November 10, 2020

By Nigel Hollis

In this video made for EffWeek, Paul Feldwick lays out the argument behind his upcoming book, Why Does the Pedlar Sing? When it comes to creativity, Feldwick asserts, advertising has lost its way. Rather than seeking to be popular with a broad audience, he suggests that all too often advertising is created to win the approbation of those dishing out advertising awards.

Feldwick suggests that in the past ad agencies smuggled creative nonsense – singing bears, dancing chimps and so on – past resistant clients,

“…in the belief that advertising that was popular and enjoyable was generally much more effective than the boring kind.”

And you know what? For the most part, the agencies were right to do so. Back in the 80s when Gordon Brown created the Link pre-test, enjoyability was identified as one of the key drivers of ad memorability, and it still is today.

As Feldwick goes on to point out, however, that sort of advertising is no longer fashionable. He suggests that in defining creativity no one today asks if people outside the advertising village will understand it, like it or remember it. Creativity is not to be equated with shock and awe originality, he proposes, but instead is about making things that people value, enjoy and remember. He implies that what advertisers need is not advertising that wins creative awards, but advertising which wins effectiveness awards.

In focusing in on memorability, Feldwick touches on one of the key properties of effective advertising. The ability to get an idea or impression off whatever screen someone is looking at and firmly lodge it in their minds for future retrieval. But here, I would add one other important criterion to the ones listed by Feldwick, that the idea or impression must also be firmly associated with the brand featured in the ad. The ads that he uses as illustrations of creative nonsense may date from decades ago, but one glimpse of the content triggers an immediate association in my mind with Cresta, PG Tips and Smash. Which is as it should be. How else do we expect advertising to make a brand more salient if people have no memory of which brand was being advertised?

So, to Feldwick’s concern about the nature of creativity in advertising, I am going to add my concern that all too many agencies feel that featuring a brand too strongly in an ad is going to turn the audience off. The two concerns are related and have a root cause in the mismatch between what agency staffers find valuable and noteworthy and that which attracts the attention of the general public. My observation is that most people delight in popular and accessible brands and are perfectly happy to spend time with them and their content, provided they get something they value in exchange.

The dichotomy between cognoscenti and general public is hardly unique to the world of advertising. The connoisseurs of art, literature and wine, to name just a few, often disdain the popular and accessible. Witness the results of this survey conducted by YouGov, which in 2016 found that none of the Turner prize entries included in the research were considered art by more than 4 out of 10 people, and one closer to 1 in 10. As the post notes, this contrasts with Jack Vettriano’s ‘The Singing Butler’ which was thought to be art by over 9 out of 10.

This dichotomy is an age-old problem not just for advertising, but marketing in general. I used to have a presentation that compared the preferences of people who worked in marketing to those of the general public, sadly now lost, but I suspect still relevant. The comparison highlighted huge differences between the two groups when it came to pretty much everything, including music (country and western ranked very highly for the wider audience, jazz was more prominent for marketers).

Of course, in theory this is why consumer insight exists, to put marketers and their agencies back in touch with how the general public feel, what they aspire to, and what they like. And you would think this would apply to advertising as much as any other domain. As Feldwick states in his video,

“We need to stop pretending that creativity in advertising can ever be considered without any reference to the public that we are in business to impress, to woo and to entertain.”

I could not agree more. Why would you not want to check whether the people who need to respond positively to your content are, in fact, likely to do so? But what do you think?

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