By Inspiration Only
Recession should not lead our clients to expect sub-prime thinking, says WPP's worldwide creative head John O'Keeffe. Creative ideas, he argues, are the key difference between marketing success and failure
THERE has been much chatter in recent years about the cluttered media landscape. I suspect it's now a little less cluttered, as clients and their brands retrench in the face of recession.
Hardly an auspicious time to start extolling the virtues of creativity. Nor is this yet another essay about the need to maintain spending levels, or even increase them, in tough economic times, the better to emerge on the other side in a stronger position (although, for any marketers who have somehow missed that oft made point, you need to maintain or even increase spending levels in tough economic times, the better to etc etc - see previous sentence).
No I simply want to talk about the importance of a creative approach. Period (or full stop for the anglophiles). It's what I've always believed, and lived and breathed, through bull and bear, for twenty years. It's the life force of all the great brands: those that seem to deal with recessions better than their more humdrum counterparts.
I just think it's human nature to gravitate toward the creative. We are story makers, joke tellers, singers, dancers, artists: all of us. Indeed it was the original and still supreme piece of planning, or cultural insight, when someone first thought to marry those instincts with the daily need to trade, thus earning two barrels of corn more than he had previously for his goatskins. Can't think of a tag line for goatskins, but it's probably daubed on a cave wall somewhere.
Creativity is the closest we come to magic in this life. Utterly beguiling but totally inexplicable. And yet, at so many conferences I've attended, the countless agency homepages I've visited, every journal, essay, and 'How to' marketing tome I've waded through, there is the implicit promise that I will be given the secret of creativity itself. I even have a book entitled How to Have An Idea
. Its target audience must be bovine, because we humans can and do have ideas everyday, without the use of a manual. Still they come: those who would try to quantify or calibrate, to bottle this enigmatic human gift: the ability to engage, to lift the spirit, and to capture someone's heart forever... or at least until we fulfill this year's sales targets.
Sorry, did I spoil the moment?
I hope not. Because I see no contradiction between creative evangelism and the hard economic realities faced by our clients. Rather, I see the creative imperative. Brand building, at its best, is simply the use of applied creativity, in order to achieve an objective, or set of objectives, as efficiently as possible for the greatest return. Arguably it's more interesting than just the random whims we all have all the time.
It's also incredibly hard - a fact we don't do enough to recognise - and its results unbelievably precious. Which is why every one of us has a duty to protect the brilliant ideas our creative departments bring to the table, and indeed to respect, perhaps more than we sometimes do, the effort that goes into them. They are our product. And they work. Hundreds of case histories prove it.
Not that that simple fact means we can ever let up on arguing the case for the creative. For, even worse than those who try to write the rules of how to be creative, are those who still argue that creativity itself is a waste of time and money.
I was once asked to do a talk on the subject, and I looked to see who else was going to be speaking. I saw that one contributor was a well known critic of creative agencies. 'Soho fops' I think he called us. He represented the "shout the facts repeatedly and keep a big phone number onscreen throughout" school of marketing. I made sure I was speaking immediately before him. And I told the tale of Claims Direct.
Claims Direct was an online legal service that would represent you if you fell off a ladder, or dropped a brick on your foot at work. On paper they had a very compelling offer. They made it EASY. There were NO FEES. There were NO FORMS. You got ALL THE COMPENSATION. Their big ad had a phone number that remained onscreen for the entire sixty seconds (it felt like a week), as a man with a perma-white smile, wearing a lovely suit, repeated all of the above again and again. My adversary in the audience, awaiting his turn, sat, arms folded, nodding approvingly as the ad was shown.
And then I picked up the previous week's FT
and read out: "Shares in Claims Direct plummeted yesterday after it admitted its expensive advertising campaign had flopped."
He had slightly less of a spring in his step as he passed me on the stairs to the stage.
(Author's note. Despite this story being in the past tense, Claims Direct is now a very successful business which does most of its marketing online. Just thought I'd better add that. It would be painfully ironic were I to be sued by a personal injury firm.)
|"I see no contradiction between creative evangelism and the hard economic realities faced by our clients"|
Some years later, in fact a week after I joined WPP, I was in New York for the Strategy Conference. Oh the laughs! Anyway at some point we were shown the new work from Ogilvy Toronto for a breakfast cereal called Shreddies (for those unfamiliar with this brand, they're little square things: just add milk - I should be in advertising).
Anyway it was losing brand share, and the client was not inclined to throw money at the problem, invest in NPD, add bits of fruit, or do anything that would increase production cost. The only hope this brand had of turning its fortunes round was creativity: an idea.
And so was born New Diamond Shreddies. You see the joke. The team simply rotated them slightly, making them diamond not square shaped. They then behaved as though it were an entirely new product launch. Look it up on YouTube. It's quite simply genius. Everything that Claims Direct wasn't. Yet Claims Direct might make you a fortune for a broken toe, while Shreddies is merely a nice but fairly standard breakfast cereal. One failed, despite its advantages - the other was a massive success. All because it engaged through creativity.
In this age of 360 marketing, there is a hallowed place for the forty five degree thinking of Shreddies. Perhaps I should send the case history to the Claims Direct marketing director. I could hedge my bets by putting a gigantic WPP phone number on every page. But I wouldn't.
I said in New York, amid all the talk of markets, margins, mergers and acquisitions, that this story represents everything that is brilliant about what we do as a business and, whilst all the other stuff is incredibly important, that moment of creative inspiration is ultimately the reason we all come to work.
So let's not be afraid of the subprime challenges we face today. We have the answer, whether the media remains stubbornly congested or not.
Creativity is not clutter. Stop press: found on a cave wall in Mesapotamia - "free goat hanger with every garment".
John O'Keeffe is worldwide creative director, WPP. firstname.lastname@example.org
Source: The WIRE - Issue 31