Creative Enemy Number One

John Dillinger arrest photo courtesy of FBI

John Dillinger arrest photo courtesy of FBI

Ask yourself this: Who is Creative Enemy Number One? Is it short-termism? Is it quantitative pretesting? Is it globalisation? Or the algorithm? Is it ‘matching luggage’ integration? Or the commoditising effect of procurement? Is it category conventions, client conservatism, consensus driven committees? Is it marketing manuals or professional processes? Is it norms, traffic lights and benchmarks? Is it the decline of expertise or the rise of empowerment? Is it old school hierarchies or new school anarchy? Is it VI? Or UGC? Is it having too little time? Or too much?

Well all of these have a case to answer. But I would argue there's another more sinister villain stalking the corridors of any creative business.

When I reflect back on some of BBH's past successes, its golden greats so to speak, I can't help noticing that they are all in some way or another flawed or imperfect. The Levi's campaign that ran through the late '80s and '90s was a huge creative and commercial success. And yet, with the benefit of hindsight, I can't ignore how quite a few of the films focus on a product, Shrink-to-Fit 501 jeans, that represented less than 1% of sales (poor commercial judgement surely); in one key film the hero abandons the product at the end of the drama (we really shouldn't have let that go); in others we feature heroes that were probably unaspirational to the core male target (elementary error). With the benefit of hindsight, in a more disciplined, logical world, one has to conclude that many of these films should not have been made. Indeed, that whole Levi's campaign traded on heritage, which we know is the last thing to interest young people. Maybe it was all a terrible mistake.

In those distant days we also created a very successful campaign for Olivio, a healthy olive-oil based spread. It featured the adventures of a group of happy elderly Italians, but as I look at it now I'm more than conscious that a health brand should really be identifying itself with youthful vitality. So maybe that should have been a non-starter too. We developed a campaign for a beer brand, Boddingtons, that associated its taste with things like shaving cream and sun cream. If you have ever worked in the food sector you'll know you shouldn't compare the edible with the inedible. And then there's the longstanding Audi endline,‘Vorsprung durch Technik’. It was written in German, a language the vast majority of the audience couldn't understand. A more intelligent recommendation would surely have been something that conveyed the same meaning in English. ‘Progress Through Technology’ perhaps.

More recently we've told British Airways customers not to fly during the Olympics and we've launched a female variant of a deodorant brand that is wholeheartedly male. Neither of these seems a smart commercial move.

The more I look back on our proudest moments of the near and distant past, the more I see campaigns that do not stand up to scrutiny of strategy and execution. There appear to be very sound, robust reasons why much of this work should never have seen the light of day. And yet, it was all highly creative, award winning communication that delivered significant returns on investment. This is not the narrative we generally encounter in case studies or marketing text books.

You can try this exercise yourselves at home. Think of the most creative and successful campaigns that you've worked on or that you personally admire. Then apply your left brain: Identify the critical flaw that means that execution or campaign should never have been made. Don't worry. I can assure you there will be one there.

The more I think about it, the more I'm inclined to conclude that all the best communication is flawed; that being strategically or executionally flawed is a prerequisite for great work.

So what's going on here? I suspect Creative Enemy Number One is our own intelligence. It's our own ability to identify shortcomings in ideas. Because smart, intelligent people can always find a reason not to proceed; and the smarter you are, the greater will be your capacity to see problems, to cause complexity. Creative Enemy Number One may be looking at you in the mirror every morning.

When you think about it, ordinary work is actually the intelligent choice. Because ordinary work tends to translate the brief directly, it observes sector conventions, it uses familiar reference points. And, critically, it achieves low levels of misunderstanding or rejection in research. By contrast extraordinary work often correlates less directly with the brief, it breaks sector conventions and it uses unfamiliar reference points. Consequently, it often precipitates a certain amount of misunderstanding and rejection in research. Extraordinary work is ordinarily very easy to reject.

Inevitably, behind every great piece of communication you'll find clients who were brave enough to see beyond the flaws; clients who could control the whispering voice of reason telling them “it's good, but it's flawed”, clients who were happy to stop making sense.

In nearly all aspects of business, intelligence represents a blessing, a competitive advantage. But in the judgement of creativity it can represent a curse, a competitive disadvantage. We must be mindful that there are always very sound reasons to reject great communications ideas. But the existence of a good reason to reject something doesn't mean that you should.

There is indeed a fine line between stupid and clever.

First published in YCN Magazine 24/01/2014

No. 30