On the bias: David MacGregor reviews The Case for Creativity

James Hurman is a planner for Colenso BBDO and in his book The Case for Creativity, he argues you shouldn’t do shit ads because they’re less effective than highly creative ones. Given I love great ads (the locus of the book is advertising creativity, rather than innovation in the broader sense), I should be an easy sell. But while I really wanted to like the book, it has several weaknesses.

Hurman meanders down a number of well-travelled paths to argue his case. It’s not badly written, but it’s somewhat prosaic and it’s more of an assemblage in the style of Malcolm Gladwell, rather than a book that introduces any new arguments.

It begins with a quote from Howard Gossage that’s popular with ad planners: “Nobody reads advertising. People read what interests them, and sometimes it’s an ad.” Like it or not Harvey Norman and their ilk can shout louder and louder and more and more. Nobody seems to like it so it tests the adage ‘nobody buys things from people they don’t like.’ The fact that people still shop there is a pointer to the future because the ads have less impact on shopper behavior. But when we have a need, things that might otherwise be filtered become interesting. If the fridge is on the fritz a shouty Harvey Norman ad will hold a certain fascination. If you have haemorroids I dare you to ignore the otherwise repellant Anusol cream ad on Family Health Diary. Interest is contextual. People research purchases and make choices based on need and utility more than brand image (all products work well these days, why pay a brand’s premium when even Korean products are good?).

The premise that a well-crafted brand ad will have a greater effect than a rubbish ad ignores the fact that ads are significantly less important than other forms of engagement in the era of Google (the biggest advertising business in the world and not a creative execution in sight). Maybe the whole either-or argument is spurious.

I worry about the introspective obsession with creative vs non-creative ads and the assumption that clever craft is integral to achieving superior status. Hurman even trots out his company’s own creative director Nick Worthington whom he quotes in evidence: “What all great campaigns have in common is a great idea and great execution.”

One of my advertising heroes was the great John Webster. He wrote an opinion piece in Campaign magazine (Jan ’88) in which he commented on the self conscious use of technique in advertising. “Whoever it was that invented the human mind designed it to respond to a set of basic human emotions: love, fear, pride, envy and humour–things like that … Let’s have real stories with real people speaking real dialogue. Consumers might respond more readily to an amusing character than a solarized linocut”. And it’s hard to argue with that logic when Shortland Street and Coronation Street routinely pull enviable audience numbers with all the production values of security camera footage.

Likewise, David Ogilvy once said: “It has been found that the less an advertisement looks like an advertisement, and the more it looks like an editorial, the more readers stop, look and read. Therefore, study the graphics used by editors and imitate them. Study the graphics used in advertisements, and avoid them.” I bring Ogilvy in because ads are products of their day. Advertising awards follow fashions and award juries are easily infected by the results of other panels, especially influential ones like D&AD or Cannes. They can be popularity contests. Subservient Chicken for Burger King might actually have been rubbish, but who would oppose the force that was Crispin Porter + Bogusky that year? Ogilvy was very creative—he was a transitional pioneer between turn of the century ads and the creative revolution heralded by Bill Bernbach—and though his work looks jaded today, his maxims hold true for the digital era.

As for who the audience will be, no doubt clients and prospects of Colenso BBDO will be receiving complimentary copies, with an offer of a follow-up presentation. But the book’s major issue is that there is a strong bias expressed from the outset and evidence is presented in the form of contorted co-relationships between ads that win both creative and effectiveness awards. This only supports the writer’s bias (a criticism also leveled at Gladwell) and the nail in the coffin was the slam-dunk appendix at the end; the QED of the case, The 15 Case Studies on which the matter rests, two of which are columns penned in trade journals, including NZ Marketing, by the author himself.

Maybe its worst offence is, ironically, best summed up by Leo Burnett: “I am one who believes that one of the greatest dangers of advertising is not that of misleading people, but that of boring them to death.”

  • Check out the case studies here and buy the book here

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