The Singularity Fallacy

Narrowing down creative executions to the most successful can lead advertisers down a dead-end path. Interpreting creative results isn’t just about what ad made how much of a return on investment. It’s also about discovering the very mechanisms that make people interact with the advertiser’s brand and makes them purchase. This process should lead to a profusion of additional creative concepts and executions – not lead to a winnowed down, “optimized” few.

On the media side, people seem frequently willing to consider all sorts of remedial actions. If a buy isn’t performing, the price can be negotiated lower, bonus inventory can be released to the advertiser, additional targeting mechanisms employed or alternative types of impressions switched in for the ones failing to perform.

But on the creative side, the universal reaction to an ad concept that isn’t showing a positive return seems to be throwing it out the window. But there might be some babies in all that bathwater we’re throwing out. Creative concepts, like media concepts, require a great many circumstances to line up correctly in order for them to be effective. Culling them at first glance means that only the ones that start out lucky will be perceived as good ideas.



Back in the early 90’s we would gather data on creative performance and try to make generalizations. My favorite example were the studies published by a couple of the largest online agencies – one that showed that banners with red backgrounds did about 20 percent better than blue, and one that showed that blue did better than red. This should have been an abject lesson for us all, but it seems to have been ignored.

Part of the unwillingness of marketers to revisit creative, adapt it and attempt to discover the mental mechanics that make it work or fail, comes from the fact that creative departments work very differently from media departments. Media people are accustomed to iterating campaigns, changing deals, evolving buys. To creatives, this is anathema. A prevalent attitude among creatives is that any “interference” with the work is necessarily a negative influence. Many believe that these ad concepts are to be placed on pedestals for review, but never revision. Revision would be a breach of creative department protocol. After an art director finishes an online ad, she’s on to another assignment, and there is often no mechanism for billing a client for any work done in revisiting the results.

Account people at the agency will sometimes see the solution in selling in the production of still more ads. You’ve narrowed down your campaign to one or two creative executions? Great, that means we should fire up the creative process to deliver another batch. But this only forces creatives to take off in different directions from where their “ad gut” originally took them. That some of the executions may not have worked well the first time is taken to meant that they were invalid, rather than suffering from simple executional handicaps.

If that philosophy were true, than all campaigns would eventually lead down to one uber-creative, an execution that would forever perform better than anything else – the singularity of creative. But to paraphrase the IBM ad campaign, there is no singularity, except in the narrowed imaginations of simplistic creatives. Instead, it’s a messy creative world out there, rife with hundreds of strange influences on different people for different reasons at different times and at different levels. The good creative – and the good online marketing team – anticipates this and adapts the creative process accordingly.

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