Solving The Creative Problem

  • by , Featured Contributor, April 14, 2011

Everybody seems to be complaining about the quality of ad creative these days, whether it is lack of a great idea, poor taste, poor production quality, mismatched message and product or brand, or too much copycatting. In fact, I don't believe that I have been at a media or advertising conferences this year -- and I attend a lot of them -- where complaints about the quality of the creative in media today wasn't a significant topic of discussion.

I must confess I agree. I believe that ad creative is suffering today, and here is why:

Can't keep up with explosion of channels and placements. Producing ad creative today for large consumer marketers is much harder than it used to be. Today, not only do you need executions that can run in print, radio, TV, on PCs, on phones, on tablets, outdoor, direct mail, in-store, and any other number of new media platforms, but you need them to be complementary to an exploding number of new kinds of contextual and audience-centric placements. The creative is expected to appear native to each and every medium and each and every placement. It's not possible, and it shows.



Separation from rest of the agency functions. The death of the full service agency has hurt the quality of creative. Not only do different agency folks control creative than control marketing strategy and media, but all too often, they aren't even in the same agency companies. In fact, many times they are being managed by companies owned by competitive holding companies. How can you reliably deliver truly integrated marketing when creative, strategy and media are not only separated, but many times are competing?

Declining budgets. Everyone in marketing today, it seems, wants more for less. Of course, few things actually work that way -- unless you are talking consumer electronics or 7-Eleven soft drinks. Much of the bad creative that we see today on the Web and on TV is a result of those cuts. Certainly, operating in a world of increasing competition and maturing markets means that many consumer marketers in the U.S. need to better manage their marketing expenditures. However, across-the-board cuts in marketing and advertising (and creative production) are lazy ways to solve important problems. Great marketing should be a growth engine -- a profit center -- and should be run that way.

Flavor-of-the-month focus. Too many folks making decisions around marketing communications strategy get too focused on fads. At the moment, when you talk to brands and their agencies, it's all about social -- unless, of course, it's all about mobile. It used to be all about multiplatform (OK, maybe it still is) and consumer-generated media. Before that, it was all about search; and, before that, it was all about the Internet. To long-term winners, it's all about the customer, the product and the service. Marketing communication is just about you and your customers, and partners share that success with each other.

Short-term focus. This point relates to the last one. Today, in an era of "do-anything-to-get-attention" marketing practices and too many folks following the precepts of books like "Bang! Getting Your Messages Heard in a Noisy World," too many companies and too many creatives are only looking for a quick hit and to stand out in the crowd. They aren't spending nearly enough time and money thinking about building long-term consumer favorability and purchase intent.

Lack of strong brand message. Great advertising  starts with the brand and its message. If advertising and marketing agencies are no longer sure who they are any more, it's even worse for many of today's large consumer marketing brands. The helter-skelter, financially driven portfolio management approaches that many of them take to running major families of consumer brands generate little or no regard to how they relate to consumers. If you don't have a clear and strong brand message, it's hard to have clear and strong creative.

What do you think? Is there a creative problem today? If so, how should we solve it?

16 comments about "Solving The Creative Problem".
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  1. Yossi Barazani from, April 14, 2011 at 5:50 p.m.

    Maybe it's part of a bigger problem for online advertising as the Pew Project for American Journalism annual report for 2010 describes: "the vast majority of Internet users, 79%, say they never or rarely had clicked on an online advertisement. They don’t mind them. They simply ignore them."

  2. Paula Lynn from Who Else Unlimited, April 14, 2011 at 6:01 p.m.

    Dave, whether it is about creativity here or other topics you cover, it is so rare to see that someone has agency, publishing, other media and sales insights like you do and can express the issues so succinctly, so well written. One of the best of the best. You cover more than creativity with this article.

  3. Eugene Walden from 4delite, April 14, 2011 at 6:22 p.m.

    Thanks so much for highlighting this exploding problem. As it's gotten worse, more and more of the work has been pushed down into the catacombs of ad production, either in-house or outsourced. Throwing bodies at the problem can work when you have a 2X, 4X, or even 10X increase in ad versions, but the explosion has now become exponential.

    The only way to build scalable creatives is to change the process from the start; you can't just push that to the ad production stage.

    At 4delite, we solve a piece of this problem for online and mobile advertising. You can build scalable creatives, across multiple sizes (IAB, MMA, custom), formats (Flash 8, Flash 9, HTML5, GIF), and versions. You can check out a free trial at

  4. Dave Morgan from Simulmedia, April 14, 2011 at 6:32 p.m.

    Yossi .. to further support your point. Comscore research has shown that, as far back as 2009, two-thirds of all web ad clicks in the US were generated by only 4% of users. Clearly, the other 96% are finding something lacking in the web ads they see.

  5. L john Yarusi from Olive LLC, April 14, 2011 at 10:01 p.m.

    You speak the truth... Awesome post.... I kindly appreciated the last point - LACK OF STRONG BRAND MESSAGE...

    If you don't have that - what do you really have...


