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The case for creativity in marketing communications

Phillip McLain

“Hey Rocky, watch me pull a rabbit out of my hat!” Sometimes it’s the most basic questions that can be the most difficult to answer. One such question that those of us in the marketing communications industry get often is, what’s the real value of creativity? (We also get, “Do you guys really drink martinis at lunch?” but that’s a whole other issue.)

The creativity question is one that comes up in various incarnations. Why bother being clever? Why be funny? Why be emotional? Why do advertising, design and digital marketing agencies spend so much time, and so many resources, crafting messages that “push the envelope” or “think outside the box,” to borrow a couple of well worn phrases?

The cynical answer is that ad agencies attract a certain type of artist-businessperson hybrid that can’t ever fully shake the need to be praised for his or her efforts. This is the elephant in the room – the suspicion by many clients that creative agencies put their need for personal glory above the best interests of the client’s product, service or brand. No agency, however, that truly wants to serve its clients to the best of its abilities, thinks this way.

Awards are a peculiar byproduct of our industry and it would be disingenuous to say that being recognized by one’s peers for achieving excellence isn’t gratifying. But excellence is the key word there. Most marketing communications firms strive for creativity because they honestly and passionately feel (and research backs this up) that the most effective messages are ones that truly engage the target audience in a creative manner.

In fact, a study by the UK’s Institute of Practitioners in Advertising found, in an examination of 213 case studies spanning eight years, that award-winning campaigns are 11 times more effective in producing their desired results than campaigns that received no honors.

This is not, however, a defense of award shows. (If anyone really cares who wins Best Half Page Black & White Newspaper Ad at the Go Green Awards, there’s a San Diego County Credit Union Poinsettia Bowl you might also be interested in watching.) No, the case for creativity in marketing communications is more compelling than that.

Case number one is wallpaper. Most agencies call it “clutter” but you notice clutter. Unless it’s that really hideous raised velvet stuff your grandmother used to have, wallpaper tends to just blend into the background. It’s ubiquitous, but you rarely realize it’s there. That’s 90 percent of all marketing communications – wallpaper. So we strive to create, metaphorically speaking, that really comfortable chair, that trendy lamp, that distressed wood floor, those modern cabinets – something that stands out, that calls attention to itself. Anything but wallpaper.

Case two is respect. If you’re asking a person to read your ad, watch your commercial or visit your website, you’re asking for their time. Making a point of entertaining them while you educate them shows respect for that time. Imagine going to a seminar. The speakers you respond to, that you remember, are the ones who are funny or moving or who tell great stories. Marketing communications isn’t all that different.

Case three is the importance of emotional connections. Different agencies have different names for it but at SOVRN we call it, “Share of gut.” Share of mind (being among the first brands thought of by your target audience in unaided awareness studies) receives a lot of play in our business, as it should. However, the way you get there is through establishing your share of gut – giving the consumer an emotional, as well as logical, connection to your brand.

Apple is a great example of this. People didn’t go out and buy iPads in droves because they needed them but, in large part, because of Apple’s almost cult-like brand loyalty. When your customers smile, laugh or think to themselves, “Hey, they’re talking to me,” that’s when loyalty is established and great brands are built.

Finally, there’s quality to be considered. The quality of your messaging reflects, quite directly, on the perceived quality of your product or service. The elegance of the execution impacts this quality. It’s been said the medium is the message, but how you use the medium is also the message.

At the end of the day it’s all about the art of persuasion. What moves you more: something interesting, fun, dynamic, colorful, human or relatable, or something that just lays there and spells it all out in the most inelegant manner possible? Vince Gilligan, creator of the show Breaking Bad, has said viewers love putting two and two together, but when you simply tell them the answer is four, the magic is gone.

Creativity in communications is about making the consumer an active participant in your message, getting him or her to engage. It’s also, just a bit, about making magic.

Phillip McLain is president and co-founder of SOVRN, a creative agency that specializes in advertising, design, video production and digital marketing. For more information, visit www.sovrncreative.com. McLain may be reached at (208) 345-6064 or phillip@sovrncreative.com.

About Phillip McLain