Advertising Is A Story -- But A Story That Needs To Sell A Product

We have a sign on the wall of our office in L.A. that reads: “Creative without strategy is called art. Creative with strategy is called advertising.” It’s a quotation from ad industry thinker Jef I. Richards, and while a lot of maxims about advertising are basically meaningless slogans, I think this one is really important for all of us in the business to know and understand.

This was never clearer to me than at Cannes Lions, which our company attended for the first time ever last week. Even though Cannes has sprawled into a crucial event for the entire ad industry in recent years, the centerpiece remains the awards, where creative agencies lined up in hopes of winning. And those awards are, at their core, awards for great storytelling in advertising.

We have to be real about our industry. Advertising is, and always has been, content, but it’s content that people aren’t seeking out (hence the practice of media buying). Our goal is to sell a product, not to entertain and delight, and advertising should be designated as “great” when it sells a product, not when it makes people cry (but no reason it can’t do both). We have to admit that we buy our way into peoples’ paths.

That doesn’t mean we can’t celebrate when advertising also is great storytelling. Because, guess what? It’s an effective story that ultimately sells a product, particularly when consumer awareness is low.

And the importance of storytelling in advertising is in danger, because digital is the future, and we’ve been mismanaging our priorities for both tactics and success in digital. Cannes, with its relentless focus on the power of creativity, is a nagging and sometimes bitter reminder of that.

Digital’s focus on “impressions” -- which ultimately make it possible for a whole lot of meaningless things to look good in bulk -- has amounted to a race to the bottom. Right now, digital lacks both the means to capture real human attention as well as a creative canvas worthy of the kind of work that’s made advertising great in other media. Because of these factors, creatives have many concerns that their work -- the work that leads to Cannes Lions awards and the kinds of moments that not just capture consumer attention, but achieve our ultimate goal of selling products -- is going to be further marginalized.

In no way do I want to deck programmatic buying. Programmatic is great, as long as we are programmatically buying real attention in addition to advertising space. And companies are shifting to programmatic because it’s efficient, not because they hate creativity. Just like in that Jef Richards quotation, advertising is a blend of creative and strategy (and “strategy,” I’d argue, now encompasses the technologies we’ve developed and continue to develop). Programmatic buying is a massive asset to that strategy side. But we have to keep the creative side of advertising front-and-center if we want any of it to work.

And we want advertising to work -- it’s our business. Digital opens up an entirely new age of interactive, non-linear storytelling if we do get real attention and use the right canvas. The future can be really bright if we do things the right way.

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5 comments about "Advertising Is A Story -- But A Story That Needs To Sell A Product".
  1. Paula Lynn from Who Else Unlimited , June 26, 2014 at 6:58 p.m.
    Effie Awards ? The concept doesn't spill over in Cannes ?
  2. David Shor from Prove , June 27, 2014 at 1:20 a.m.
    Joe, as usual, a thoughtful article. Got me thinking. A chief obstacle to the full realization of the power of creative is that unless we're talking about paid media with disciplined use of Control Groups to measure true lift, it is difficult to understand the value of earned media (blogs, articles, PR) which is where more of the great creative impact is made--because it is talked about in those environments. At Prove, we are working to solve that problem with technologies we are developing separately from our digital analytics, acquisition/retention and technology agency, that provide much needed visibility into the customer paths inclusive of earned media environments. We simply need to close that wide open gap of visibility into the impact of inspiring, talked-about creative.
  3. Al DiGuido from Optimus Publishing , June 27, 2014 at 8:05 a.m.
    What has been missing in this discussion is that the primary mission of advertising is to ENGAGE the audience and move them towards either greater brand awareness, preference and loyalty. Programmatic has always been about "audience reach" not engagement. Likewise..."creative" that wins awards for innovation but fails to significantly engage and motivate an audience segment to tangible, measureable action is dust in the wind. When we begin to spend time on engagement metrics..accross all media..we will start to become the professionals that the market needs to transform itself in the digital age.
  4. Steve Climons from Crossover Marketing & Advertising , July 7, 2014 at 1:05 a.m.
    Al, I like the comment of "dust in the wind" I think maybe because of the song, but I do think engagement is important especially social engagement from the creative.
  5. Steve Green from Scratch-it , August 12, 2014 at 7:36 p.m.
    Reveal based marketing is the future of digital story telling, IMHO.