The Futurist: The future is in the past

As a practitioner in the advertising and media industry for over 35 years, I’ve witnessed the definition of “creativity” fluctuate across the breadth and depth of its intended role and purpose in helping brands communicate better with their intended consumers! A major blame for the inconsistent values placed upon the art of creativity has been the evolution of media and the proliferation of its forms and platforms.

The simplified analog world which my career kicked off with had only newspapers, television, radio, cinemas and posters as mainstay vehicles to amplify what advertisers wanted to shout to the world out there. A far cry from the digital arena of the now, where the multiplicity of media manifestations have reached exponential proportions across paid, owned, earned, shared and converged platforms.

The art of creativity has adorned its fair share of preferred personas across distinct periods in time – the “product era” of the 1950s, the “image/impression era” of the 1960s, the “positioning era” of the 1970s, and so on. Much like art movements such as impressionism, symbolism, cubism, realism, and graffiti, advertising has also evolved through phases where dominant preferences prevail – strong headlines and short body copy, photocentric expressions, story-telling advertorials, minimalistic layouts (use of white space), endorsement-oriented campaigns, testimonial aligned proclamations and more.

No matter where the journey has taken us, my fi rm belief for creativity to exude the full promise of a bright future is for its craft to be fundamentally embellished by “the past”. Contemporary modernism has clouded many in the industry into being overly concerned by the avalanche of cutting-edge options driven by technology, disruption, terrestrial reach, non-traditional ad platforms and social media

inferences. To be distinctly clear about how creativity should be best applied as we take on 2016 and beyond, I recommend a bold step backwards for a reorientation on the fundamental premise of “creativity”.

Having commenced my career in an Ogilvy linked advertising agency (Meridian), I cannot help but laud what David Ogilvy, who Time magazine in 1962 called “the most sought-after wizard in today’s advertising industry”, taught me through his applied principles. Allow me to quote the father of advertising and I’ll let you be the judge of its relevance for this day and age. “If it doesn’t sell, it isn’t creative.”

Ogilvy reminds us not to write ads that merely reek of cleverness, but not connecting with the consumer. He firmly believed that we should all be treating our audience as a close friend – someone who is sitting in front of us. “When people read your copy, they are alone. Pretend you are writing to each of them a letter on behalf of your client.” He was research-oriented and subscribed to fully understand how targeted prospects think and spoke before even attempting to put an idea down on paper.

David also said: “Advertising people who ignore research are as dangerous as generals who ignore decodes of enemy signals.” I learnt from him to never look upon myself as the person my ad is trying to appeal to. There is nothing more important than seeing through the eyes and walking in the shoes of the customer. “The consumer isn’t a moron; she is your wife. You insult her intelligence if you assume that a mere slogan and a few vapid adjectives will persuade her to buy anything. She wants all the information you can give her.”

David stressed the importance of writing great headlines when he said: “On the average, five times as many people read the headline as read the body copy. When you have written your headline, you have spent eighty cents out of your dollar.” I can’t help but quote the well-documented example of the Rolls-Royce advertisement which he wrote in 1958 after three weeks of reading and studying all the technical characteristics of the car. “At 60 miles per hour the loudest noise in this new Rolls-Royce comes from the electric clock”.

All said – when we get these fundamentals right, then adapting the art of creativity across to new platforms, devices, formats, expressions, be these analog, digital or everything else in between, will be a breeze. As we kick off this new year, while most soothsayers are heading forth with predictions on wearable tech, personalisation, first-screen mobile, virtual reality, the proliferation of robots, the rise of influencer marketing and more, I am heading back a few steps to empower a quantum leap ahead.

Steve Williams, CEO of Maxus Americas, puts it succinctly when he said: “Creativity is the marriage of imagination and execution, thinking and doing. Creativity in the context of today’s world is underpinned by the fact that almost anything is possible given technology and platform advancements. Technology is changing behaviour, but ideas and how we tell the stories are everything – this is how we influence behaviour. As long as we remember that it’s about the idea and the story, not simply the devices or technology, we will create great and enduring ideas. Is there a process to creativity? Yes, process and workflow play their part. Let’s not forget too, that we ‘unlearn’ creativity as we get older – so it is eminently possible to re-learn.”

For 2016 and beyond, let us constantly re-learn from the gem-filled storehouse of the past!

The wrtier Geoff Tan is head and senior vice president, Singapore Press Holdings

This article was first published in Marketing Magazine Singapore’s Jan-Feb 2016 print edition. To read more views from senior marketers click here.

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