David Klowden. 21st Century Communication: A Reference Handbook. Editor: William F Eadie. 2009. Sage Publication.
You know the myth that creativity is a divine spark the exclusivity of innate creative ability steers some away from careers in creative fields. Certainly, it does no harm to the ego of a successful “creative” (the adjective has become a noun in advertising) to argue that creativity cannot really be taught. But it is the elusiveness of the divine spark of creativity, not exclusiveness, that really sustains its aura.
That is not to say that there’s no such thing as creative genius. In an advertising agency, clever, persuasive, and powerful creative concepts arise, but only after a lot of both individual and collaborative work goes into preparing the contexts in which they can. In the words of one of my advertising mentors, Nick Lambesis (personal interview, May 2008), “Creativity is always difficult.” It might seem from the outside that difficulty would more likely attend creative fields with fewer parameters, such as painting and literature, where art is sometimes created “for art’s sake,” but in advertising, where creativity is always directed to a persuasive intent in the service of advancing a client’s needs, it’s not enough to create clever, funny, beautiful, or apt communication alone; the challenge is compounded by the mission to sell, build, and ideally sustain a brand. As Nick says, “The big picture is king in the world of brand development,” even as the dominant force behind successful ad creative is “the passion to do good work.”
This passion came to life during the trailblazing era of great creative advertising in the mid-20th century, when the aphorisms of pioneers such as the copywriter extraordinaire Bill Bernbach began to circulate as the lore of creatives: For example, “Rules are what the artist breaks; the memorable never emerged from a formula” (as cited in Klein & Donaton, 2005). Bernbach’s quotations were even eventually compiled in a handbook for the employees of Doyle Dane Bernbach (DDB), the company he cofounded. In more recent decades, the decentralization of advertising from Madison Avenue to shops across the nation and globe, along with the expansion of new media, has given rise to a range of books, “how to” guides, journals, and blogs aimed at explaining the theory and practice of creativity to a much wider audience. In this chapter, I draw on the history, lore, and theory of creative development to examine a successful creative campaign and hope to provide some insight into the role of creative communication and copywriting in advertising at the dawn of the 21st century.
Unlike academic disciplines where theory often contributes to a metaliterature of writing primarily about the meaning of the work, theories of creativity in advertising are almost without exception developed by former or current advertising creatives on the ground. Take Luke Sullivan’s (2003) Hey Whipple, Squeeze This, a highly regarded practical manual on creative copywriting. The nuggets of wisdom he’d learned from his heroes and mentors or developed through his own experience, jotted down on scraps of paper over the course of his years as a professional copywriter, had begun to literally spill out of his file folder. Taking inspiration from Sullivan’s overflowing file folder, I’ve attempted to gather together what I take to be some of the more useful and practical ideas about creative development in advertising circulating in the field and see how they apply to an actual case study. Through an overview of the history of creativity in advertising and a pragmatic, nuts-and-bolts case study of a real-world context, the following pages are intended to contribute to the demystification of the “divine spark of creativity” in advertising and give those interested in a career as a creative ad man or woman a bit more insight into what those of us who do it think about it; what counts as good work and how to produce it; and what skills, passions, talents, and preparation might help an individual succeed in this unique, challenging, rewarding, exciting, and sometimes crazy career.
The History of Writing Advertising
Creativity, you may be surprised to learn, is a relatively new approach to persuading people to use a particular good or service. The historian Daniel Pope (2003) describes advertising in colonial America as “dry” lists or announcements of products and services, generally relegated to the back pages of newspapers. Pope points out one exception: “Benjamin Franklin’s Pennsylvania Gazette reached out to readers with new devices like headlines, illustrations, and advertising placed next to editorial material.” Franklin was responding in part to the colonists’ desire to replace British-made imports with new American-made goods and brought his enthusiasm for promoting new American enterprise to the task of elevating the appeal of newspaper announcements.
But even as Ben Franklin pioneered new approaches to raising interest in American products and services, the “market revolution” of the following century didn’t lead advertisers toward much in the way of further innovations in strategy. Pope’s (2003) examination of 19th-century ads revealed that
newspapers almost never printed ads wider than a single column and generally eschewed illustrations and even special typefaces. Magazine ad styles were also restrained, with most publications segregating advertisements on the back pages. Equally significant, until late in the nineteenth century, there were few companies mass producing branded consumer products. (p. 2)
Thus, with few brands to promote or distinguish from other brands, most advertising still had the look and feel of the classifieds section of a newspaper. The main exception Pope finds are the ads for cures and remedies of early patent medicines that competed against modern medicine, still in its infancy: “In an era when conventional medicine seldom provided cures, manufacturers of potions and pills vied for consumer attention with large, often outrageous, promises and colorful, dramatic advertisements” (p. 2).
