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Every Age Gets The Creativity It Deserves

Posted on October 18, 2011 and read 2,652 times

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kocheilas 3 Every Age Gets The Creativity It DeservesAntonis Kocheilas
Managing Partner/Planning Director
LOWE Athens

In the post-digital age of multi-dialogue, multi-channel, multi-platform confusion, our profession has to reassess the nature of its driving force. Creativity, the power to turn “what if” in “what is” has to adapt in order to survive. The challenge and the responsibility of today’s communicators are to extend the nature of “creativity,” rather than merely its application. To put it simply, if every era gets the creativity that it deserves, what kind of creativity does our age deserve?

Perhaps because the fashions and tactics that creatives use change so quickly, we are left with the impression that “creativity” changes every year. Yet if we stand back and look at the history of modern advertising (‘modern’ being defined, roughly, as the period since the mid-’50s), we can see that it has basically gone through three stages. Each stage was born out of the cultural and economic environment of its time, but each has matured into a school that has complemented, rather than replaced, its predecessors. Of course, creatives will always argue that their ideas are forged through the intersection of all of these creative schools, but in reality, each idea tends to have its center of gravity in only one.

Let’s look at the evolution of creativity and argue why a new kind appears to be emerging.

The “Product-led” Creativity

The post-war economic boom (1950s) mainly in the United States saw a proliferation of consumer goods and the sudden increase in choice meant that ad guys had to work hard to differentiate brands from one another. The need for differentiation also put pressure on manufacturers to innovate, product innovations had to be communicated and that gave birth to the school of “Product” creativity. The high priests of this era were vastly different in terms of style but in absolute agreement in terms of subject. At one extreme David Ogilvy aspired to tame creativity according to his rules and observations. Ogilvy’s polar opposite was Bill Bernbach, founder of the “revolution” who wanted creativity to be free, a product only of intuition. Yet despite this fundamental difference, the two agreed completely that the subject of creativity should start and end with the product. Bernbach’s maxim for creativity could have come from Ogilvy, “The magic is in the product,” and Ogilvy’s advice could have come from Bernbach, “You’ve got to believe in the product.” Think about (or Google) ads like Volkswagen’s “Lemon” or Rolls Royce’s “Clock” and you will see what I mean. The “Product” creativity is still very much alive and well, and many ads fall into some variation of this category.

The “Consumer-led” Creativity

Theodore Levitt introduced the now accepted notion that business needed to be focused on the consumer, not the business, in his seminal article “Marketing Myopia.” Even though Levitt published his article in 1960, its full impact on advertising was not to be felt for more than a decade (1970s). The most important was the rise of the marketing department in both size and prestige. One of the main tools that these newly empowered marketing departments used was market research, particularly in the development of advertising. The most important discovery that the researchers made was that consumers’ motives for purchasing were a lot less rational and a lot more emotional than had been previously thought. These discoveries resulted in a shift in creative emphasis, from what the product did to how the brand made you feel. There was a general realization that while the product could be imitated the brand could not, so portraying the consumers’ feelings towards the brand was the key. One of the most famous early consumer based ads was Coca-Cola’s “Hilltop” commercial of 1971. The story of its creation is revealing. Bill Backer of McCann Erickson was delayed for a flight and saw his fellow passengers together drinking Cokes. His epiphany was that Coca-Cola was about human relationships, not really about the product at all.

The “Competition-led” Creativity

In the 1980s, a third school of creativity emerged. This new school was created out of the limitations of “Consumer-led” creativity, as an answer to consumer cynicism and media clutter. Consumers became more sophisticated, routinely used marketing jargon in focus groups and were generally skeptical of advertisers’ claims. They had also become adept at mentally screening out these messages that threatened to overwhelm them. “Positioning,” as it was articulated by Reis and Trout, became the marketing mantra of the ’80s. The basic idea was that brand building did not work in a vacuum, but had to take into account what competition both direct and indirect had planted in the consumer’s mind. Positioning seemed like an answer to the new problems of clutter and cynicism. Translated into advertising terms, this put a huge premium on being different. What characterized this school was the defiant way in which the advertising disrupted the conventions that form each market category. Ads that belong in this school have surprise as their most salient feature. The ad that created and defined this school is Apple’s epic “1984.” The zenith of this school arrived with the dot.com revolution of the late 1990s, when hundreds of new and often directly competitive brands where launched overnight.

There is no doubt that these three schools are still alive in the 21st century, and that creatives are chasing the holy grail of an idea that is forged through the intersection of the three. And on rare occasions, they find it. The Apple “I am a Mac” is a good example of a campaign that manages to combine the merits of the three schools. But things have changed. As before, it will take some time for the changes to take full effect, but the signs are here.

What’s happens now?

