The best and most comprehensive comment on the ad industry came from Ian Leslie in his FT column where he examined the influx of digital and how conventional advertising was seen to be redundant.

The article titled ‘How the Mad Men lost the Plot’ ended with an interesting observation that it was actually creativity in advertising that had suffered the most (“The only part of the TV package that hasn’t improved is the ads. According to Kantar Media, in 1986, 28 per cent of people in Britain said they enjoyed the ads more than the programmes. Today, only 12 per cent say so.” )

This data could be examined in many ways, but does point that creativity in advertising has definitely changed if not reduced (I’d like to think that a few markets like India and Singapore have bucked the trend and creativity has not suffered as much as globally).

There were two dominant developments in advertising in the last couple of decades that have impacted creativity (along with structural changes in media, industry, organizations etc.).

The first is the growth of planning as a discipline. This growth can be best seen in the increased acceptance of campaign effectiveness awards (EFFIEs). More countries now have their own EFFIE awards, and there are a lot more clients willing to allow their ad agencies to share campaign details as an entry to this awards competition. During the golden age of growth in Indian advertising, agencies will remember how difficult and reluctant clients were when agencies suggested creating case studies for sharing learnings.

Today there are as many, if not more, entries to effectiveness awards as for creative awards. Even Cannes – the ultimate recognition of creativity in advertising, launched a ‘creative effectiveness’ award.

Why’d this be bad for creativity?

Traditionally Creative was the deliverable that advertising agencies were famous for. Today Planning seems to take a similar weight, and sometimes dominates creative. Clients would be familiar with presentations be it a pitch or a review that have long sections on strategy and a short section on creative. This seems to be more the norm than the exception.

Planning also results in a slightly more linear approach to advertising. The irony is that planning also requires a lot of creative thinking in developing strategic options.

When I started out my career, there was quite a lot of campaign development work where the creatives were involved in developing ‘routes’ and ‘platforms’. The creatives would also sit in the focus groups and iterate/ recycle ideas while also sometimes quizzing consumers to explore boundaries that they could push. These were fun sessions indeed as the consumers didn’t mind, even if the groups went twice as long as regular sessions.

However recently, almost all the creative concepts that I have tested have been more rational and dry. The creatives are rarely involved and it is the planning team that attends these consumer feedback sessions.

Mohammed Khan – a veteran of Indian advertising spoke about how glad he was not to be part of advertising today. One of the reasons he touched upon was planning (read it, he says it best).

Can be argued that some of the best creative campaigns in the world would never fit in or emerge from the ‘strategic account planning’ framework. As Mohd Khan said in his speech, good creative would produce great strategy as some of the classics (‘Lemon’ for VW, ‘We are no.2’ we try harder for Avis) came before the age of planning.

The second development to have affected creativity is something the advertising industry unanimously reviles: Advertising Pre-testing.

I have been a product champion for pre-testing and found the paradox interesting:

Y’see very few companies carry out market research or pre-testing, and those who do are more likely to use professional, top-tier ad agencies who are good at their game. Thus, it should be likely that ads that are pre-tested should do well, right?

And yet, there would be a good number of ads that would get below-average ratings and be at the bottom, including those from reputed agency networks. Its humbling to realize that creativity that’s entertaining and relevant to the consumer, is really difficult to pull off.

Advertising Pre-testing (I am referring to ‘the norm’ today) has grown with International agencies now having a presence in almost all the global markets. However, before the popular international pre-testing system entered India, some clients used to get local agencies to run the fieldwork and send this data to the international pre-testing agency for an evaluation of ads.

At that time, one of the ad agencies whose ads were increasingly being pre-tested, had a few panic meetings to decide the best way to move forward and I was part of a few.

One approach that worked for them was to review how the pre-testing system was designed and then develop a ‘formulaic’ advertising that would actually educate the respondents towards suitable responses that would help improve the pre-testing ratings. This resulted in somewhat of a compromise where there’d be a bit of entertainment (usually a celeb) thrown in, but the meat of the advertisement was spent in demonstrating the USP/ ReasonToBelieve etc. or address questions that were asked in the Pre-Test.

I am happy to note that both pre-testing and advertising in India has evolved since, and I personally feel some ad agencies have done a far better job in terms of cracking this balance where great creativity still trumps pre-testing and entertains effectively.

And then, there’s the evolution of ‘creativity’ itself internationally. If one were to look at some of the best ads of the year, the majority of them are films that are a few minutes in duration, and seem to be more suitable for viewing on the internet, or for a short burst like pre-Xmas. Its hard to see examples of 30 second ads. Within Digital too, its a definition that might not be in line with what was conventionally seen to be creative as seen from the Cannes award winners in the digital category.

Markets like India might be doing better as they lead both in terms of awards for effectiveness as well as for creativity. And part of the reason might be the substantial portion of the budgets dedicated to conventional media especially television. It’d be interesting to see how this evolves when digital spends dominate and overtake the spends on television.

One learning and a hard reality that stayed with me was that Pre-testing was not a guarantee that a campaign would run. Even a well-produced film that aced pre-testing would still have to pass the CMO/ CEO approval, and it was heart-breaking to see some of these nixed and never released (or butchered to a lifeless ‘safe’ version).

In my personal opinion, the most important factor that can help creativity flourish – is the client. Perhaps India & the few ‘creative’ markets have the right mix of clients who allow creative minds and invest in ideas allowing creativity to prosper.

And that’s something no award can buy…

DISCLAIMER applies. Read here