The bottle of Peychaud’s Bitters in my bar, for example—the base ingredient of the very first “healing” tonics that became what we now know as cocktails—is covered with a facsimile of a 19th-century label, with headlines boasting that it has “no equal” and is the proud recipient of a “diploma of honor.” The mystery of illness and recovery gave 19th-century witchdoctors the license to sponsor publications to promote dubious claims about the benefits of their potions. (It’s notable that we’ve come somewhat full circle thanks to pharmaceutical company lobbying: Since 1991, prescription medicine advertising has become legal, and the contemporary media landscape is dominated by controversial promises to cure ailments such as lack of sleep and “restless leg syndrome.”)
In the late 19th century, new industries began mass manufacturing of new products in factories filled with new immigrant labor. Standardized production led to innovations in finding and influencing buyers. Department stores lured urban populations to the burgeoning commercial city centers, and catalog advertising targeted the majority rural population. With the increase of available products and competition, advertisers had to follow Ben Franklin’s lead to stand out from the crowd and began to feature more illustrations and bolder, even sometimes risqué (for the era) headlines, such as the famous 1911 campaign for Woodbury’s soap, which featured the slogan “A skin you love to touch,” invented by the pioneer female copywriter Helen Landsdowne. Her success foreshadowed by half a century the creative revolution that opened Madison Avenue’s doors to women and minorities, which I’ll discuss shortly. You’ve probably encountered the types of ads created by early-20th-century creatives such as Landsdowne in Sears Roebuck Catalogue pages laminated onto the tabletops of old-time themed restaurants. As a result of this expanding commerce, total advertising volume in the United States grew from about $200 million in 1880 to nearly $3 billion in 1920 (Pope, 2003).
Pope (2003) suggests that the standardization of enterprise reflected a larger cultural trend in the first half of the 20th century: It was an entire era of standardization, where “advertising and mass consumption would erase social differences.” The influx of new immigrants would be made American in part through their buying into the standard consumption patterns of citizens. Pope quotes the ad agency executive Albert Lasker, who in the 1920s said, “We are making a homogeneous people out of a nation of immigrants” (p. 4).
Thus, even as increased magazine circulation and the spread of radio created more opportunities for advertisers, and the industry continued to grow exponentially and globally in the early 20th century, the delivery of ads, in the service of creating a homogeneous public, remained fairly uniform—that is, until the immigrant populations themselves entered the field and began to prove that Americans were more heterogeneous buyers than advertisers had ever thoroughly considered.
This sweeping change began to stir up the industry in the early 1960s, when the Jewish American writer Bill Bernbach got into the game and threw caution to the wind, bringing risk to the page and leading the creative revolution that would inspire the entire direction of late-20th-century advertising. Pope characterizes this change as a reflection of the cultural shift from mass audience targeting to segmented marketing, but Bob Garfield (2005), in Ad Age Magazine, calls it the storming of the confining Bastille of advertising orthodoxy.
The ad revolution’s emphasis on creativity is championed by contemporary creatives, such as the veteran copywriter Luke Sullivan (2003), as an elevation of advertising that has given it the power to become a more valued enterprise than bald hucksterism, offering the world clever, witty, aesthetically appealing communication. Sullivan’s argument is not merely an analysis of why creative approaches work but is also a reaction against “successful” advertising that he finds nevertheless crass and uninspiring. Hey Whipple: Squeeze This, his book’s title, is a reference to the well-known “Mr. Whipple” ads of the 1970s to 1980s for Charmin tissue, wherein a store manager tries to prevent his female customers from squeezing the packaged toilet paper, though he himself cannot resist its irresistible softness. Sullivan recognizes that the campaign was a huge moneymaker but finds the ads themselves unbearable and blames these and other dry or insipid ads and their ilk for giving advertising a bad name.
Clearly, the timing of the creative revolution in advertising was no accident: Where was there not a revolution in the 1960s? The cultural revolution, characterized by the free speech, civil rights, antiwar, and women’s movements, along with bold experimentation in music, spirituality, art, and nearly all aspects of life, affected everyone, regardless of where one stood along the generation gap divide. The atmosphere of new possibilities and the questioning of the ethical dimension of the way lives were lived gave the “man [and woman] in the gray flannel suit” motivation to self-reflect, to justify, to defend the value of their work, and, significantly, to make it worth defending. In Pope’s view, the creative shift marked a shift from homogenization and assimilation to recognition and acceptance of difference, albeit in the service of establishing market niches.
