I suppose that like thousands of other “creative” people – and indeed like the whole of the creative services industry – I’ve built my whole career, and two or three businesses, on the assumption that the answer to this question is “Yes.”
But in order to maintain this conviction, it is necessary to ignore a fairly steady flow of news which suggests that the answer is actually “No” – the most recent, in my case, being the identities of the winners at this year’s Financial Services Forum Marketing Effectiveness awards.
If you’re interested, you’ll find a PDF of a booklet about the winners here: http://www.thefsforum.co.uk/upload/FSFAwardWinners2012.pdf. But, trust me, if you’re interested in creativity, you’re not very interested in this, because in all honesty I don’t think there’s a trace of it there. I’ll give you two examples:
– the headline of the Post Office’s motor insurance direct mail pack, described by the judges as “transformational,” and reading “Free Breakdown Cover for one year with our car insurance”;
– the visual in the campaign which not only won the B2B campaign category, but was also the joint winner of the Campaign of the Year category. I’ll let you guess this one: what is the dreariest, least original, most over-used image to express the idea of “being able to adapt to changing conditions”? Got it yet? I’ll give you a clue: it’s a reptile with skin that can change colour…Oh dear, you seem to have nodded off.
Of course I know that there’s more to creativity than ads full of startling and unexpected words and pictures. Twenty-odd years ago, I used to deliver a whole lecture to baffled advertising students on why it was right that a BMP press ad seeking to defend the Greater London Council, then led by Ken Livingstone, against the Government’s plans to abolish it, won a shelf-full of creative awards despite the fact that the visual was just a picture of Ken and the headline just said in the plainest of English: “If you want me out, you should have the right to vote me out.”
But there is a depth of insight and intelligence in this work that’s entirely lacking in, for example, the RBS Corporate and Institutional Banking work which was commended in the Customer Loyalty category using the theme: ” Putting marketing and relationships to work in austere times.” There’s no insight or intelligence there, just a bullet point copied and pasted from the brief.
But the thing is, it’s all very well for me to sit around sneering at these examples: the fact is that they won awards for effectiveness in a tough scheme where the evidence of effectiveness has to be pretty compelling. People like me believe that dead, cliched language (and visuals of cliched if not actually dead chameleons) put people off, discourage engagement and make communications less effective. But surely evidence like this challenges our beliefs?
Well, yes, it does, and leaves us rather struggling for a reply. The best we can do is a sort of two-strand combination which goes something like this:
1. When a communication has a strong and appealing message to deliver, the first responsibility of the creative people is, quite frankly, not to fuck it up. “Free breakdown cover for one year with our car insurance” is a better headline than a headline that says, I don’t know, “More amazing than a dancing wombat” because it successfully tells people about something they’re likely to find quite appealing.
2. In the country of the blind, it’s no disadvantage to be blind yourself. If no-one else (or at least in this case no-one else in your award category) is using any kind of real creativity, your chances of winning are not reduced by the fact that you aren’t either. On the other hand, of course, if yours was the one entry to include some real, exciting, original, relevant creativity….
As a whole, it occurs to me, this defence is in some way reminiscent of the defence of communism that I used to make as a pinko student – “Yes, it’s true that all existing communist countries are total failures, but that’s only because none of them has implemented it properly.”
That. in hindsight, was complete bollocks. I wonder if one day my defence of, and belief in, the power of creativity in marketing communications will seem like the same sort of thing.