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The law of the silver elephant in advertising

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This is a great article. Because there’s too much good in the world. Too many good, solid campaigns. Too many good, sound people. Too many good meetings. Too few great successes.

Can a good idea become a great idea? How do you recognize great creative people? Research and analysis, more time and a bigger budget, will not transform into great.

Great comes from a different see of values altogether. It’s no point sharpening the same pencil.

As New Zealand ad guru Kim Thorpe once observed: “Good doesn’t deliver the slap one the back at cocktail parties or a desk piled with letters of praise from customers, or a desk piled with letters of praise from customers, or the TV interviews, or the follow up stories in the women’s magazines. Good doesn’t stir up much emotion at al.”

How do great creative people have great ideas? When Sir Charlie Chaplin was asked how he got his ideas, he explained: “Ideas come from an intense desire for them, continually desiring.

The mind becomes a watch-tower on the look-out for incidents that may excite the imagination … elimination from accumulation is the process … sheer perseverance to the point of madness. One must have a capacity to the point of madness.

One must have a capacity to suffer anguish and sustain enthusiasm over a long period of time. Perhaps it’s easier for others, but I doubt it.”

A more recent humorist, Douglas Adams, agreed; he suggested writing creatively was a straightforward matter of “staring at a piece of paper until your ears bleed.”

Great creative people are driven to extremes, looking for notions from the periphery of thinking.

Not surprisingly, a great idea is often harder to sell to clients than a more familiar notion, more difficult to produce, puts more strain on the client-agency relationship and sometimes involves working with difficult people.

However, to be successful, a brand must allow a great idea into its bosom and confront its key business issue.

A transformation of that issue should be the simple objective. This means setting a challenge that is big, bold, ambitious – greatest imaginable.

If you will it, it is no longer a dream. Aim to set the standard. High enough for your competition to envy.

Too many campaigns are written to maintain the status quo. That’s why they’re average.
Advertising used to aim for memorability, but that’s setting your sights way too low.

Shoot for fame. Great will get people talking. Word of mouth spreads a brand more persuasively than any media budget.

People talk about great ads and they become fans of brands. Fame means you’re always in the consideration set. Famous brand lines and icons become part of the popular culture lexicon.

Great advertising keeps the brand continually fresh and allow it to pop into real-life conversations more naturally and, therefore, it makes recommendations easier. Great ads deliver product placement in real life.

Ideas like these literally add a value to products over and above their actual product performance, the communication itself creating tangible value. There’s a sense of belonging to something special.

Great ideas sink deep into the soil of memory and builds up an untapped cash reservoir of brand equity. You can call it “the invisible benefit.”

What’s all this got to do with Silver Elephants? Founder of South Africa’s famous agency, The Jupiter Drawing Room, Graham Warsop, believes you don’t find what you’re not looking for. If you’re hunting for great, big ideas, then you need some high-powered ammunition.

I hope to prove that one of the essential components of great advertising has less to do with executional theory and technique and everything to do with a particular state of mind.

A state of mind that is so fundamental to the origination of outstanding advertising that it deserves to be enshrined in a law.

A Couple of Assumptions
What we’re concerned with here is the indisputable laws that govern the origination of great advertising, and by great advertising, I mean advertising that is sufficiently distinctive, compelling and relevant, that it stands out from its rivals in the category and results in increased sales and/or greater brand value for the product or service being advertised.

In addition, one must not assume this particular law is limited to the predictable format of the 30-second television ad.

This law holds advertising in all its forms and guises. The dictionary defines advertising as meaning “to turn the mind or attention to’ (from the Latin ad – to: vertere – to turn).

Accordingly, for this law, the definition of advertising includes above the line, below the line, design and packaging. (Isn’t packaging or packaging design there to turn the mind or attention to the brand?)

Defining the Law of the Silver Elephant
The Law of the Silver Elephant can be defined thus: Great advertising (powerful, distinctive, relevant work that increases sales and builds brand value) relies on the imagination of one or more individuals who have the desire:

(1) To bring something into the world that never existed before
(2) To do so in such a way that it surpasses what has been done before.

In England the law of murder requires two things to be proved. A mental intent (mens rea) and a physical act (actus reas).

The Law of the silver elephant likewise has two components: the mental intent to produce something that has never been done before, and the physical act of successfully carrying out that intent.

Let’s illustrate the Law of the Silver Elephant by way of an example. Two creative teams get exactly the same brief landing on their desk. The brief is a good one. Each team approaches it with a different mind-set.

Team One (The Path of Least Resistance Team)
“We’ve got this brief, we think we know what the client wants. They want something safe.

And safe is probably right for this brand. They’re going to research it so it’ll help if the solution we propose has a familiarity about it – we know people gravitate towards advertising that has something familiar about it. That’s the way to go on this one.”

