Why analysis and creativity are inseparable

Ken Wong on why brands should never use advertising to put lipstick on a pig.
Ken Wong Hi Res

By Ken Wong

A professor of mine once told me, “Ads that win awards usually don’t sell products.” At the time, I took this to mean awards were largely based on the so-called creative and production values regardless of whether they actually produced sales. If true, it followed that those who pursued awards would be more focused on being “out there,” “on the edge” and fighting to “break through the clutter” than they would be about creating great value propositions and being “on strategy.”

It was a damning indictment of an advertising industry where everyone wanted awareness but few were skilled enough to translate that awareness into the trial and adoption required to generate sustainable sales, loyal customers and ROI.
Worse yet, because “advertising” was the most visible part of marketing, it also relegated marketing managers to its marcom function in the eyes of many CEOs and CFOs.

It was also a surprising indictment to me. I had learned about advertising by reading the works of people like David Ogilvy. In his classics, Confessions of an Advertising Man and Ogilvy on Advertising, his focus was on “how to produce advertising that sells.” He carefully laid out advice on how to get the most from different media and how his general principles could be applied in B2C, B2B, cause marketing and other sectors. His fundamental key was “Tell the truth…but make the truth fascinating.”

The emergence of social media gave a new, more literal meaning to my professor’s views and further validated Ogilvy’s belief. Social media was more about relationships, conversations and becoming trusted advisors to customers.
It was not about “selling” per se (or “persuading” people to buy). Nor should it be.

Think of it this way: I have a good friend in the custom kitchen business. Because he is a good friend, I’ll ask his advice and give him the inside track when I need a kitchen renovation. However, he’ll lose that advantage quickly if he tries to convince me I need a new kitchen on every occasion I invite him to come over to watch a game. Eventually, I would stop inviting him.

What does all of this mean for how we create effective advertising? Simply put, great advertising starts long before we create ads.

If the key is to “tell the truth” then we better be sure that the truth will sell before we think about being “fascinating.” That means we don’t use advertising to put lipstick on a pig. It also means that we have a moral, if not commercial, obligation to be candid and open with clients.

Name recognition and brand awareness are easy to achieve: create a flashy, invasive ad and show it often. But this isn’t generating sales – it’s buying sales. Creating an ad that generates sales requires lots of homework. You need to know (1) who you serve, (2) what your product does, and (3) whether some part of what it does is a legitimate “big idea” for those you serve.

Most people know (1) and (2) but few really understand how to determine whether their idea is really “big” or just a pretender. Without the big idea there is no compelling reason to act on the ad’s “truth” and no trial nor adoption following awareness.

While this may seem contrary to those with a business development focus, consider this: we aren’t paid to create ads; we are paid to help our clients make money. If they do, we win and get repeat business. If they don’t, there is no repeat business no matter how good our work is, because we are associated with failure.

I do not mean to lessen the significance of creative and the drive to create brand personalities, emotional ties, brand champions and the like. Clearly, good messages can be lost if not seen or presented well. But these devices aren’t our “truth.” They are ways to make that truth “fascinating.”

Perhaps this is why analysis and (good) creativity are inseparable.

Ken Wong is professor of marketing at Queen’s University and managing partner of knowledge development at Level 5 Strategy Group.