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  • Writer's pictureLucas Bergmans

How to get creativity right (and wrong)

Updated: Jan 4

What is the biggest lever at a marketer’s disposal to drive growth?

It’s creativity.

And creativity is even more critical for scale-ups. Even with the best product or proposition, you’re going to have to fight for market share with some much bigger incumbents with much deeper pockets. When it comes to marketing, creativity can be your greatest unfair advantage.

So what is the secret to getting to great creative? And what are the specific challenges that scale-ups need to face up to?

These are the questions that I discussed with one of the giants of the UK advertising industry, Laurence Green, in the first article of my ‘Rocket Fuel’ series focussed on creative effectiveness for scale-ups!

Laurence has had an outstanding career in creative agencies like AMV, Lowe, Fallon and 101 for over 30 years and is soon taking up an exciting role as Director of Effectiveness at the IPA (Institute of Practitioners in Advertising) He’s also recently done an in-depth study on the state of creativity in the UK today and the key factors in getting from good to great.

Laurence, thank you so much for joining. Could you give us a brief overview of your career highlights to date and your latest role.

Sure. I've always worked in creative agencies and earned my spurs as a Strategist first, and then as a Business Director at AMV and Lowe. I was then asked to start the London office of Fallon McElligott, which is this crazy Midwest very iconic, very contrary agency in the States. I ran that for 12 years and did things like Cadbury's ‘Gorilla’ and Sony ‘Balls’ campaigns which still nip at our heels 15 years on!

I left there with the creatives and the Finance Director to start a business called 101 which was described to me recently as ‘more of an albums band’, which I think was the polite way of saying ‘where were the hit singles?’ But we were actually planning to do something different. We wanted it to be more like a brand studio than just a pure-play ad agency, so we had lots of deeper, longer briefs from really great clients at Diageo, Sainsbury's and Lloyds Banking Group, and we were doing a lot of hidden work that was actually very soulful and very helpful for the organisation.

We sold that to IPG in 2017 and I left 18 months ago. I'd been consulting and then I got a call that I wasn't expecting for a cause very close to my heart. I was asked to interview for the role of Director of Effectiveness at the IPA, so I start there next week. I am almost certain that the job is 80% continuity and 20% change. I've got some prejudices about how we can further improve effectiveness culture, but the IPA has been on that page for so long. It's executional tweaks rather than strategy tweaks. So, that's what lies ahead.

Very exciting. Can't wait to hear more about that. And you recently did some in-depth research for Thinkbox all about creativity. Tell us more about who you spoke to, what you explored and what your key findings were.

An amazing project to be asked to do. I had been working as a consultant with a few smaller DTC businesses, one of them even pre-revenue. And then suddenly I was contacted by this deeply impressive trade body, Thinkbox, who broadly represent AV (audio-visual advertising) in the UK, at least as understood by ITV, Channel Four and Sky who are the big shareholders. I was asked by them to fill a gap in the insight market as to whether we could do something to lift creative standards in the near term. Now, that’s not to denigrate anyone's efforts, I just think there is a truth that people still spend large amounts, if not the majority of their budgets on AV assets. And the better they can be, the better it is for the brand owner, the audience, and even media owners. So, the mission was to find out what was going on at a practitioner level.

There's no shortage of anecdotes about what's good and whether the industry is as good as it used to be. There's no shortage of research saying one thing or the other but what there was, and is, is an absence of stuff from the horse's mouth, from the people who are actually buying and selling or rather the people who are contracting to create a kind of high-end creative asset. What's going on in that conversation? What does good look like? What can others learn from?

That took me into clients and agencies. And I'm talking here about things that were ‘rocket ships’ many years ago. I talked to Boots, Sainsbury's, Lloyds Banking Group and McDonald's. A lot of these are big brand advertisers with big budgets and big teams. So the learnings are unapologetically from the mainstream and from people who are doing it well. I know we're supposed to ‘fail fast’ and all that sort of stuff, but every now and then it's good to look at success and learn from that too.

