December 17, 2020

Is "Creative" Advertising Really More Effective?

As long as I've been in the advertising business there has been a very large question smoldering under the surface of my skin: Does advertising that we deem to be more creative actually produce better business results, or is that just a fond wish that "creatives" and our supporters have invented to justify treating advertising as an art, and not just a blunt instrument?

As a former copywriter and creative director I am a strong believer in the power of creativity in advertising. In fact, every neuron in my tiny little brain is committed to this belief. 

But there is another part of my brain (the part that used to teach science) that tries to remind me about intellectual honesty, and keeps saying to me, "How do you know this?" 

I am not a scholar on this subject. I have not gone through all the literature and all the studies. But I have been exposed to some of the research on the subject and it worries me. 

The studies that I have seen and read generally seem to take the following form. The researcher starts with a group of ads that have been recognized as exceptionally creative by experts or by respected awards organizations and compares their real-world business effectiveness to advertising that has not been recognized as such. The results are often convincing, and the "creative" ads exhibit significantly superior effectiveness.

An argument one could make against this methodology (which I will not make) is that it is dependent on two factors that ought not be taken at face value. First, that the experts and award committees are actually able to accurately discern levels of creativity. Creativity is a notoriously difficult thing to define and the idea that the people who have been tasked with defining it are particularly qualified to do so is a difficult case to prove. 

The second argument against this methodology is about the business results that are used to measure effectiveness. How do we know they are reliable? As someone who has written more than his share of case histories, I am very sensitive to the effect that imaginative writing can play in the description of success.

If the people assessing creativity are not uniquely qualified to do so, and if the measures of effectiveness are not wholly reliable, then the conclusions cannot be taken seriously.

But I am not going to criticize the methodology on this basis. For the sake of argument, let's assume that the experts and awards committees are fully qualified to define and assess creativity and the metrics that are used to define business success are fully accurate.

I still have a problem.

Creative awards are usually presented in the year following the initiation of a campaign. You can't give awards for advertising created in 2020 until the year is over. Consequently, awards committees and experts usually don't get together to make their determinations until "awards season" a few months into the following year.

So there can be a lag time of between 12 and 18 months between the time a campaign launches and the determination of its level of "creativity" by the experts. In this lag period there is every opportunity for the people who are going to be charged with determining creativity at a later date to be exposed to business results of campaigns. Trade publications, advertising insiders, the business section of newspapers, and industry gossip are reporting on winners and losers every day of the year.

It is highly likely that the experts are reading and hearing reports of advertising successes and failures throughout the year. By the time they are tasked with determining levels of creativity, the experts and the awards committees have a very good idea of what campaigns produced highly effective advertising the previous year and what campaigns fell flat. Is it realistic to expect these people to ignore what they know about success and failure when they are assessing levels of creativity?

I find that hard to believe. It seems to me only natural that an individual will give higher grades for creativity to a campaign she knows to have been effective than to one she knows to have bombed. It seems highly unlikely that an awards judge will deem a campaign very creative if he knows the campaign was a disaster, the agency was fired, the marketing director replaced and the campaign pulled off the air. 

I am not implying that experts and awards committees are remiss in their duties or unprincipled in their decision making. I am merely suggesting that they are human. The likelihood that a human will take something he knows to have been a massive failure and compare it favorably to something he knows to have been a massive success is not high.

If this is the case, then the process can be, to a worrying degree, a tautology. Campaigns known to have been effective are presented as being highly creative, and campaigns thusly deemed highly creative are presented as proof of superior effectiveness.

It can be a very simple but obscure example of circular logic.

I still firmly believe that creativity is the single most important determination of advertising effectiveness. But I wish I had a more substantial, scientific basis for that belief.

See Part 2 of this piece here.

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