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The law of idea and execution in advertising

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Imagine the movie Casablanca with Ronald Reagan (who was cast originally) instead of Humphrey Bogart.

Or Mission Impossible without Lalo Shiffren’s iconic theme music. My point is there’s occasionally a little something in the execution or production that really adds to a basic idea, improves/changes/replaces it, and literally makes all the difference to its success.

Maybe it was suggested by the commercial’s director, or ad-libbed by an actor on the set, or by the muso on the last day of recording, or inspired by the catering lady.

Not only can an idea come from anywhere, it can arrive anytime and from anyone. Sometimes it’s these grace notes that actually create the “burr” that hooks people to a campaign.

Which begs the question of when an advertising idea is finished? Usually, once the client has bought it, an idea remains stillborn at that level in its development. How else can it be controlled? Business loves being in control; sometimes more than it loves being successful.

Kotler’s view of marketing, adopted by advertising planners everywhere, is rooted in the notion of control: analysis, planning implementation and measurement.

It’s also true that many rational businesspeople aren’t comfortable with creativity; many would rather stick with plans made in meetings, where everything is spelled out in advance and all new ideas are firmly in hand.

Ambiguity is not tolerated for long. This leads management to gravitate towards the familiar, to premature.

Conclusions, to impose clichés and stereotypes. Which, in turn, is why so many ads just seem like the brief committed to film. That is committing a crime against effectiveness.

Meanwhile, the unpredictable way that consumer desires and creativity actually match up in the marketplace continues to disturb and baffle businesspeople.

Truth is, for it to be successful, an advertising idea must translate and transcend the logic of the marketing.

How, then, do you allow for the possibility of improvement in the execution of you advertising idea?” Kaizan is the Japanese world meaning “continuous improvement.”

Apply it to your advertising and the idea should get noticeably better from concept to final script, from storyboard to director’s treatment, and from first cut to final client presentation. Better and better, layer by layer.

Great advertising needs a “conspiracy of good intentions” among everybody involved in the process.

Different ads become great at different times. A great proposition or script is a start. But a script is not an ad.

An ad may only become great after the editor gets his hands on it, or t he easting agent makes an inspired choice, or the photographer works magic.

All of these stages should be considered as part of the creative process, not as part of the agency – client presentation process. The greatness should be allowed to sneak out at any time.

This article is about the Law of Idea and Execution, and the difference between them. And, more importantly, which one should come first.

Writing about ideas is pretty tricky as we all define an idea differently. As a result, quite a few people will disagree with this law; in fact, a lot of you may not even understand it.

The law of accepted wisdom states that are directors and copywriters (hereafter referred to as “the creatives”) conceive an advertising idea, then go about executing the idea.

In layman’s terms, they come up with a common theme, then create different. TV, billboard and radio scenarios.

For instance, a TV campaign may have four different ads with different actors, locations and dialogue, but there will be a common theme running throughout. This “theme” is usually the idea.

An idea is a medium or property that communicates a product benefit in an extraordinary way. In other words, it will often dramatise a boring fact through words, pictures or sound.

The best ideas tend to be the simple ones. They are the ones the punter looks at and gets straight away.

One of the great advertising “truths” is that creatives should be able to write a good idea on a postage stamp or napkin. Another common belief is that you should be able to explain an idea in a sentence. Below are a few examples from history.

Idea: People react with huge surprise when they see unbelievably cheap VW prices

Executions: Show various people seeing VW prices with extreme reaction, e.g. A woman feels faint or a dentist mentions a price to make a patient open his mouth further.

Endline: “Surprisingly ordinary prices”

Idea: Australians love their XXXX more than their Wives, cars, life itself, etc.

Execution: An Aussie bloke still reaching for a can of XXXX whilst nearly fully consumed by an alligator.

Endline: Australians wouldn’t give a XXXX for any other beer
Idea: John Smiths is a no bullshit beer for no bullshit blokes.

Execution: John Smiths drinker climbs to top of Olympic-style diving board and does a “bomb”

Endline: No nonsense

Idea: The taste of real oranges is a huge taste hit

Execution: To demonstrate the hit of real oranges, a person gets a smack on the face from a big orange bloke every time he takes a sip of Tango.

Endline: You know when you’ve been tangoed

All of the campaigns above have several executions. In fact, when a person picks up what a campaign idea is, they can usually come up with their own executions.

Not all ideas can be summed up in words, but most of the goods one can. This is why billboards with headlines are pretty popular in our business.

For the last few years I’ve been creative director of an ad agency called Colenso BBDO in New Zealand. New Zealand is a small country with small marketing departments and small budgets. This “smallness” is great for ideas.

It has made our industry, my agency and I work in a different way. It has forced our clients, planners and suits to stick to one proposition, one benefit. The creative work has to be simple. There is no choice.

We can’t write mediocre scripts and throw a million dollar director at it. Nor can we just come up with a crap headline and shoot the visual in Florence. In truth, we have to come up with simple, affordable, easy-to-produce ideas.

An example. Our client TV3 is the second biggest network in NZ. A junior creative team comes to me with ideas to promote their upcoming TV premiere of the movie Scream.

They suggest putting red dye into the water fountain in Custom Street, Auckland (the NZ equivalent of Piccadilly Circus).

The client said yes. The cost of the dye and street painting came to less than $800. The media coverage in the newspapers comes to about $500,000. Idea first, then execution, very much second.

A creative team will come up with an idea, script and present it. The client approves it, then it’s “By hook or by crook,” where we’ll do anything to get it made. In extreme cases an agency copywriter might act, or a client do voice over.

Nearly all of the creative teams I’ve worked with, present their TV/Print/ radio in the same way.