Team Two (The Silver Elephant Team)
“What can we do that’ll make the solutions we propose really distinctive?
Let’s look at the work that’s being done in the market for our client’s competitors.

We should be aiming to produce something that’s never been done before in this category.

It probably won’t be an easy sell to the client, but if it’s distinctive and stands out, if it’s relevant and on brief, hopefully the client will see that it’ll make his advertising spend work harder.

We suspect that the client’s looking for something safe but hopefully he’ll realize that safe advertising is the riskiest advertising of all because it runs the risk of not being seen.”

Let’s make some more observations on our Silver Elephant team’s mindset. They are likely to share a common (or not so common) character trait. They are probably working for something more than money.

They’re governed by a desire to rise above the “me too” advertising formulas and create something truly original and distinctive.

It may be that, in the great scheme of tings, advertising is, as Neil French rightly observes, “not the most important thing in the world.” But to them it is.

To them, the smile on a face, the length of a dissolve, the choice of a particular typeface and its point size are worthy of much painstaking deliberation.

Willingly sacrificing evenings and weekends to sit in an edit suite crafting, honing and refining the communication – it’s not just about the money.

There is a greater driving force and it’s central to the success of most of the best work and most of ate great advertising that is produced in the world.

There is a personal satisfaction that comes from the act of creation, of bringing something into the world that never existed before and doing it in such a way that it will touch, delight, charm, persuade ad seduce and seduce an audience.

Our silver Elephant team will recognize that great advertising results when the driveling force to create meets the rational need top sell.

Where these paths converge, is where the greatness lies. It is in this soil that one will sow he seeds that reap such giant rewards for brands. If one looks at the example of luminaries such as Bern Bach.

Ogilvy, Abbot, Hegarty and Delaney, you will note that they genuinely care about the success of failure of the brands they communicate.

They are concerned with powerful advertising that is the servant, not the master, of a brand promise or positioning.

Our team’s desire to create something better, something, original lies at the very heart of this law.

They ask themselves, why is the world so full of charmless ads? So many strategies translated into communications that lack flair?

Everyone can mark a box that says strategically sound and safe. Few seem to go the extra mile and ask how does it make you fee? Few rise above the rational, appeal to the emotions and capture the imagination.

Our team doesn’t sit down to write an ad that’s the 20th best, the 10th best or even the second best ad in a category.

They aim to create the best they are capable of. When you think about it, isn’t the basis of all international advertising awards shows to recognize and reward work that has been brought into the world that didn’t exist before, work that has been executed in such a way that it is better than anything else produced in that category in a given year?

Let’s leave our creative team to soldier on with the belief. The Law of the Silver Elephant really comes into its own as a driving force for great advertising, when the client?

Marketer/ manufacturer exhibits the same desire to bring into the world something that has never existed before, to make it stand out from what has come before and to succeed in translating that desire into reality.

Such clients believe in innovation. Supremely conscious of the “sea of sameness” that exists in most product categories today, they place enormous emphasis on the need to try to create a product or brand that genuinely stands out.

They don’t just rely on an advertising message to give distinction to their brand. They are likely to ask themselves the question (often), how can I make my care, shoes, confectionary (insert product here) original and extraordinary.

It is therefore fitting that the person chosen to embody the Law of the Silver Elephant was an inventor. A manufacture. A brand owner. A client.

He was an Italian gentleman who represents the virtues of imagination, perseverance and vision (all Silver Elephant qualities) in such great measure.

He made cars. And the cars he made took his name. Bugatti. A name that to this day stirs the heart of every lover of the great marques. Etorre Bugatti was born in 1881.

At the age of 17 he left art school of pursue his own factory and set about building some of the world’s great automobiles.

By the age of 40 he had achieved much. His Type 35 was acknowledged to be one of the greatest racing designs of its day. But that wasn’t enough for Etorre. He decided he would undertake the design and production of the greatest motorcar the world had ever seen.

And so was born Etorre Bugatti’s dream for the Royale, a care that would out do every single automobile that had come before it.

Having conceived of the ideal of bringing into the world something that had never existed before (mens rea) he set about turning that dream into reality (actus reas).

One cannot help but admire the grandeur of his vision and the determination he brought to his task.

When the most expensive Rolls Royce of the day cost US$40 0000, the Bugatti Royale would cost double that, just for the chassis.

The car had a massive 14.7 liter engine – so powerful that second gear would take the car from virtually zero to 93mph.

The design of the car was sublimely elegant despite its colossal size. (The overall length was more than 21 feet and the wheelbase was as long as two current Chevrolet Corvettes!) Very importantly, for Bugatti, building the biggest and most expensive car was not enough. It also had to be the best. Quality was everything.

In a world where marketers and their agencies increasingly use all the powers at their disposal to seduce, encourage, persuade and sometimes bamboozle prospective clients to buy, Etorre took precisely the opposite approach.