The digital revolution is dramatically changing the way consumers shop, and gathers information on products and services. The implications for marketers are profound, as consumers increasingly research products, compare prices, tap into the opinions of other users, and solicit advice from friends at all points in the shopping process (sometimes even while shopping at a brick-and-mortar store). New sources of trusted information are emerging as more and more user-generated content makes its way onto the Web, and the conversations among consumers and companies are shifting from one-way to multidirectional, including direct exchanges among consumers. Social networking sites are convening communities of consumer advocates and replacing traditional information sources. Consumers now know more, communicate more and can be persuaded less. The information abundance is reversing the communication order and now everybody is both a sender and a receiver. The strong power of persuasion has given its place to the benevolent power of advocacy.

The economy may indeed be coming back to life in many affected markets, but it doesn’t feel that way to many consumers in Europe, India, and China, where anxiety has risen. No doubt the crisis in Japan, economic turmoil in Greece, Ireland, Portugal, Spain, Italy and unrest in the Middle East have taken a toll on consumers’ peace of mind. In some regions, unemployment remains stubbornly high, real estate markets are expected to fall further, and many of the factors that contributed to the financial crisis of 2008 are still very much in place. As a result, in the U.S. for example, the proportion of survey participants[1] who said they have been personally affected by the downturn increased 8 percentage points (from 49 percent in 2010 to 57 percent this year). Without easy access to credit and with depressed property values bringing a diminished sense of wealth, consumers in the U.S., Spain, and the U.K. are reluctant to spend as they once did. The recent economic downturn catalyzed (and, in some cases, accelerated) a shift in what matters most to consumers. Despite increasing economic stability in some key markets over the past year, the world is experiencing heightened levels of uncertainty stemming from a torrent of political unrest, natural disasters, corporate scandals and product scares.

A new consumer consciousness is being forged, the choices we are making are definitely more deliberate, but the exact decisions we make are personal, context-dependent and relative to the day or the state of our lives and mindsets at any given moment.

“Populist” Creativity

In this age we can’t treat people as consumers anymore. Calling them “consumers” assumes they are willing and able to consume, and we all know

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that they aren’t. The world doesn’t work that way anymore. Commercial communication does not follow the old sender – receiver model. We are not broadcasting selling propositions to passive audiences. We inhabit a marketing ecosystem demanding that we all listen to the conversations our customers are engaged in, that we cede control in order to gain it. People form an audience, and they’re using your products, your brand names, your iconography, your slogans, your trademarks, your designs, your goodwill, all of it as if it belonged to them. Now that everybody has become a sender and a receiver, we need to understand audience behavior, earn their attention and invite them into our brand story. Commercial communication has become a conversation, and brands have become moderators rather than orators. A speech is an oral (and visual) presentation by one directed to a group. Conversations on the other hand, are the ideal form of communication in some respects, since they allow participants with different views on a topic to learn from each other. This crucible of our time gave birth to another school of creativity and we have coined a term for it: Populist Creativity.

Populism, defined either as an ideology or a type of discourse, has taken left-wing and right-wing definitions often associated with “demagogy” and “catch-all” politics. In our case, the word “populist” is meant in its purest form, as the kind of ideas that are intended to represent ordinary people’s needs and wishes [2]. Ideas that engage the many, not the few. Ideas that bridge the divide between high and popular culture, digital natives and digital immigrants, the haves and the have-nots. Ideas that breed in hearts and minds, not on product attributes, positioning charts or loyalty indices. This kind of creativity doesn’t view consumers like consumers anymore. They are fathers and mothers, brothers and lovers, tutors and pupils, neighbors and citizens, trusting only what their families or closest friends say, and its purpose is to get brands into that tight circle, and make sure they are trusted.

Populist creativity unravels codes, identity and myth-making, and creates cultural icons through brand movements. The best example yet of this new school of Creativity is Volkswagen’s “The Force.” In the ad, upper-middle class car drivers are viewed as fathers and the product attribute showed was ultra generic in the category, but the ad moved it into the inner circle of trust.

Get the Flash Player to see the wordTube Media Player.

The ad became pop culture by tapping into popular culture. Star Wars is one of the few cultural touchstones that nearly everyone in the world has a relationship with. And the “Force” found a way to turn that into something new and uniquely ownable to Volkswagen. The success was amazing. Before airing on TV, “The Force” had over 13 million views on YouTube, was the most shared Super Bowl commercial and experienced the highest pre-game ad buzz on Twitter, with 2,800 tweets. After airing, VW was the #2 brand in post-game buzz, and “Darth Vader commercial” was the top searched ad and 4th highest Google search term. Three weeks and over 32 million views later, it had over 24,000 comments, 86 posted copies and 73,400 related tweets.

Creativity has always been a magnetic force uniting people; a force to transform people’s behavior. A force to make good things happen.

May the force be with you.



[1] BCG Consumer Sentiment 2011 – “Navigating the New Consumer Realities”

[2] Cambridge dictionary.







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