  6. Brian Quinn from Triad Retail Media, April 15, 2011 at 8:44 a.m.

    How true Dave. One of the biggest challenges in the digital creative space is that the entire enterprise is focused on "what's next". How much creative firepower is going into creating a great 300x250? Compare that to TV, where the rock stars of the creative agency spend all of their time (when not working on that screenplay) to create emotional, funny, narrative 30 second spots. At the next conference you attend, if you were to ask the audience to name the last great memorable online display ad, I bet most would say "Apple". And those home page units have not run in close to a year.

  7. Peter Minnium from Iab, April 15, 2011 at 11:26 a.m.

    I completely agree with your assessment of the problem. What's the solution? Among many things that we can complain about, one thing that we as an industry can do is work to make creative friendly canvasses available to agencies at scale. In other words, if agencies aren't racing to master the complexity of creating myriad quality executions of the same concept to "fit" a broad range of contexts, let's work to limit the variations they need to create. Agency Creative Director after Creative Director tell us that they get tech requirement spreadsheets attached to each creative brief. This means they have to use their limited resources to design to spec, not design to an idea. And for that, they give the assignment to cheaper internal talent who are thorough vs the more expensive people who are conceptual masters. The result is workmanlike, but not brilliant.

    Now the self-serving part of this response: the IAB has taken an important step to move the industry forward in offering creative friendly ad formats at scale. They are called Rising Stars and detail can be found here: These new units were unveiled last month and are now being built and adopted broadly, with wide availability scheduled for June.

    In truth, while this is a major move forward, we have a long way to go. Glad to have all voices join the journey. You can find me at

  8. Christine de la Garza from Strategic Consultant, April 15, 2011 at 12:02 p.m.

    Oh Dave... I'm right there with you.

    Having had the honor of working at iconic ad agencies on global accounts, I have to express that I'm absolutely one of the disgruntled... by all genres of advertising - online, offline, outdoor, inStore.

    I keep yellowing out loud "It's off strategy!" or "What's the strategy?" or "O my God, the client paid for that?"

    I agree that we're compelled to move fast and furious thru new and evolving media channels that demand freshness in order to capture a consumer's attention, but I believe old school methodologies are still valid and should be managed, both by the CMO on the client side and by the keepers of the brand on the Agency side. And certainly by consultants like myself, who should know better.

    Great creative is strategic at it's core. No matter what the execution. Advertising that is strategic should drive brand differentiation, such that the consumer aligns (over time) or aspires to such.

    And Research & Planning directs strategy with insight, which are key informants in the creative development process.

    It's old school, man. But it works. When the cycle is followed through. Over and over again. In an integrated fashion. Across all touch points. With each speaking it's own truth about the brand and the consumer and their relationship together.

    I'm not saying it's all scientific per se, i.e. positioning and research and planning and insights and strategy and creative and development and execution = brand awareness and market share.

    I totally believe that thigh slapping creative is part art, science and intuition.

    But I can't help but feel that we're losing the art part as much as we're losing the science part and intuition needs those two to hold it up so it doesn't die an unknown death.

    I'm honestly freaking out. You've got all these young guns immersed in the digital sphere who don't have traditional advertising chops. I'd like to steward a program in digital and traditional agencies where we're all learning from each other, because we'll all reap the rewards. It's a new world. And new methodologies and understanding need to be developed perhaps.

    At least so I can absorb advertising without feeling like my ulcer is going to flair up! LOL.

    I was watching a documentary called Art & Copy on Netflix (check it out) and it made me nostalgic for an era when Advertising was seriously cool and absolutely relevant.


  9. Dave Morgan from Simulmedia, April 15, 2011 at 4:42 p.m.

    Christine,thanks much. I truly believe that the art part will come back. Right now, since all of the digital stuff is new, the tech, science and math are overshadowing the art. However, better art + science will beat science alone. Once we see that happen, more will follow ... just might take some time.

  10. Doug Garnett from Protonik, LLC, April 15, 2011 at 5:37 p.m.

    I agree with many of the challenges here - especially an incredibly short-term focus. But, I disagree with the idea that advertising faces a problem in creative quality.

    I think our problem IS what we've come to define as creative quality. And as a result, modern advertising doesn’t deliver meaning. (I hear this in research where, allowed to talk and with open minds that really listen, you hear that consumers complain primarily about advertising because it is meaningless.)

    Hearing this, agencies try to make their ads funnier. What? Funny doesn't increase meaning - it usually decreases it.

    In many ways, I think that's what the advertising farm system (portfolio and agency schools) these days is designed to result in - new creative teams who don't understand message but understand art.

    Advertising is best when art and message come together.

    It's effective but not absolutely best when message rocks while the art may not.

    It's absolutely ineffective (because it doesn't appeal to consumers) when there is art without message.

    And sadly, today consumers are all too often confronted with meaningless art that clients are told is advertising.

  11. Karen Goldfarb from Madcap Labs, April 15, 2011 at 5:53 p.m.

    Not sure we can solve it, as in, actively take the problem by the hands and fix it, as much as it will be an evolution with its own life.

