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The Ad Man’s Fear of Judgement Day

It can be a funny old game, the advertising game. Many people on the outside see advertising to be a glamorous, stimulating, funky industry inhabited by exotic creatures who exist in the realms of that exalted and mystical world we label ‘creative’. The advertising business can have its moments of stimulation and even euphoria, that is true, but for the much of the time it can be a tense and draining struggle to generate original and relevant ideas while the clock relentlessly ticks down towards an insanely unrealistic deadline that was set only yesterday. I have practised this advertising business in Europe, Australasia, Asia and the Middle East and I can tell you that it is the same everywhere.

After the blood, sweat and tears have been shed, the midnight oil has been spent, the original and relevant work created, it would be consoling for the ad-maker to know that the work will soon be out there stimulating the consumer and driving sales, but this is by no means guaranteed. First the work is presented to a group of people who must approve the work – the advertising man’s judgement day. One must sympathise with this group of people for they too are under pressure. They are about to make a very important decision, because the difference in result between choosing the right idea and choosing the wrong idea can be phenomenal. My own experience has taught me that one advertising campaign can be massively more successful than another advertising campaign when advertising an identical product to an identical target market using a parity budget.

This decision making process can be a tricky business. When making important decisions it is human nature to be conservative. So what criteria can be used to help in reaching a decision? Is there a checklist to use that can guarantee to eliminate the danger of flawed or biased personal opinion? Sadly not. There is no method of evaluation that comes with a cast-iron guarantee because one of the most crucial elements of a successful ad campaign, originality, cannot be judged against any existing terms of reference – for that very reason – it is original. This is one reason why focus group pre-testing is no sure fire assurance either. So personal opinion that tends to err towards the conservative can often become the deciding factor in this whole scenario. Hence the ad man’s fear of judgement day.

Now as we know, personal opinions can differ wildly. For example, here follows two reviews of Terrence Malick’s film The Tree of Life. Both reviews are by professional film reviewers and appeared in American publications.

The Tree of Life reviewer 1: “Terrence Malick’s astonishing masterpiece of light, movement, and spirit, casts a dizzying spell and somehow manages to pronounce the ineffable while telling its humble tale.”

The Tree of Life reviewer 2: “If I can prevent just one person from watching this, it’ll have been worth suffering through it.”

It’s hard to believe that those two guys were watching the same film. You expect people’s opinions to differ, but to differ that much? The opinion of film reviewers passing judgement on films is irrelevant because we can watch a film and decide for ourselves. Passing judgement on advertising campaigns is a very different matter – that can mean the difference between a product becoming a market leader or wallowing with the also-rans. Yet the opinions of people who are in a position to judge ad campaigns can vary just as much as the two eminent film reviewers mentioned above. It can be a little disconcerting at times if not fear-inducing. Over time I have encountered some dubious and dumbfounding reasons given for advertising concepts to be rejected. “I don’t like the colour red”, “I don’t like the hat that the man is wearing”, “There is no drama”, “It is too dramatic”, “I just don’t get it” and so on. On the other hand I have heard many comments that are insightful, astute and valid. One thing is certain: to change the opinion of another human being is one of the hardest tasks we homo sapiens can embark on.

For all these reasons an ad-maker can find himself wishing that pre-testing by focus group be employed to make the decision. To paraphrase Winston Churchill’s famous quote about democracy “Focus group testing is the worst way to evaluate an advertising concept – apart from all the others.” The problem is, focus groups cost money, and as said earlier, even they offer no sure fire assurance of success.

One of the bizarre curiosities of the advertising and marketing professions is that the creative people, the people who actually make the ads, often seem to be the people whose opinions have least credibility among all participants involved in this rather strange scenario, which effectively means they don’t know what they are doing, which in turn means they shouldn’t be doing it. Of course, the dark glasses wearing, pigtailed, ripped jeans creative brigade are as much to blame as anyone for this state of affairs, but even allowing for that, surely this situation is illogical to the point of being absurd. The role of advertising agency creative director automatically requires that person to accept or reject more ideas on a daily basis than probably any other profession – sometimes dozens a day. During this process the reasons given for the acceptance or rejection of those ideas must be valid and clearly articulated or there would soon be an atmosphere of resentment in the ranks, even a state of mutiny. It does seem somewhat irrational that the people who have spent years honing, sharpening, refining, and developing their communication skills to achieve maximum effectiveness are the people who often seem to have the least credibility in the evaluation process.

Whenever I see a brilliantly successful advertising campaign I feel like writing a note of congratulations to both the agency and the client wherever they may be. There is nothing more satisfying than to witness new, original, bold, stimulating advertising that consumers feel affection for and act upon. And every time I see such a campaign I pause for a moment to reflect on the fact that at some point in time, somewhere along the line, someone had the belief, foresight and courage to approve it. Without that approval, it would never have existed. So well done approvers whoever you are! Because a great advertising campaign can be one of the most entertaining and enjoyable things on earth.

To those reading this who may think that the above is an overstatement and even delusional given the amount of predictable, boring, and undistinguished advertising everyone is exposed to on a daily basis, please remember, much of the advertising you see may not be the work that the advertising agency recommended the client to run. Enough now! I must stop writing and get to work. There is a major presentation on Thursday and tomorrow is Tuesday so there are only two days left before judgement day.

John Oldfield is Regional Creative Leadership Officer at Pirana Advertising and author of the recently published book How to Protect Your Bottom Line from Your Advertising Agency.

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