Creative without strategy isn’t advertising

I'm not going to be here in my usual place in the next three issues of Strategy, so I thought I'd say a temporary goodbye. I have another important engagement - quite literally. I'm running off to Australia to get married....

I’m not going to be here in my usual place in the next three issues of Strategy, so I thought I’d say a temporary goodbye. I have another important engagement – quite literally. I’m running off to Australia to get married.

This delightful hiatus from everyday Toronto life has led me to ponder a lot more than the proper choice of shoes for a Victorian wedding. (That’s Victorian as in Melbourne, state of Victoria, not a comment on the groom’s age or attitude.)

It has caused me to reflect on this column, and what a great kick I have gotten out of doing it. Seven years ago, I thought maybe I’d have 10 or a dozen column ideas in me, at best. The number I’ve cranked out is currently approaching 200.

Your reaction to them, in general, I would characterize as whelming. Occasionally I piss somebody off, and get told about it. Occasionally I say nice things about somebody’s work, and somebody phones or faxes or e-mails me to say thanks. Beyond that, the great debates that I might have expected over my inspired prose and my innovative thinking just don’t seem to happen.

And yet, every once in a while, I hear that a friend of a friend’s cousin turns to this page the minute Strategy hits his or her desk. Or I get an e-mail from somewhere in Alberta that I’ve never been, from someone I’ve never met, saying that something I wrote rang a bell. This feels good.

But hey, applause and/or controversy are not my motivation. You know why I keep writing these six or seven hundred words? Same reason most people do most things. For me.

Writing this bi-weekly Viewpoint makes me think, and I kind of like that. I’ve always noticed advertising, of course, but now I notice it deeper. When I drive past a nice billboard, instead of just thinking, ‘Hey, that’s a nice billboard,’ I start to think about why it’s nice. And why it’s different. And what it reminds me of, in cobwebby corners of my brain. And what point it might make in a column.

All that makes real good mental exercise. I mean, this is an endlessly fascinating business we’re in…or at least, it can be.

I also think that over the years I have probably revealed a personal bias or two.

I love good advertising creative, and that’s almost entirely what I write about. Good creative today is more important than ever, because the customer has so many communications options, and he/she is NOT going to sit still for formula crap.

But at the same time, I have come to understand that good ideas are not enough without targeted strategy and brand association. In other words, you gotta be relevant. Benton & Bowles used to say, ‘It’s not creative unless it sells’ – and while I’ve always thought they sounded a little defensive with that phrasing, I think they’re right.

Here’s a confession, though. It took me a lot of years in the business to figure this out. When I was a young pup, I was the copywriter for years on the campaign, ‘TANG – the breakfast drink of the astronauts.’

That campaign helped build my career, and it got me a lot of boondoggle trips to Houston and Cape Canaveral. But I never liked it. I always greatly preferred the nifty test-market commercials we’d do. We’d buy the rights to old tango music – ‘TANG GO’, get it? – and we’d give it a hip new Tijuana Brass arrangement, and we’d do lots of quick cuts, and those spots would really be creative, man. (No joke. They were pretty good in their day.)

But my tango spots were only creative. The astronaut spots had a solid concept, and legitimized a very ordinary artificial brand. And 30 years later, I still occasionally hear an astronaut on an interview show being asked if he drinks Tang. I don’t hear anybody talking about my Tijuana Brass version of Hernando’s Hideaway.

There will always be a tension in this business between the people who want to do CREATIVE and the ones who want to rein them in with STRATEGY. And that’s good.

John Burghardt’s checkered resume includes the presidency of a national agency, several films for the Shah’s government in Iran, collaboration with Jim Henson to create the Cookie Monster, and a Cannes Gold Lion. The letterhead of his thriving business now reads ‘STRATEGIC PLANNING • CREATIVE THINKING’. He can be reached by phone at (416) 693-5072, by fax at (416) 693-5100 or by e-mail at