Fantastic. And what were the key findings?

"It's hard. And some of the things that make it hard aren't going to go away."

So firstly, that it's tough out there. And that's in the context of big brands that broadly have boardroom support for ongoing brand investment. And from agencies that are pretty adept at competing and working hard and winning as well. We were talking to Leo Burnett, for example, who are the Agency of the Year at the moment. We talked to Neverland, who are another Agency of the Year and even those businesses are finding it really tough.

I think if you're a client the world is astonishingly complicated. And I think we're actually too close to the tech revolution (which I’m dating from 2004-2005) to even realise quite how massive a shift that was. Not just advertising, but in business generally, it was the second Industrial Revolution, I think. And partly because we're still playing catch-up, we're still chasing too many possibilities. We're still fragmenting media budgets. We’re still arguably fragmenting brand across too many platforms and channels. So the first thing to say is it's hard. And some of the things that make it hard aren't going to go away. There are things like not having enough time or at least not using it well. There are things like complexity, which will take another decade to cycle through or just get worse.

Other things are more straightforward. And it's interesting to me how the Marketing press picked up on our findings. They raced straight towards the things that are ‘newsy’. These were smaller things in the mix of getting to great creative, but they were mentioned by lots of people. One was working from home, which is great in many ways but not great for the beautiful conflict or build you need at that precise moment of either buying a campaign or buying a further iteration of it. So the press thought that was fascinating that working from home is damaging creative standards. I think it's true, but it wasn't the big finding. And then similarly, they raced straight towards ‘social media is destroying brand advertising’, because the new risk attached to ‘social wildfire’ means that some of the boldest ideas might well be problematic. And we've witnessed that first hand. We've certainly seen it in the last few months with things like Bud Light and even Nike. These are great advertisers, either taking missteps or just getting it 1% wrong with huge consequences. So, it's tough out there.

But the flip side, is that as soon as you talk to these people about best practice, the same things pull through. And I suspect they're the same things for scale-ups as they are for these big brands. Are you on an emotionally consuming, shared mission together? Are your briefs crystal clear across all those elements of the mix? And I don't just mean are they insightful and pointed at the right objectives. I mean are they really specific about the job to be done? Because we should be asking very different things of different comms in the media mix, and sometimes it all gets wrapped into one.

Another key finding was belief in what I would call a 'big idea', but which someone more helpfully called a ‘memorable idea’. Because it's all about memory. We've learned this from Byron Sharp and others, because people aren't in the market at the moment and they're definitely not in the market, for example, for a car at the moment. So this is either the ad itself (unlikely, with the exception of John Lewis Christmas commercials) or the way you feel about the brand that brought you that message or idea (more likely). Something in your brain that gets switched on, or switched off.

Also, trust in production people, because even if you bought an idea, and even if you bought it with conviction, you're still at the start of the ‘snakes and ladders’, right? But you're on square nine, and you've got 91 to go and there's plenty of ‘snakes’ attached to production. But you know what, some of those snakes we put up ourselves. If you bring doubt to bear on a brilliant director’s augmented version of a script that you bought a few weeks previously, that can spook things.

"I think what we do isn't brain surgery, but it's not for the faint-hearted either and there's probably three to six months minimum of hanging on in there and creating the right conditions around it."

Rather helpfully, best practice runs through the mix almost linearly. I probably could draw it as a funnel until you get live and the dashboard starts to move. And the Finance Director’s never going to pat you on the back but you might get that moment where someone says ‘fair play’.

One of the examples was a large retailer who was very good at doing Christmas advertising. And right up until the point where the ad goes on air, there are still plenty of people in the business going, ‘what have you bought that for?’ and ‘will it work?’ and ‘why do we even do this?’ And, of course, the day it goes on air, the Chief Executive comes to ‘complain’ to the Marketing Director, that his inbox is full of hundreds and hundreds of emails from people saying, ‘I've just seen your astonishing Christmas ad. Congratulations to whoever was involved in it.’ And until it airs, you can sandpaper the thing, chop and change it, derail it. I think what we do isn't brain surgery, but it's not for the faint-hearted either and there's probably three to six months minimum of hanging on in there and creating the right conditions around it.