Prior to the revolution, advertising in the 1950s had begun to seek ways to explain what it was that it was doing. Sullivan (2003) cites Rosser Reeves’s notion of the “unique selling proposition,” the simple theory that if you “buy this product … you will get this specific benefit” (p. 5). Sullivan argues that the uncluttered environment of relatively few brands and the newness of television made distinguishing the uniqueness of a product sufficient for the prerevolutionary advertising landscape. The famed copywriters David Ogilvy, a former researcher, and Rosser Reeves mastered this form of advertisement, which used clearly defined images and several columns of copy to tout the product benefit, based primarily in research of the product and its selling environment. “You must make the product interesting, not just make the ad different,” Reeves argued in the early 1960s, criticizing the “subjective” work of the newer disciples of Bernbach, who sought to free themselves from strict adherence to research and dull forms of expression (cited in Higgins, 2003, p. 125).
But the unique selling proposition wasn’t enough to overcome the uniform sameness that advertising had become. In the 1950s, the review boards of the large agencies oversaw every ad and did their best to stomp out anything that veered too far from what people said they found pleasing to look at. In her autobiography, A Big Life in Advertising, Mary Wells Lawrence (2003) writes that these boards listened mostly to research, and research told them that “America hungered for happiness and peace, so they produced advertising that was happy and peaceful” (p. 3).
Sullivan argues that part of what made the leap into the creative possible was the ever increasing “clutter” of brands on the market and the expansion of media to deliver them. The clutter was inevitably met with what Sullivan calls “the Wall.”
The proliferation of more brands with more claims of uniqueness, promoted in happy ads full of smiling and waving Americans, available in more magazines and on more television sets became less and less distinct or convincing. The Wall refers to the “perceptual filter” that consumers erected to block themselves from this information overload.
The Wall was what Bill Bernbach faced, recognized, and learned to conquer when he ushered in the creative revolution that gave birth to modern advertising, accepting some of the principles of the likes of Ogilvy and Rosser but also challenging them to create new, modern forms of communication. Bernbach established groundwork philosophies for breaking through the wall of skepticism erected by brand-savvy, and brand-wary, consumers. It’s important for any aspiring copywriter to consider Bernbach’s insights and successes because they form the foundational wisdom of the field that undergirds the approaches and innovations that contemporary creatives continue to employ in the digital age, even as new media and event-oriented viral campaigns steer advertising in fresh directions.
Prior to the creative revolution, the creation of ads was literally considered the writing of ads, so dominant was text over image. Denis Higgins (2003), the editor of Advertising Age at the dawn of the Bernbach era, argued that “the essence of this business is putting effective words and phrases down on paper” (p. 9), without even mentioning images. In that era, copywriters were the ad men who became the creative directors of agencies. The division of labor in agencies separated the art department from the center of the action; writers created the ads and artists were brought in to illustrate them.
One of Bernbach’s lasting contributions to the modernization of advertising was to establish as a common industry practice the pairing of a copywriter with an art director as a team to collaborate on the creation of the ad. At the core of this shift is the idea that the visual was no longer subservient to the verbal: Both worked together to produce effective communication. If anything, much of advertising has shifted in the opposite direction, with the visual dominating the verbal as the speed of information transmission has increased. Communication must be simple, direct, and quick: A picture is now truly worth a thousand words in advertising—but that doesn’t mean an artist is now worth thousands more than a copywriter.
The death of the written word in the postmodern era is greatly exaggerated, and even a fragrance ad that is purely visual has a written script or storyboard. Copywriting is to this day a vital position in a creative department, and a great tagline or headline can be central to the creation of an iconic brand. What copywriters and art directors do together is no longer called the “writing” of an ad but rather “concepting” and “creation”: And more often than creating a concept for a specific ad or series of ads, the call today is to create a big concept, a campaign concept, so even as ads may sometimes feature fewer words, the copywriter is also and perhaps foremost a “concepter.” One prominent Los Angeles agency currently asks its teams to present their concepts in the form of a press release: If it’s not news, it’s not a big enough concept. The creative revolution, then, can also be figured as the shift from ad writing to concept generation.