Most of the time they present their idea in a sentence, then they list off the executions. Nobody walks in with a film clip or a piece of Dutch animation because on nearly every occasion we can’t afford it. So quite often, the “thought” or “idea” has to be original in words, not necessarily how it looks or sounds.

Now this law has been pretty good to us and any other creative who practices it. As an agency, we’ve retained business, won business and picked up our fair share of Lions.
End of story?

Well no, not really. Having practiced this law and benefited hugely from it, I can’t now tell you it’s crap. Well not crap, but certainly flawed.

I’m beginning to believe a great execution is more important than the idea. By that I mean the funny, clever picture, sound effect bit during any ad, ay well be better than the big creative idea behing it. Punters like to laugh; they don’t really give a toss what the ad idea is.

We’ve all heard a good retail ad penned by the local plumbing shop or hardware store. Often it’s some dumb gag. Without a clear single minded though.

The thing is, though, that modern advertising training and methodology says we should have a “logical, clever bit.”

I first noticed this in radio. You can come up with a great idea, which just doesn’t work on radio. If the ad’s not funny, touching or dramatic, you’re stuffed.

Show Ads
I laughed out loud when I saw this campaign, then I blew the ads out. They didn’t make sense to me. It just said Mini TV. I asked them to do more work explaining the benefit of Casio Mini TV.

A day later I changed my mind. I was being too logical. The benefit/idea was in the name. I initially reacted the way punters do, in that I laughed. That’s what it’s all about.

That’s why Cannes is one of the better ad awards. A lot of the TV work that wins tends to be visually stunning or just plain hilarious. The jury tends to award stuff the way a punter would.

The way advertising briefs are researched, composed and presented is half the problem.
A creative person gets a brief with a written proposition.

He or she will sit at their desk and play with those words. Those words will lead to sentences, which then lead to pictures. This process will lead he or she to a certain style of ad. A few of these ad styles are below.

This is where the product is shown working for real
e.g. cooking pot used to melt inferior cooking pot.

Hyperbole demonstration:
This is where the benefit is still a demonstrational but done in an unreal way.
e.g. VW: Surprisingly ordinary prices, a mouse running on a steering wheel to demonstrate easy car steering.

Used when you are unable to show the subject matter. A good example is when one small company wants to say it’s as good as bigger companies in the market. The mouse scaring elephant scenario is an oft-used solution for this.

What I’m trying to convey is that every creative goes through the same process everyday. Our thinking is linear, our solutions systematic.

Why do you think we regularly come up with an ad somebody else has done? We get the same bride and our system comes up with the same solutions.

I believe truly great work happens when you mess with the system. Throw a spanner into the creative works.

NZ Skier is a good case of a screw up in the system. The client had no money so the creatives were told to they had use stock photography.

This setback turned out to be a godsend. We were forced to come up with a good idea, as the visual was decided.

One more example happened recently to me. I was doing some ads with a junior team on a video game called Mortal Kombat. It’s an ultra violent fighting game with various muscle-clad characters beating the shit out of each other.

One day wile thinking about it, I laughed out loud. We were thinking it would be funny if these guys were really a bit soft and girly.

We did a test using two of these animated characters. One was asking the other out of for a coffee because he felt that “they needed to discuss their differences.”

One of the copywriters, ad-libbed the dialogue with a funny, high-pitched voice, while our designer did some coarse animation.

It was funny, but it didn’t have an ending. Then we thought maybe the characters should have a fight to end the ad. We did that and it was still funny.

Now all we needed was an idea. We spent a day coming up with the idea and a line to summate the ad.

The ads ended up being about these guys trying to talk but always ending up fighting. We wrote three ads featuring the guys initially talking, but no matter how hard they tried, they always ended up having a fight.

The end line was “Violence. Always the best solution.” We started off with a sight gag. Ended on a campaign idea. Execution Idea.

Now this wasn’t a great campaign, but it showed a changed in our order of thinking. Some of the truly great ads of our time have been reverse engineered.

I don’t believe “Wassup” came from a three-page brief. I doubt a creative guy jumped out of his office chair and shouted “Why don’t we have these four blacks guys talking to each other?”

Most creative directors would never buy that ad based on a script. It’s common knowledge the execution was there well before the idea.

The “Cog” ad for Honda or the brilliant Club 18-30 campaign were hardly devised without some executional inspiration.

Advertising history has countless campaigns based on existing visual material and techniques.

UK advertising owes a lot to UK sitcoms, movies and skit shows. Many campaigns have been devised around their formats or star characters.

During the 1990s most London creative could count on a Harry Enfield or Paul Whitehouse character to deliver a client’s benefit.

This is not a new way of working. But it is a way that could be developed into something greater.

It may sound mad, but what if every brief forced you to work back from the execution?
What if creative were given a creative brief for a mobile phone that said you had to feature a banana in your TV script?

Maybe magazine ads for a car that couldn’t show the car, or could only feature its nearest competitor in the visual.

All of these suggestions immediately change the though process. Finally I believe the Law of Idea and Execution should be broken. Now, when I’m writing or judging ads, I force myself and my teams to break the law.

It can be anything from putting in an exceptional mandatory, like using a stock shot to using a soundtrack that fits the brands. If they present something that’s funny but doesn’t fit with the brand, then we try and make it fit.

As much as I can, I’ll abandon the logical route, because execution is about emotion.
It’s laughter, tears, tension, drama, etc.

Logical people will find it hard to word this way, but the chances are, it will make your ads better.

Keywords: campaign, advertising, marketing, ads, ad, script, idea, execution, creative, creatives, TV campaign, copywriter, magazine ads,


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