This is an example of a campaign I had nothing to do with, but when I worked at MoneySuperMarket we were competing with Compare the Market with their Meerkats campaign. The Meerkats campaign had been going for a while already by then but at some point right at the start, someone signed that idea of, and on paper that would seem insane, but by now it’s one of the most successful long-lived campaigns in the UK ever in my point of view. So at some point in time, a client and an agency dreamt that up and then kept it going all the way through to fruition and that really changed the game for that whole category.

That's a great example, because that was a nascent category. It probably looked like it was maturing, but it was nowhere near finished. And I think great advertising, at a certain point in categories, does exactly what you just said, which is, it lifts the boats for everybody. Craig Inglis at John Lewis doesn't just talk about how it made John Lewis's advertising and the John Lewis brand more powerful, but it lifted the boats right across retail. Before that, no one wanted to work in retail.

Do you think that those key learnings you've talked about for big brands and big agencies, around creativity and what it takes to make great, effective advertising, apply to smaller scale-ups that are doing this sort of thing often for the first time?

"I think one of the things they need to correct against when they get to the advertising stage is that pivots are bad, right? A public pivot is largely bad." 

I don't just think they are right; I think some of them are even more critical if you’re a scale-up. Because I've been working with some small D2Cs, I've seen quite how hard it is for them not to pivot in some way. Because they're always chasing the new opportunity, the new thing a customer has asked for, the new flavour or the new variants, the new route to market. There’s a competitor who is doing something similar. And I think one of the things they need to correct against when they get to the advertising stage is that pivots are bad, right? A public pivot is largely bad.

And I therefore think buying a brilliant creative platform that's helpful for the next five to ten years - loads of other stuff will change - but that creative platform, the thing we stand for and stand by, that's critical. And often that's the question that clients are really asking at this point. The question in front of us is: ‘how do we advertise for the first time or how do we scale up our advertising?’ But they're really saying: ‘can you put a hoop around our brand as it goes mass or intends to go mass?’ So the strategy question gets hidden in the media question. But I think a creative platform is really critical.

I think briefing, which is important right across the mix for a whole heap of reasons, is even more important for a scale-up because there are long effects and short effects. Most brands should be running long-to-short in roughly 60:40 ratios, which has been proved time and time again, and kind of makes sense. Even if you're not a brand owner, it makes sense. If you're a farmer, you spend most of the time on what the farm is going to look like in 5, 10 or 20 years; one month a year harvesting this year's crop.

So I think that sense of not just how we spend but what effects we're expecting to see and when, is really, really critical. Because it may well be that you say, 'we need to continue to acquire just on a massive scale’, and that creates one set of metrics that we can judge ourselves against. It creates one kind of idea, heavy lifting across the short horizon, and you'd expect to see those effects within hours. But equally, even scale-ups are often going: ‘there are people around us in this market and there are other people coming. We need some of this brand insulation, please’. So actually, that bet is ‘long’ and creates a different kind of work and pays back over years. It might pay back in a billion pound IPO and that will be the measure of that activity, not what it did in 24 hours.

And my sense is that there is a moment in the evolution of a start-up or scale-up where they've been very much hand to mouth and getting to the next round of funding where they don't have the luxury of thinking long term. And then suddenly they do.

"If you're a nervous advertiser, like a nervous skier, it doesn't end well."

Yes, that's exactly right. But I think even just having that conversation in play across your team and with your agencies is really important. And maybe there's a three year planning horizon where you go short, then short and long, then long and short. Even that is a helpful viewfinder.

And the last thing, and I think this is more difficult for scale-ups but more critical, is you have to commit. I'm not a great skier, but I'm told that you have to ski with confidence. And I think you have to advertise with confidence as well. If you're a nervous advertiser, like a nervous skier, it doesn't end well. And I would be a nervous advertiser if I was running a scale-up and I'd never asked my board for a million quid and I couldn’t guarantee what would happen. I could show them my effectiveness plan. And I could show them the metrics I expected to move and I could show them some evidence, but I can't show evidence that it's worked for this business or this brand at this point. It's always a leap of faith to a degree.