The Bernbach revolution also representsamore literal storming of the Bastille, as Imentioned before: Agencies became more creatively daring, in part because they became more diverse. With more women and minorities in creative positions, advertising began to reflect the diversity of its audiences and became more willing to accept and play to those differences rather than eliding them in the creation of an idealized consumer. Bernbach’s famous campaign for Volkswagen targeted a new generation of drivers before the idea occurred to Detroit. In one well-known print ad, a photograph of a Beetle on a white seamless background is accompanied by the simple headline “Lemon.” The body copy extols stringent Volkswagen quality control, which weeds out any car less than perfect, but it’s the toying with the expectations of the reader that compels.
In her autobiography, DDB copywriter Mary Wells Lawrence explains that the campaign helped the Beetle become “the beloved icon for the intelligent man’s car. Being small was seen as an advantage, modern, young, when that was the age to be” (p. 8). Recently, this Volkswagen advertisement was examined by the creative team at Sterling Cooper, the fictitious, conservative 1960s Madison Avenue agency, in an early episode of the TV series Mad Men; their mixed reaction of curiosity and disdain reveals the radicalism of the departure Bernbach took from established practices. The characters’ anti-Semitism suggests that the rejection of untested creative strategies was linked to resistance to new voices, attitudes, methods, and modes of expression. The opening of advertising to these new voices, the willingness to break rules in order to create fresh and effective communication, and even an unwillingness to compromise (Bernbach famously had no interest in advertising cigarettes), these are the legacies of the revolution that led modern advertising to aspire to the level of art, to clever storytelling, to communicate the benefits of products while respecting audiences.
Bernbach avoided explaining his methods—he argued that each one of the hundreds of creatives that cycled through DDB had their own methods and strengths; thus, I want to honor his approach by avoiding too much emphasis on methodology (Higgins, 2003). One of the best ways to prepare for creative work in advertising is to study in greater detail the history that I’ve only surveyed here, and most important, to examine how great agencies have created breakthrough communication through an admixture of problem solving and inspiration. In the next section, we’ll take an in-depth look at one such campaign.
Creative in Action: The Revolution Continues
In this section, I present an investigation of how creative campaigns work, using as an extended example the Airwalk athletic shoes campaign led by Chad Farmer, Creative Director of The Lambesis Agency in the mid- to late 1990s. This is a useful model for four reasons: first, because it was highly successful, taking Airwalk from a $16 million/year company to $250 million/year in only 3 years; second, because it employed a highly intuitive and original creative campaign strategy that at first glance might seem outside the purview of what a copywriter does; third, because the campaign is a well-known case study, forming a chapter of Malcolm Gladwell’s (2000) landmark bestseller on idea “epidemics,” The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference; and fourth, because my role as Senior Copywriter at Lambesis has given me the opportunity to work closely with Farmer and the Lambesis team, to experience directly the approaches and processes at play in the trenches of this creative-driven shop. These four reasons make the Airwalk campaign a useful case study for our purposes of understanding how creativity in advertising arises and works and considering the major changes on the horizon for copywriters in advertising.
Bernbach said that attracting attention to an ad by standing a man on his head is not a good idea unless you’re selling a product that keeps things from falling out of that man’s pockets (Jewler & Drewniany, 2001). In other words, creating memorable or surprising campaigns is not enough if they don’t communicate the benefit of the product. That is the common thread that links Ben Franklin to Ogilvy to Bernbach to the current and future advertising pioneers: The creator of the product or service is paying for a successful campaign, so agencies must deliver.
Creative work always begins with an objective, usually spelled out in a written document known as a creative brief. The objectives are arrived at through meetings with agency heads, an account team, and clients. These objectives are then presented to the creative department in meetings with the agency’s accounts and planning teams. Creatives will be presented with the product’s current positioning in the marketplace and the goals they hope to achieve. Creatives will often be presented with research about the potential target market for the product and the approaches and advertising budgets of competitors. Research, recommendations of the agency’s media department, client needs, and budget considerations will help determine the media. Most campaigns today involve an ever-widening scope of media types, including radio, TV, print, outdoor, Web, viral, and guerrilla marketing, and a media plan will be based on the habits of the target market.
After the briefing, creatives will work in a team to create a goal. Even if the goal is not explicitly formulated or stated as such, it is an underlying reality of any advertising campaign, and as the author and creative director Mario Pricken (2002) points out, the goal can be articulated in a single question that guides the process toward creative solutions.
