We have ways of testing creative, ways of measuring its effectiveness, but what do we actually know about how to make creative and effective advertising? asks Faris Yakob.

The cultural pendulum swings back and forth, that which was neglected comes to the fore. As clients and agencies look to get ahead of the dramatic changes in the surveillance infrastructure of digital advertising, as third-party cookies deprecate and algorithmic optimization of ROI becomes less tenable, both have begun to re-consider the importance of creativity, as a driver of efficacy, based on the conversations we are having. 

What makes an effective advertisement? Over the last couple of decades we have received evidence-based wisdom from various sources, most obviously the IPA dataBank, Ehrenberg-Bass Institute, and academic research including Tim Ambler’s work at London Business School. So, we now ‘know’ a few things about how advertising works to drive growth. 

It’s better to focus on penetration than loyalty, price rather than volume, leverage emotion, use a mix of channels but include TV if you can afford it, and ESOV is the key driver of growth. Using awards as a proxy for creativity, historically we have seen that the most creative advertising is more efficient than media spend alone, driving up to eleven times more market share growth for the same budget than work that didn’t win awards. 

Analysis from Nielsen’s Catalina platform, which tracks sales through receipts as well as media consumption, splits out the effect into a ‘percentage sales contribution by advertising element’ (this obviously ignores brand effects, since it’s focused on volume, not price elasticity or profitability, but we use what we can get). According to Nielsen, creativity provides 47% of the total sales impact, then reach, brand, targeting, recency and context – but even Nielsen admits that’s misleading, because “context, while it seems to have the smallest overall impact on sales, is very tightly connected to the specific creative.” 

Regardless, they conclude that “while the equation today involves several factors, good creative is still the most important element”. The challenge, of course, is that you can’t separate parts of a complex system and individually optimize them, that’s not how complex systems work because the interactions are the key driver of impact. That said, whilst it would be great if there were an equation for good advertising, the biggest single element is still “good creative”, so what does that look like? Additionally, since 2019 we have been informed that there is a ‘crisis in creativity’ because award-winning work no longer provides a market share growth multiple compared to non-awarded work, so is the creative simply less ‘good’ now? 

We mostly recognize ‘good creative’ by its impact, because advertising is creativity in the service of commerce. ‘Good creative’ drives fame, because people are more likely to talk about it and share it, it is more likely to get mainstream press coverage, all of which are SOV multipliers, and it creates price premiums over time by establishing notions of quality, which decrease price sensitivity. 

The Creative Effectiveness Ladder developed by James Hurman in association with WARC and Cannes LIONS is a measurement framework that allows us to categorize work after it has run, based on which metrics it changed most and consider how we set objectives accordingly. The associated Creative Commitment Score is an important foil to the short-termism that has been diagnosed as the primary driver for the crisis in creativity. The score is made up of media spend, campaign duration and number of channels, which are important considerations, but tells us little about how to make more effective advertising. 

What we know about good creative is summed up succinctly in the following line from WARC’s What we know about creativity and effectiveness Best Practice report: “Creativity is most effective when it is distinctive, emotional, novel, well-branded and has some longevity.”

Let’s consider these concepts. Firstly, advertising needs to be distinctive. That means it should be easy to recognize and stand out. The first job is to stand out in your category. As BBH has long proclaimed, we must Zag when others Zig, which means, for them specifically, what are the creative conventions of the category and how might we challenge them? Further, we know the job of advertising in driving fame is aided by creating and reinforcing memory structures to create mental availability, which leads us to distinctive brand assets. These are visual, verbal or audio elements that are uniquely linked to the brand, from a name, logo, through the tagline, jingle, packaging shape, all the way to the higher order fluent device, like a brand character, that encapsulates key values and creates immediate recognition. 

We also know that certain assets are better at attracting branded attention than others and that we tend to use the least effective ones the most (or, perhaps, the ones we use the most work less well because everyone uses them). Every ad includes a logo, size notwithstanding, but it’s the least effective attention attractor, according to the Ipsos Power of You research. Sonic slogans and jingles are best at attracting branded attention, but the least used, with brand characters coming second. So, good creative creates and continually reinforces distinctive brand assets. 

I’d argue novelty is a form of distinctiveness, something that stands out. As I’ve discussed before, originality is a myth because nothing comes from nothing but things can still be psychologically or contextually novel, even if they aren’t wholly original. Well branded means intrinsic linkage, beyond simply including distinctive brand assets, where the brand is “the centre of, and the reason for, the creative idea” (Dominic Twose & Polly Wyn Jones, “Creative effectiveness”, Admap, November 2011.) The biggest, and most complex, element is emotion. How does creative work elicit emotion in order to maximize its commercial impact? 

Fortunately, Orlando Wood has been looking at this in some detail through his books Lemon and the recent Look Out. His macro thesis hinges on the hemispheric lateralization of the brain and extrapolates it out into cultural epochs, before coming to the conclusion that the crisis in creativity is a function of an increased left-brain orientation in culture and, thus, in advertising. The left brain is more associated with focus, goal orientation, generic, logical, literal, measurement, whereas the right brain is broad, vigilant, syncretic, specific and embraces metaphor, relationships and ambiguity. 

Wood’s research shows that left brain tropes have become more dominant in advertising in the last decade. Flat, split screens, front-facing actors addressing the audience, staring, abstracted product features and body parts, words on screen, monologues and adjectives used as nouns are all more common in modern advertising and less effective at attracting attention, eliciting emotion and driving growth. 

Conversely, right brain features such as specificity, facial expressions, human interactions, human movement and touch, stories with characters that have agency, incidents in which a scene unfolds over time and something unusual occurs, humor, wordplay, metaphor, and melodic music, are less common but more effective. All of which is well supported with rigorous data and analysis and, to this observer, rings true. Wood’s work suggests that we have somehow stripped humanity from our advertising, in part as a function of examining humans primarily through a spreadsheet. 

So, to maximize creative impact on television (because different channels work differently) consider stories of gloriously vital humans, struggling with the ordinary and the quest for meaning, and playful creative that treats the audience, and its intelligence, with respect – but not in isolation. Arguably the only Super Bowl spot anyone is still talking about breaks all the rules of emotionally resonant ‘good creative’, being a floating QR code bouncing around the screen for 60 seconds for crypto exchange Coinbase. This is direct response advertising, which doesn’t tend to build brands, but in context, when more than 70% of Super Bowl spots used celebrities to make a funny, it was the only one that stood out.