Back to advertising basics

The slowing economy south of border has U.S. marketers reassessing their budgets, and ad agencies, faced with cutbacks and layoffs, are looking at how to save their clients money. One of the ways they're doing it is by substituting lavish, high-tech...

The slowing economy south of border has U.S. marketers reassessing their budgets, and ad agencies, faced with cutbacks and layoffs, are looking at how to save their clients money. One of the ways they’re doing it is by substituting lavish, high-tech and high-priced production with solid ideas and strong, simple communication. Ironically, this new-found concern for the client’s wallet has resulted in agencies doing some great work – they’ve gone back to basics, away from splashy ads that hide the lack of an idea under layers of special effects.

The big U.S. budgets have helped contribute to a genre that makes the simple message complex, or sacrifices message altogether in favour of the latest high-priced Hollywood technique or popstar of the moment. Although Canadian budgets are historically smaller, some executives here believe our industry has come perilously close to travelling down the same road.

The black-and-white scenario of a screaming Beatlemania-type mob of groupies chasing Rogers AT&T employees through an airport, created by Toronto-based MacLaren McCann, has been cited as one example of overkill – the technique has a lack of relevance to the brand and the spot’s dialogue is hard to hear.

While campaigns built around gimmicks and fads are likely to be relatively short-lived, those based on pure insight seem to have endless possibilities. They also have an added benefit of cutting through the clutter in a television environment muddied with so much over produced, high-technique advertising.

One example of simple, strong creative is the new campaign for the extension of Unilever’s Dove brand, Dove Sensitive Skin bar.

Created by Ogilvy & Mather of Toronto, the campaign consists of two print executions and two 15-second television spots. The print shows a Dove Sensitive Skin Bar wrapped in bubble pack or with protective Styrofoam corners along with a packing label that reads, special handling for sensitive skin. A packing crate and an egg carton protect the Dove bars in the television executions.

‘The protection of the bar in the advertising becomes a metaphor for what the bar does for your skin,’ says Janet Kestin co-creative director at O&M. ‘It was such a simple, clear answer and it’s just a coincidence that it was in the mould of what we’ve done for Dove for so many years. We probably looked at 50 things before we got there – and when we saw it, it just felt right and the message was so clear.

‘The message in an ad should always be simple, which doesn’t mean you can’t have a complex execution of that message. Simple means clear. If you look back at some of the early ‘I Am Canadian’ work, it was very complex technically and executionally but the message was so clear.’

The spots are an extension of the award-winning Dove ‘Litmus Test’ campaign that Kestin and co-creative director Nancy Vonk worked on 10 years ago, and the idea is still going strong. The latest ‘Litmus’ incarnation came out earlier this year in consumer magazines and on television, about the same time the co-creative directors were guiding the creative team of Helen Pak and Suzanne Pope through development of the launch advertising for Dove Sensitive Skin.

Kestin says it took the fresh eyes of Pak and Pope to come up with a take that was new and different but yet had the same warm, simple essence of the brand.

It’s this type of brilliant idea that makes great advertising, says Alan Gee, chair and executive creative director of Gee, Jeffery & Partners of Toronto, not big production budgets.

‘I don’t think the gratuitous use of a technique has ever made advertising better.

‘When clients start cutting back, they say we don’t have as much money to spend, therefore your budgets are going to be cut. We’re all hearing that. Agencies are then forced to be really good at what they should have been good at all along,’ says Gee.

‘In an era where we have to pare back, one would hope that agencies start recognizing that the bottom line is a brilliantly conceived idea based on wonderful insights and an understanding of your consumer.’

Geoffrey Roche, creative director of Roche Macaulay & Partners, agrees it’s the idea not the production dollars that makes great spots. No matter what the state of the economy, Roche says agencies should always watch costs on behalf of their clients, and simple tactics such as using a young director can help make the production budget go further.

‘I’d much rather see the client ultimately spending their dollars against media if they can. You need to have a decent spot in the first place, but as long as you keep it simple, there’s no reason it can’t be a very powerful spot.’

Roche cites the agency’s repositioning of Bailey’s Irish Cream last year and a recent television campaign for Ralston Purina’s Little Bites dog food as good examples of getting maximum impact for modest production dollars.

In the Ralston Purina spot, the importance of smaller sized dry food for smaller dogs is illustrated by a scenario that places a small dog beside a bowl of food fit for a Great Dane; the small pooch deftly cuts it with a knife and fork, and is then served the more appropriate Little Bites.

Keeping it simple is also the strategy behind the latest work for Sears Canada, the ‘Stick People’ campaign, from Ammirati Puris of Toronto. Animated stick people are shown enjoying the benefits of their Sears Club points, the ease of shopping through the various channels offered by Sears, and easily putting together a wardrobe thanks to the coordinating brands offered in-store.

Although Sears has announced it’s cutting back its 2001 ad spend, Nina MacLaverty, VP of retail advertising, says the motivation behind ‘Stick People’ was not to save money – animation is not inexpensive – but instead to keep to a strategy developed by studying its target consumer: women.

‘We have the ability to service customers in so many more ways than other department stores. The foundation really wasn’t, let’s make advertising simple, but rather explain how Sears can make life simpler. Come to Sears and we will reward you for your patronage through Sears Club points.

‘We’re reminding people what we’re all about, kind of getting back to basics. Because the [message] was simplify, the execution required simplicity.’

MacLaverty says that even with a modest media spend, the campaign is really breaking through the highly produced clutter because of its simplicity. The campaign consists of three television spots and recently moved into radio. The concept is expected to be integrated into Sears total communication mix and could include promotions and in-store.

Arthur Fleischmann, president and COO of Ammirati Puris, says consumers are over-stimulated and inundated with messages today, so sometimes the best way to cut through is by not screaming. ‘There is more focus now on the creative idea, and if you have a strong idea you don’t have to execute yourself out of a problem.

‘I don’t think a move to simpler production is financially driven,’ adds Fleischmann. ‘It’s a nice benefit when it happens and you can get more for your dollar.

‘I see the same thing in the work we’ve done for Unilever’s Lipton soup with the whoopee cushion and icemaker. They are very simple ideas, and we were able to shoot three or four spots where we would have done only one or two bigger, more expensive ones in the past. The campaign seems bigger for the same dollars.’