In Airwalk’s case, two entrepreneurs in Southern California had created athletic shoes designed specifically for the local skateboarding subculture. The shoes had achieved cult status and popularity among the target market because the shoe was designed to be a better-quality, more stylish alternative to the leading skateboarding shoe at the time, Vans, which had become a mass mainstream brand. When Airwalk decided to expand and target the entire alternative sports community—snowboarders, surfers, mountain bikers, and so on, the company came to Lambesis to help them develop a strategy; using Pricken’s formula, the goal might be formulated as this question: How can we create a series of print and television ads that make young people everywhere want to wear what are essentially specialized sports shoes?
Lambesis developed a strategy based on research—but not typical market research—that would likely focus on surveying young people to find out what they want in a shoe. They conducted field research to find out what Generation X believed in and cared about. Other shoe brands were emphasizing sports heroes and wearing athletic shoes as a way to emulate figures such as Michael Jordan. What Lambesis noticed was that the leaders or innovators in the Gen-X culture loved countercultural music and its antiestablishment, renegade character.
According to Lambesis Creative Director Chad Farmer, who cites Bernbach as an influence, “[Gen-X] was pretty much focused on anti-authority and anti-heroes. We capitalized on that for Airwalk, and made the communications more style-based, celebrating individual style, rather than being like somebody else. It was OK to be yourself” (cited in Roux, 2008). The campaign would introduce cutting-edge antiheroes and quirky individualists to a wider audience and associate the shoes with these fresh, youth-based trends.
Every book listed in this chapter argues that you must know your product, client, and target. While Bernbach argued that research shouldn’t overdetermine the creative, he also stressed that you can’t be overprepared. Successful advertising “must stem from knowledge” and “you must relate the knowledge to the consumer’s needs” (cited in Higgins, 2003, p. 17). Likewise, Sullivan suggests that creatives take seriously and read carefully everything they get from the planning department: “But don’t just read it. Feel it. Take a deep breath and sink slowly into the world of the person you’re writing to” (p. 31). The Lambesis preparation for the Airwalk campaign relied on agency representatives spending time among the consumer group they were targeting, learning not just how Gen-X felt about shoes, but more important, how they felt about themselves.
The process of executing a campaign moves from research, knowledge gathering, and a close examination of the product and target to establishing a direction. These are the big-picture, press-release-worthy ideas. The innovation of the Airwalk campaign direction was derived from a better understanding of the target market and how it took its cues from innovators who identified with antiheroes. In the Lambesis campaign direction, the advertising would mediate between the innovators on one side and the majority of Gen-X kids on the other. The shoe itself would be portrayed as the antihero of the communications, and thus the representative of innovator culture, now made accessible and less risky for the mainstream to co-opt.
But what would the ads look like, and what stories would they tell? Concepting is perhaps seen as a glamorous aspect of a creative’s work, but for most, it does feel like work. Sullivan writes about blank moments spent staring at his art director’s shoes. Most of the “how to” books mentioned in this chapter offer strategies for conquering the blank page, from brainstorming to doodling to listing. In an interview, one of the pioneers of advertising, David Ogilvy, recommended having a couple brandies before writing (Higgins, 2003)! That was, of course, the old days, and if you’ve seen Mad Men, you get a sense of the prominent role of drinking in the boy’s club ad shops of Madison Avenue in the 1950s. Sobriety on the job is favored today, but my point is that there is no universal magic method, no secret formula for getting started. In Mario Pricken’s (2002) Creative Advertising, he emphasizes the use of questions as launching points for concepting and lists hundreds of these questions, which I find particularly useful—for example, “What vision of the future or futuristic image can help to make a product feature visible at a glance?” (p. 41).
One approach that almost any creative, and certainly every copywriter, will tell you is necessary is this: You need to create a haystack to find a needle. Copywriters write dozens, and sometimes hundreds, of lines to find the right one. A good line rarely comes right away; more often, you need to try playing with words, experimenting with points of view, getting it all down. In creating the Airwalk spots, Farmer and his creative team generated literally hundreds of concepts for print ads and TV spot treatments. The Airwalk ads were purely visual stories, with no copy other than the logo. TV spots with minimal to no dialogue were also produced. By brainstorming and posting as many concepts as possible featuring countercultural characters (a young suited spy, a gambling urban cowboy, a rockabilly piano stomper, a futuristic unicyclist, etc.), with their Airwalk shoes as the center of attention (as weapon, robot wear, oven mitt, object of affection, tool belt accessory, etc.), consensus among the creatives could form around the most startling and effective concepts.