And I think you have to fight that inner doubt and commit. Firstly, in terms of media. We know that excess Share of Voice leads to higher market share. That's proven scientifically. And kind of makes sense when you think about it as a human. In the end, markets will look like the market in your head. So over-commit to media. And secondly, over-commit to an idea. Because even if you've over-committed to media in your terms, or in terms of your P&L and your cash flow and all the things that will hurt immediately, you're a drop in the ocean of advertising. So you have to over commit to an idea as well, or you'll be lost.

So, I think it all holds for scale-ups, but some more critically than others.

Fantastic. And would you have three top tips for any scale-ups developing advertising creative with an external agency for the first time?

The first, and the most important, is the team. The team you build inside your organisation and then critically, the team you build around you in terms of agencies. The term we used at the recent Thinkbox event, which I stole unapologetically from Leo Burnett and McDonald's was a way of describing the team that worked on that account as ‘ambitious friends’. I loved that. I just thought well, that's nearly 40 years old that relationship in the UK, and to sustain that ambition and friendship across that period is incredible. And it's palpable in the work, right? So I think you have to find partners you trust, partners you enjoy spending time with, partners you can have arguments with - the good arguments not bad arguments. So I think that's tip number one: find the team that you believe in not just for this project, but for the next three years. It might not last that long, but that should be the lens.

I think then the second is one we have already touched on: a good brief. As precise a brief as possible.

The third one we've also touched upon, which is ‘idea’. You’ve just got to have a great selling idea. And it doesn't matter whether that's a meerkat, or a celebrity. It almost doesn't matter what the idea is, it matters that there is one and it matters that it's memorable.

So great team, a great brief and an idea that is memorable are my top three tips.

Fantastic tips! And can you think of one mistake that people should avoid

"Advertising is different. You're now talking to people who don't want to hear from you."

I'll tell you the one I've seen. And it's something that you can solve just by being aware of it. I think a lot of scale-ups - at this point they might be 18 months, three years, five years old, - have built quite a lot of in-house capability. And that's entirely appropriate for things like outbound emails, the note from the founder. Lovely. Great touch. It makes you feel part of the club. Social will broadly be people who have come to your brand via in store or whatever and they want to hear from you.

Advertising is different. You're now talking to people who don't want to hear from you. They literally don't want to hear from you because you're interrupting Succession or whatever it might be that they’re watching. So I just think you have to put that in-house mentality around control and proposition to one side and go ‘no, how do we stand out in this minefield of commercial clutter?’ 'What might the audience like to see?' 'What's the framing of our thing that's meaningful emotionally rather than just in terms of proposition?' Because I think by the time you've got to this point as a business, your proposition is probably quite well rehearsed. And unless there are millions of people who still don't understand that they can buy a car online, or whatever the example might be, it has to be more than the proposition on the bigger screen. You have to find something else. So I think the tip would be just understand that it's different creative to what you've been developing. You're in a different stage.

And you should be getting outside help to do that?

Oh, a million times yes. It would be a very rare talent, or very rare resource, for a scale-up to have enough in-house talent schooled in the tricky task of making TV advertising. And objective enough not to be just the voice of the company so far, but instead to be the outside force and voice that says, ‘I understand what we've always talked about, but we are scaling up and there are slightly different rules as we scale up’. And I think you need an agency for dispassionate strategy advice and objective creative advice. And if you're scaling up without one, I worry you might have broken my best practice tip around committing to it, because I think the first bit of the commitment is getting agreement from boardroom or investors but also finding a way to a good, creative and media agency on top of your current providers. Media may well have started already, that might be an incumbent relationship. But the creative relationship will probably be a new one. And I think you need outside help.

Fantastic. Those are invaluable tips. Thank you so much, Laurence, and thanks for your time.

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