Neville Doyle on the creative inspiration that can come from constraints

If you ask any creative type, most will acknowledge the importance and the benefit of imposing constraints on any piece of work. 

Whether you are building skyscrapers or crafting a piece of branded content, the most creative solutions increasingly come from peoples’ exploration – from finding ways to flourish within the frameworks that may be placed upon them. The limits may be time or money, a traditional way of doing things or a media channel with a limited range of options. As Joachim Krueger recently wrote in Psychology Today: “Creativity requires mental liberation, which means it requires the presence of barriers that must be overcome. Creativity is the response to constraint.” 

When asked to create a story in just six words by his friends, legend has it that Ernest Hemingway responded with a story powerful in its simplicity – ‘For Sale. Baby shoes. Never worn’.

In digital marketing, when we look at some of the most maligned technologies and media spaces, we can see just how effective we can be when we are forced to work with tight restraints. Let us take, for example, pre-rolls and display ads. All advertising, naturally, is a competition for peoples’ attention, but few channels give you as little to work with (on the surface) than these two. As such, they are often overlooked or disregarded. They become the wallpaper of the internet. For display ads, it’s a never-ending carousel of branded messages that feel like they have been designed to be ignored. For pre-rolls, a continual parade of TV ads that have simply been ripped from the broadcast medium and dropped into this digital platform on the presumption that people will want to watch them (spoiler alert – they rarely do). 

Yet, when you look at those who are rising to the challenge of disrupting these channels you find some of the most interesting, clever and award-winning work. 

In the Phillipines, BBDO Guerrero used pre-rolls as an opportunity to drive engagement between Mountain Dew and its core audience. Using the ability of pre-rolls to target a very specific type of consumer content, it created a series of playable eight-bit style games and drove a twelvefold increase in engagement. 

In Russia, BBDO was faced with the task of advertising the most analogue of products, the Post-it note. Not something that you would feel could be effectively advertised through a medium such as display ads, but you would be wrong. 

By allowing consumers to edit the Post-it notes in the banner ads with their own messages – such as reminders to themselves or to-do lists – and then retargeting these ads back to consumers wherever they went around the web, BBDO Russia created a genuinely engaging experience with real consumer utility. The fact that you could continually update/personalise the ads through the Post-it site also ensured a campaign longevity unlike any banner campaign I have seen before or since. 

And of course, no article on creativity within constraints could be written without a hat tip to Geico’s pre-roll that managed to achieve the impossible – winning the Film Grand Prix at Cannes Lions, for its ‘Unskippable’ pre-rolls. When interviewed by industry trends magazine Contagious about the success of this campaign, of why it stood out and captured everyone’s attention, the response of Martin Agency (creators of the campaign) was surprisingly simple and to the point: “One of the things we noticed about pre-roll was that so much of it is bad and forgettable because it wasn’t made to be there”.

It is not just unloved media placements that provide us with constraints and creative challenges. The current focus for all agencies and clients alike is the move to a mobile-first world – the evolution of how people are consuming advertising and content alike. In 2015, we saw mobile internet browsing overtake that of desktop, and by the end of the year over 65 percent of emails were being opened and read on mobile devices. As for social platforms, if we take Facebook to be a benchmark then the 80 percent of time spent on the platform on mobile devices is a clear indicator as to the way consumer behaviour changed in 2015 (my favourite stat of last year in fact was the amount of time Americans collectively spend on the Facebook mobile app each month – a mind-bending 335,000 years).

The constraints that we as a creative industry now need to increasingly rise to is adapting to content being viewed on the most personal of devices, our smartphones. This means not only considering things such as vertical video, but also looking at consumer behaviours and applying our own creative constraints accordingly. For example, on average a consumer only watches around one third of any given Facebook video – a stat that should encourage marketers to look at how they create content, rather than continuing to hope that a TV ad copy and pasted onto the Facebook platform will suffice. Is it an easy challenge? Absolutely not, but time and time again we see that the hardest challenges often lead to the greatest creative responses. 

Neville Doyle is the digital planning director at Colenso BBDO ([email protected])

  • This article originally appeared in the March/April edition of NZ Marketing

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