Ideal ideas are not original but variations of a form, marrying innovation and immediacy to different frameworks. Advertising goes wrong in its search for originality, says Faris Yakob, when it confuses originality of content with originality of form.

“General advertisers and their agencies know almost nothing for sure because they cannot measure the results of their advertising. They worship at the altar of creativity, which really means originality, the most dangerous word in the lexicon of advertising.” (Ogilvy)

Ogilvy was no fan of creativity without efficacy, but he falls into the same trap that many people do when considering creativity by conflating it with originality. We do worship at the altar of originality, as though every idea has sprung from a blank slate rather than being a function of inspiration, culture and constraints.

Advertising is made of and for media. All media settle into established tropes and typologies. Sonnets are only sonnets because they obey the rules that make them sonnets. Early pioneers establish tropes. Later generations learn those rules in order to deviate from them to build higher orders of meaning on their shoulders. Clichés start out as compelling aphorisms. When they become too successful their overuse deflates their impact and so innovators look to modify them, playing to the understanding of a media-literate audience.

Ideal ideas are not original but rather variations on a form, marrying innovation and immediacy to existing frameworks. A dash of the familiar makes something palatable, a hint of the strange makes it interesting. This makes sense in terms of cognitive processes. Our attention system is a pattern recognition engine, looking for repeatable phenomena to simplify how we navigate each day. When a baby first drops a ball, it has no idea what will happen. Enough repetitions adjust its model of the world and by two months old babies have grasped the idea of gravity. Once that pattern is established it will no longer trigger attention – only disruptions will. We are drawn between the opposing poles of familiarity and novelty. That’s why the label ‘new and improved’ is ubiquitous in consumer goods packaging, despite being an oxymoron. It promises reliability (improved) and novelty (new) at the same time – a mythic collapse of an inherent contradiction.

The first television commercial for Bulova Watches aired over 75 years ago. Since then, key formulae have emerged for successful advertising and we would thus assume that the most successful ads would use those formulae in innovative ways. The scientific evidence supports this.

In a paper called The Fundamental Templates of Quality Ads, an academic research team analysed 200 award-winning commercials and established that 89% could be classified into just six categories. IPA research shows that award-winning ads are 11 times more commercially effective than those that do not win awards, so we can use this as a proxy for efficacy. To quote from the study: “The research suggests that successful advertisements share and are characterised by abstract patterns termed creativity templates.” These formulae are: (1) Extreme Consequences (the Lynx Effect); (2) Pictorial Analogy (Sony Balls); (3) Extreme Situations (Dumb Ways to Die, Epic Split); (4) Competition – against anything, not necessarily competitive brands but could be (Comcast Rabbit, Energizer Bunny); (5) Interactive Experiments (Whirlpool Care Counts, Fabreze Breathe Happy); (6) Dimensional Alteration – in which the ads change some parameter such as size or time (Guinness noitulovE, Carlton Draught Big Ad, Morton Salt, and OK Go The One Moment).

The researchers then tried to classify other ads for the same products that didn’t win awards and found that only 2.5% of them fit the templates. Then the researchers experimented to see if the frameworks could create good ads by design. Two groups were briefed to come up with ideas, one equipped with the templates. The results from the latter group were judged to be more creative using standard pretesting methodologies.

We continually confuse originality of content with originality of form. As media typologies become established, the tropes, and then the form itself, become less resonant. Sonnets do not have the same cultural salience they once did. There is only so much a brand can do in 30 seconds of film or a print ad or poster but fortunately we are no longer restricted to such. The NEW @ LIA Awards (which I co-created and continue to curate) were designed to embrace such novelty of form, to encourage experimentation that might lead to new media typologies for brands. To make award-winning successful advertisements, use a formula. To make something original, seek new forms.