This goes out to all you up and coming advertising creatives, who are up and coming in a world bereft of advertising education.
Once, in living memory, most agencies had programs or mentors to teach young creatives the business. The reasoning being, if you don’t know how we got here, how will you take us further?
But that’s for another essay. This one is about how I discovered why certain ads stand out like crazy – the X-factor that makes your heart beat stronger and makes you respond, without which most ads are pretty forgettable.
There were few ad schools when I was up and coming. I learned to create advertising the street way – by studying the marketplace and what won in the shows and judging for myself.
Well, you can know what works instinctively but it’s likely you won’t know why it works. And being young and ambitious, it wasn’t until my third Creative Director job that my understanding caught up with my instinct. That’s when I began learning from one of the art directors in my group. He was older and more experienced and, amazingly, his Italian surname meant “wisdom.”
John had no idea of the education he was giving his Creative Director. He would simply begin each client presentation with a story, a joke, a personal reflection, some way of getting head nods and eliciting from the client something like, “Yeah, I know what you’re saying, I know exactly what that feels like.” And then John would show how our storyboard or print ad evoked that same feeling.
“That feeling we have in common” is the real truth your ad is communicating. It’s the sympathetic connection that makes communication possible. That feeling of embarrassment, of joy, of dread, of pride. . .of whatever it is that underlies what you’re selling: That’s what makes your proposition real.
I started in this business when Ally & Gargano’s Fedex “Fast Talking Man” was convulsing the country. Watch it today and you’ll see something remarkable: It’s still funny. It still connects to the primal anxiety we all feel in trying to keep up with this “fast-moving, high pressure, get it done yesterday world.” That was its uncomfortable truth nearly 40 years ago.
Truth doesn’t age.
I remember once being closed up in a bleak conference room in sun-drenched Cap-Ferrat. It was the first-ever Scali McCabe Sloves Global Creative Directors Meeting. At one session devoted to creative trends, Sam and Ed showed the new John Hancock campaign from Hill Holliday. It stopped the meeting.
Each spot was written like poetry and shot like a documentary. One showed a young father who just got a raise cuddling his infant daughter as he whispers his financial dreams. The realistic film technique was different for the time and widely imitated since, but that isn’t what made it unforgettable. It’s the way we eavesdrop on a primal yet complex feeling – of joy, of worry, of the need to protect – that every parent knows.
Please understand. We’re not talking about the “insight” that’s key to any good creative brief. That’s critical. But without the “human truth” you want to share, there’s no depth, no transfer of feeling, no magic.
Dan Weiden intuited this way back when “Just do it” began to underscore every Nike ad. In three words Nike told its audience that we get you – we get the wall of fear and doubt each of us has to overcome to reach our personal best. We feel it in those three words just as we feel it in Nike’s best ads, such as the print campaign that spoke to women’s feelings about fitness by speaking to the heart: What was it like to be the last girl picked in gym class, what does it mean to exercise, etc.
Show me that you know me – that you know what moves me.
The rest is support.
Once you understand how effective this element of shared truth can be, you start to see it everywhere, even in campaigns you hate. Benetton used to run beautiful but shocking print spreads, yet I never understood what their strategy for controversy had to do with their sweaters.
That is, until I saw an ad of three meaty, glistening human hearts standing side by side, one labeled WHITE, one BLACK, one YELLOW. Hundreds of well-meaning ads in the past had tried to say “we’re really all the same”, but here was that truth revealed in a way that touched you profoundly and made the name Benetton stand for a shared humanity much larger than a line of clothing.
It’s fun to point to classic ads to show how shared truth makes them work, but you can deconstruct your recent favorites in any medium and uncover this human X-factor. Take the moldy Burger King campaign, which cleverly evokes a universal response – repugnance – to make a point about freshness.
Or the out-of-home campaign his opponents are running to take Mitch McConnell out of the U.S. Senate. Its cheery message hits low wage-earning Kentuckians where they live and stirs up everything they hate. It’s primal. I love it.
Believe me, there’s nothing revolutionary about this approach.
It has descended from Aristotle to Bernbach to the advertising craftspeople of today, only no one ever talks about it.
It’s always helpful to know why your work works. It makes us better communicators. Think of the rustle that goes through the audience in the first act of Death of a Salesman, as people feel pity and fear for Willy Loman and reach for their tissues.
That’s artistry. Can you do that?