So precious were his Royales, conceptually and actually, he wanted to not simply sell them, but to only sell them to owners who would truly appreciate them.

Hence, prospective purchasers would need to apply to Mr. Bugatti (or Le Patron as he was affectionately known) expressing their interest in the Royale.

Receipt of an invitation to his home at Mosheim, Alsace (where the factory was situated) indicated the applicant had cleared the first hurdle.

During the course of a weekend, Mr. Bugatti would appraise potential purchasers to ensure they would do the Royale’s name and reputation justice.

Apparently his undisclosed criteria were said to include the conversational ability and even the table manners of the applicant.

It was a condition precedent of the weekend’s evaluation that the applicant would be notified in writing of Le Patron’s decision and no further correspondence would be entered into.

Imagine being briefed on the advertising campaign for a car that money alone could not buy.

It should come as no surprise that when deciding on the radiator mascot for the car, Etorre Bugatti did not conduct any focus groups.

He did not evaluate Rolls Royce’s Spirit of Ecstasy and seek to produce something to rival its celestial grace.

He simply chose a sculpture created by his younger brother, Rembrandt Bugatti. It was of a standing, playing elephant.

And so the elephant (not necessarily the most obvious or even the most appropriate symbol for a sublimely elegant car capable of achieving speeds of more than 125mph) took its place in history.

The mascot was signed by the Valsuami Foundry (the most highly regarded foundry of its day) and cast in cire perdue silver.

Today it seems so many decisions are put in the hands of consumers. Rarely do marketers make a move without insisting a focus group wade through an animatic.

God forbid, focus groups are even held to decide on the most popular endings for movies. The Law of the Silver Elephant challenges marketers to take the initiative to be bold, brave and confident enough to make their own decisions about what is right for their brands.

To recognize that a “boring, staid, me-too, follow the leader, try and emulate the best competitor” mindset is the wrong one in these difficult and demanding times.

Sure, there will be those that point out that due to the Wall Street Crash, only six Bugatti Royale’s were ever built, and of those, only three were ever sold new.

To them, it might be worth pointing out that on a cold November evening in 1987, at London’s Albert Hall, Christies sold a Bugatti Royale at auction for the price of £5 million, the world record price paid for an automobile.

There are, of course, bound to be plenty of people who will miss the entire point of the Law of the Silver Elephant.

They will say that it’s not always about building the biggest and the best. It will escape their attention that it is Elephant –not literally his choice of vehicle (excuse the pun). He could have been the manufacturer of a bicycle, a washing machine or soap powder.

The law has actually nothing to do with cars. Etorre is demonstrative of a state of mind, an attitude. It’s about wanting to do something extraordinary and having the vision, perseverance, talent and imagination to succeed in accomplishing that endeavor.

It just so happened that Etorre Bugatti set out to build the biggest most expensive car the world had ever seen.

Presumably the inventors of DaimlerChrysler’s Smart car set out with pretty much the opposite objective, yet they honour the Law of the Silver Elephant every bit as much as Ettore Bugatti. The Smart car is an original.

It stands out from everything else in the category. It embodies outstanding design and required vision and imagination to bring it into existence.

And maybe that’s a point too. With genuine product differentiators, based on quality, becoming fewer and fewer, the importance of design is becoming greater and greater.

Winding up
It’s important to recognize that everyday around the world, thousands of agencies produce solid workmanlike communications that probably do a reasonable job in the marketplace.

But this article is not concerned with advertising that does a reasonable job in the marketplace.

It’s concerned with work that through its originality and relevance does an outstanding job in the marketplace.

Etorre Bugatti was a visionary. He didn’t run research groups to see what the gap in the market was.

He didn’t look at successful competitors and try and emulate them. He simply set out to create something from nothing. He set out to create something extraordinary.

The Law of the Silver Elephant is, it is suggested, a vital component in the quest for great advertising.

At its best, it relies on the desire of both agency and client to want to bring into the world something that never existed before and to do it in such a way that it surpasses everything that has come before it.

Both parties recognize that in a crowded cluttered marketplace, one word will conquer: imagination.

Not just the imagination to conceive bold powerful ideas, but the imagination to bring new products, styles and designs to market.

Both parties want to make the budget work harder by demanding, approving and rejoicing in work that breaks the code of the category.

From an advertising stand point, the ability to translate that desire into actuality is an enormously valuable attribute.

Clients should recognize this spark when they see it and should do everything in their power to kindle and not extinguish it. They should seek it out. Harness it.

Reward it. They should know that it’s important enough to be enshrined in a law and cast in stone. Or better still, in cire Perdue silver.

Keywords: campaigns, ads, ad, brand, advertising, marketer, Etorre Bugatti,


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