightful place in the marketing pantheon, let’s not make the mistake of forgetting all the other drivers of success.