Why Bad Ads Get Created

As a Creative Director for the majority of my career, I have created thousands of ads, and overseen the creation of tens of thousands. (For the sake of this blog, I will use the general term “ads” to mean any pieces of communication designed to ADvertise a product or service.) 

Within these thousands of ads, many have been quite good, many straight down the middle of Mediocre Boulevard, and many I would consider just plain bad.

After much experience, contemplation and self-loathing, I blame these bad ads on one of the following: 

Trying to say too much 

This is the #1 reason hands down. Value, service, selection, quality, heritage, two logos, three RTBs, a product demo…let’s jam it all in there. If we care about all of these things, then our consumers must, too. They don’t, and even if they did, they couldn’t retain them all. This issue is usually driven by too many opinions, with each person trying to make sure their points get included. Remember, when you try to say everything, you end up saying nothing.



No idea 

This one is hard to explain. What is an idea? It’s like Louis Armstrong said about jazz: “Man, if you have to ask what it is, you’ll never know.” Everyone thinks they know what an idea is. Yet so many ads completely lack one. They just list stuff about a brand with no overarching, unifying concept, no singular thought that makes them memorable and simple to grasp. 

The idea is too expensive for the budget 

Okay you have an idea, a nice one actually. But it needs a high-end photographer, or an expensive director, or a particular song, or a more robust website…that all cost more money than you have. So you use a lesser photographer, get a cheaper director, put in a piece of stock music, don’t build out the full website. You hit the budget!...with a compromised piece of mediocrity. Create to the budget you have, and do the most interesting execution that budget can afford. Also know, people rarely remember that you came in on time and under budget. They remember that they love the final piece, or that they cringe every time they look at it, and curse you as the reason. 

Poor execution 

There are hundreds of individual decisions made when you are producing any piece of advertising, type design, color palette, director, photographer, location, casting, wardrobe, music, sound effects. Each decision is one piece that adds to the greater whole. Brilliant executors make more smart creative decisions every step of the way, and the end product shows that. And vice versa on the bad ads. While each decision is only a little bit, it all adds up to a lotta bit. 

The ability of the makers 

Either they don’t know how to make a good ad, or they do, but just had an off day. There are many people out there paid to make ads for a living who lack the talent to make good ones on a consistent basis, just like there are lots of professional baseball players who bat .200. And even the super talented ones who make greatness on a consistent basis don’t bat 1000. The best swing and miss often. Overall body of work is always the truest test of talent level. 

Chickening out 

It’s hard to put yourself out there, your idea, your baby, four months of your life, to take that shot, and let it fly. What if people don’t like it, or worse yet, hate it? Creativity and insecurity go hand in hand, which makes it easy to tone it down a bit, so you’re not dangling out there so nakedly.

Then comes the financial insecurity: I have a mortgage, a family, car payments, college tuitions, so let’s just go with the safe one that won’t get me fired. In both cases, the result is chickening out. 

People don’t like it 

Sometimes, you can do everything “right,” and still people consider your output a bad ad, and no amount of explaining will convince them otherwise. Welcome to the 100% subjective world of advertising. And often times the dislike is for ridiculous reasons: they hate the color red, or the guy in the ad reminds them of a former boss that bugged them. Now, this doesn’t mean it’s a bad ad in reality, but in perception, which sadly counts more. 

If you think you are about to make a bad ad, spot which of the above  culprits might be to blame, then fix it before it’s too late. Because once it’s out there, you can’t take it back. Your name is on a very bad piece of advertising for eternity. And that is as bad as it gets.

5 comments about "Why Bad Ads Get Created".
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  1. Marcelo Salup from Iffective LLC, November 20, 2015 at 8:06 a.m.

    I was creative director of 3 agencies for 8 years and won 2 Addies. Then switched to media. Then evolved to strategic planning. From that POV, there is only ONE reason why bad ads get made: the person responsible for the ad has no idea what to tell his different consumer groups in order to achieve what the company needs to achieve.

  2. William Hebel from Business Longevity Consulting, November 20, 2015 at 8:49 a.m.

    You left out one reason. "THE CLIENT"
    Sometimes they keep adding/changing stuff until the ad is nothing like what was originally presented.

  3. Christopher Marsh from Bradley University, November 20, 2015 at 11:06 a.m.

    So how does the Bloomingdale's catalogue rape ad for Rebecca Minkoff get the green light? 

  4. Chuck Dunning from XETV-TV, November 20, 2015 at 8:04 p.m.

    I'm reminded of the saying, "A donkey is a horse created by committee."

  5. Chuck Lantz from, network, November 25, 2015 at 5:48 p.m.

    One of the best, and probably the best, article I've read at Media Post.  Solid information, well-presented.  Thanks!

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