    With the advent of desktop publishing, we had democratization of printing. The same has happened to film making, music, photography, and now, with all the forms of marketing and advertising available, including social, it's happening with advertising too. In minutes, you can broadcast your message to the world, no matter who you are. That's a pretty big shift to react to, strategically and creatively. Attention spans are divided sharply. Something newer, more exciting, more interesting is just a click away.

    What I think is ultimately going to happen is that some channels will prove ineffective overall, some will prove effective only in certain usages, agencies will sort themselves out and maybe rise again in smaller, more nimble forms, and creative will again be able to focus, albeit in a new light. That said, the pace of development of new technologies and brands is so fast, it's going to take awhile. And it's never going to be the same as it was.

  12. Harry Webber from Smart Communications, Inc., April 15, 2011 at 9:31 p.m.

    Ha, ha, ha, ho, ho ha, ha. Somebody smack me. I can't stop laughing. C'mon. Somebody. (Smack!)...Thanks. I needed that.

    Now that's much better. In fact it was much, much better when helmut Krone, Gene Case and I did it way back when for Mennen Skin Bracer. So was "I'm Stuck on Band-Aid Brand,(87.6% of the market)" and "A Mind Is A Terrible Thing To Waste"(a billion dollars to Black colleges). The two longest running campaigns in history created by Mike Becker, Berry Manilow, Forrrest Long, Vince Daddiego...oh yeah...and me.

    Have I gotten your attention yet? Do you really think that screens and analytics and technology and science and money have anything to do with why advertising creative sucks?

    They have nothing to do with why. Advertising creative sucks because the people who create advertising think they are smarter, cooler, hipper, funner, brighter then the people they
    are talking to. Too smart to understand that nobody wants a 3/4 inch drill. They just want a 3/4 inch hole. (Theodore Levitt). Too cool to realize that the only thing that counts is new.( Helmut Krone). Too hip to dig the fact that it's not creative unless it ships (Steve Jobs).

    Advertising used to be meaningful to people because the people who created it never regarded people as customers, users, prospects, consumers or targets. They were creating advertising for cousin Joey down the block.

    Advertising used to be engaging to people because those of us who created advertising thought of people as "The Audience" and as such, you better make them cry, laugh, think, believe.

    Then you people started thinking of yourselves as "Rock Stars." Real people don't relate to Rock Stars. They relate to
    Bobby's brother-in-law the plummer who won't screw you.

    Step back from the technology, the holding companies, the analytics, and Facebook and look at Apple. Chait Day didn't make Apple the second largest company in America. Apple did. Start from there. Start with how cool the iPhone is. Start with how that made you feel when you first held it in your hand. Does the product you have to sell make you feel that way? Now you have the answer to why advertising sucks.

  13. Dave Morgan from Simulmedia, April 16, 2011 at 9:22 a.m.

    Thank you Harry. You hit it right on the head.

  14. Christine de la Garza from Strategic Consultant, April 16, 2011 at 12:45 p.m.

    Harry. I'm a a fan and roger that. I had a chance to go to a new boutique agency recently to work on a big iconic account and I seriously couldn't stomach the hubris. The "rock star" vibe that the principals emanated made me want to slap someone - not myself! LOL. I walked out thinking - stop the world, I want to get off - cause this isn't why I got into advertising. And also why I watched Art & Copy with such nostalgia. While I agree that Chiat Day didn't "make" Apple, I believe they "got" Apple. Initial teaser was over the top, but this product needed that sort of movie trailer teaser. In the end, the product, the company, the vision, the passion speaks for itself and we the people have responded. I'm off to you tube now to check you out!

  15. Arlo Laitin from Cardlytics, Inc, April 17, 2011 at 9:56 a.m.

    Great article Dave. I would posit that the creative problem on the web isnt a "problem" at all. Rather, the industry is suffering from square peg, round hole syndrome. The 30 second spot online is not interruptive, nor is it a 300x250. Its not an interstitial, superstitial, or whatever clever name the agencies have developed for ads that simply serve to annoy the audience. Simple text is the 30 second spot online. (see google, groupon, craigslist, yelp, etc). Its not sexy, but it is the only "creative" that truly respects both the audience and the medium.

  16. Bruce May from Bizperity, April 18, 2011 at 5:47 p.m.

    You certainly hit a hot button with this. I have to agree with Harry Weber. Great creative is simply… creative. The medium is not the message. The creative is the message and while the medium can't be ignored, we are learning how to buy, deliver, and measure in a host of new platforms and devices( the message is still the message… Yet, the message is still the message and great messages require great, creative minds. As Christine de la Garza says, process matters, including research, planning and strategy, all of which must be informed by a thorough understanding of the mechanics of new platforms and devices. Creative approaches apply to strategy as well as messaging and that does require as much insight as possible in neo-ad mechanics but creative minds can work their magic independently of the creative thinking required of good strategy. That’s why the best teams have all these talents on board. No one person has to bring all of this to the table but it has to be there (nice video Harry).

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