One of the Airwalk TV spots featured a young Gen-X space traveler aboard a claustrophobic, futuristic spaceship doing battle with a cockroach. Using all the devices and modern weaponry available to him to no avail, the young spaceman eventually stomps the bug with his Airwalks. In the Airwalk TV spot, humor and cinematic flair invite the viewer to reach the conclusion that Airwalks are not only ahead of the game but also timeless and durable. The concept could have arisen directly in response to Pricken’s creativity-generating question above, but rarely is the thought process laid so bare. The point is to use the established direction as a launching pad for exploration. A copywriter must be ready to think visually and imagine a story told with no dialogue; he or she must be a student, in other words, of cinema.
One Airwalk print ad featured a Buddhist monk in school, glancing down at the test answers on his Airwalks. At the time, Eastern spirituality had just begun to gain an iconic cache among trendsetters in the target population, and the Gen-X icons The Beastie Boys had begun to champion Tibetan Buddhism. By humorously (and controversially, since the ad rubbed some Buddhist organizations the wrong way) depicting the monk in a scene familiar to youth as a moment where they might break the rules, Airwalk was able to capitalize on an association with mild subversion and an insider awareness of a hip cultural icon.
As simple and graphic as the early Bernbach ads, the Airwalk ads depicted their iconic antihero characters and shoes in heavily saturated colors and clear images against a seamless background to give them the quality of fine-art posters, in order to make them collectable art rather than throwaway ads. The strategy worked. Kids were stealing the ads from bus kiosks as soon as they could be put up: the ultimate signal that the ad campaign had achieved the countercultural status with wide appeal that it aspired to—that and the 400% sales increase (Roux, 2008).
This strategy of creating art-quality imagery—along with a cutting-edge direction—foreshadowed the approach to advertising that creatives must adopt today: With more competing media types and options, more people getting their information from the Web, and the ability to skip commercials on TV, creatives need a way to break through the wall of information and communicate directly with people on a powerful, emotional level. The Airwalk campaign shows how clever and exciting concepts can be leveraged to create real success. The key is having a product you can believe in, knowing the target market, developing a direction that will have a direct impact on the target, forming creative teams willing to do the hard work of multiple rounds of creative concepting around the direction, and executing the campaign in a fresh and provocative way.
To become one of these hardworking creatives, you need a range of knowledge even more rich and eclectic than did the copywriters of previous generations. Creatives must immerse themselves in culture. Like the best creatives of the past, they should read trade-focused publications such as Communication Arts and Advertising Age and expand their knowledge of culture, politics, entertainment, philosophy, psychology, and technology. The more you know, the more you bring to the table when you’re brainstorming a new concept or promotion.
But new creatives should also read WIRED and explore the Web. They should be familiar with widgets, blogs, banners, bluecasting, text messaging, user-generated content sites, search engine optimization, and the latest ways people are communicating this year, month, even week. There has been no campaign that I’ve worked on in recent years that doesn’t include a strong Web presence, and in some cases, the Web has replaced television media buying. Beyond the Web, there are new forms of outdoor interactive billboards, inventive wildposting strategies, and a whole range of new paid media. A copywriter today is much more than a writer; she or he is part of a creative team that must be able to see advertising opportunities and storytelling possibilities in nearly everything she or he encounters. Luke Sullivan (2003) points out that you can now “print your client’s good name on the stripes in between car spaces in parking lots” (p. 176). One of the main challenges of advertising at the dawn of the 21st century is to create buzz-worthy events, promotional ideas, stunts, collectible pieces, and surprising ads that don’t seem like ads, since the wall that Bernbach faced is constantly being rebuilt in the cluttered minds of consumers.
But who wants to read an ad on the lines in a parking lot? Creatives must balance their mission to sell with their desire to create appealing communication. Creatives need to develop strategies that break through but also that, as Chad Farmer (2007) likes to put it, “elevate the general aesthetic.” As in Bill Bernbach’s day, there is no reason why the most successful brand campaigns can’t be the most intelligent and appealing. The divine spark of creativity—which in fact can be nurtured in anyone with a passion to create, a willingness to view problems from multiple angles, to write, to play, to falter, to try again, to aim for something meaningful and engaging without being too crass, offensive, or wasteful—has at its heart an ethical/aesthetic component. If it doesn’t, creativity has the potential to add to the clutter, regardless of whether the strategy sells. And in the 21st century, we need less clutter and more creative solutions to the challenges that face everyone affected by choices made in the global marketplace.