Monday, April 27, 2015

Our Debate About 'Risky' Versus 'Safe' Advertising Is Embarrassingly Amateur

The attitude that we have towards risk in our industry is embarrassingly amateur.

And I'm pointing the finger at both Agencies and Clients here, who tend to fall into opposite but equally naive traps.

The Agency view, most commonly (but not exclusively) heard from Creatives, is that "safe advertising is actually more risky than risky advertising." The theory here is that if advertising is 'vanilla' it "won't cut through" and is therefore likely to be useless. They rail against Clients' "conservatism", and wish their Clients would have 'more vision' or, moving further down the body, 'more balls.'

Many Clients, on the other hand, make huge efforts to minimise risk. The principal method is via research. If a campaign has 'passed' research, they feel it has a higher chance of being successful, i.e. should give them a higher than average return on investment. If a campaign is similar to things that have worked before, they again feel it has a higher chance of working. If an agency has done similar work before, a photographer or director has done similar work before, they will be more comfortable, because they will be 'reducing the risk' and therefore maximising their chance of a high return.

Both attitudes are so, so wrong.

For a more informed view, we need to learn something from the risk professionals - financial investors.

First of all, they are smart enough to realise that every investment carries risk. Indeed, they classify it. Low-risk investments include short-dated US Treasury Bonds - the chance of the United States going bankrupt within the next 30 or 60 days is tiny. A medium risk investment might be shares in a company like General Electric or Boeing. A high-risk investment could be loans to countries considered at risk of default, such as Greece and Argentina.

The difference with advertising is that financial investors understand that risk and reward are highly correlated. The low-risk 30-day US Treasury Bond delivers only a small return - just 0.03% annually, as of last Friday. Boeing's dividend yield is currently 2.45%, GE's is 3.7%. Whereas a higher-risk Greek government 10-year bond is currently yielding 12.7%, and Argentina 7.2%.

The more risk you are willing to take, the higher your potential reward. It's that simple.

And it's the same for every area of life. Asking a hottie out? High risk, high reward. Working for the civil service? Low risk, low reward.

If only we in advertising could understand this simple correlation. The Creatives arguing for high-risk as a 'form of safety' are idiots. High-risk work is high-risk. It's also potentially higher reward, of course. And the Clients demanding that their work be de-risked should not expect that it will also generate high returns. It won't.

Cadbury's drumming gorilla was high-risk (because very weird and unusual - it could have bombed) but when it worked, the rewards were high. A beer ad that just shows hops being farmed and droplets of water glistening on the bottle is low risk (it's not going to offend anybody) but will be low reward.

TLDR: an ad campaign that has a chance of earning a high return will also involve high risk. A low risk campaign can never earn a high return.

Sunday, April 12, 2015

Let's Get Classical

Having the right music makes a huge difference to the success of a TV ad. Trouble is, it can come at a huge cost.

I reckon we're ignoring an infinite supply of amazing yet affordable music - classical.

Hit songs of the last 50 years certainly bring a lot to the party. First off, they're often great pieces of music - that's why they became hits.

And secondly, because people know what a well-known song is 'about', it can amplify the meaning of an ad. Examples: John Lewis 'Always A Woman', Chrysler 'Made In Detroit' (feat. Eminem).

Then there's the sheer fame factor too - recognition and memorability are important (and heavily tracked) aspects of an ad's success.

But these pluses come at a cost. Have you noticed how the price of concert tickets has shot through the roof? That's because artists aren't making what they used to from record sales. And I reckon the cost of music for ads has been another casualty.

A big track by a big artist can cost anywhere from $200,000 to $500,000. It's not uncommon to be quoted six figures for some obscure 60's soul track nowadays. 

But there is an alternative.

I've just made a TV ad using classical music as the soundtrack, and it's made me realise what a relatively untapped resource we have here.

Classical music is a hell of a lot cheaper - it's out of copyright, so there's no cost for the publishing rights, also the recordings themselves are extremely cheap to acquire.

And because you have hundreds of years' worth of music to draw from, there will always be a piece - probably a famous piece - that will reflect the mood you want for your ad.

But won't it make my ad seem old-fashioned? I hear you ask. Well, that depends. Some classical music does seem very twee to our ears now. But some sounds more modern than most of today's pop music.

If somehow those arguments have failed to convince you of the merits of classical music, here's the clincher: Jonathan Glazer loves it.

Monday, April 06, 2015

How Long Does It Really Take To Crack A Brief?

We need to talk about time.

Self-evidently, we are being given less and less time to crack briefs nowadays.

And I doubt that's going to change.

So we're going to need to work quicker, smarter... all of that.

But also, I think we need to do a better job of explaining to everyone else the role that time plays in the creative process.

Because so far, we haven't explained it very well at all.

Most Planners, Suits and Clients still think that engaging a Creative is much like engaging a builder. They describe the job, and then ask how long we think it will take.

For the builder, that's easy. If he can place 1000 bricks a day, then he knows that a 5000-brick wall will take 5 days.

But the creative process doesn't work that way.

A creative team might have the job licked in a day. (Something the builder could never achieve).

On the other hand, they might work on it for a week, and not crack it. (Let's define 'crack it' as 'come up with a solution that the CD approves'). In other words they might do a whole week and get all their work rejected, ending up with absolutely nothing. Which would be the equivalent of the builder working for a week and failing to have a single brick in place at the end of it.

Surely this illustrates that to even ask us the question 'how long do you think will this take' is to misunderstand the nature of what we do.

But they're not going to stop asking. So a better answer to give them might be something that's phrased more in terms of 'confidence interval'.

I estimate that a typical team, given a typical brief, has a 20% chance of cracking it in a day. (Obviously a more senior or better-than-average team would have a higher chance, and a more difficult brief means a lower chance).

After three days, I reckon the chance of cracking the brief goes up to about 50%, and after five days (i.e. one week), I'd say the team has a two-in-three chance of cracking it.

I estimate that when given two weeks on a brief, the typical team has a 90% chance of cracking it. But from then on, the crack rate rises very slowly. If they haven't cracked it after two weeks, they probably never will.

So what do you think? Does this tally with your experience?Am I being too generous? Too stingy? Oh, and do you have any tips for working quicker and/or smarter...

Wednesday, April 01, 2015

Beyond Open Plan - American Agency Introduces 'Open Play'

US advertising agency Flair Loop, based in Madison, Wisconsin, has announced a radical re-vamp of how its creatives work together… and sit together.

As of April 1st, the shop has removed all desks and chairs from the creative department, and replaced them with thousands of brightly-coloured plastic balls to create a seating plan it calls ‘open play’.

“My kids love playing in those ball pits,” commented CEO Terry Friendly, explaining the rationale for the move. “So I’m sure our Creatives will too.”

Friendly denied that the purpose of the change is to cut costs. “Just as with the switch to open plan fifteen years ago, we’ll actually have the same number of Creatives in the same space, so quite evidently we’re not going ‘open play’ to save money."

"You have to bear in mind that although our product is creativity, for reasons that are too complicated to go into right now, only 20% of our staff are Creatives. This move shows that I'm willing to do whatever it takes to make us a more creative company, short of actually hiring more Creatives."

“I feel it will be a big improvement,” said Account Manager Sally Dazzle. “At the moment, when I go talk to a Creative, I’m having a conversation with someone who knows how to create advertising whereas I don’t, so it’s not a level playing field. With the Creatives floundering in a sea of plastic balls, I will feel more at ease when I’m talking to them.”

However, Planning Director Steven Glasses, while applauding the innovation, cautioned that it should not be seen as a revolution in how the agency functions. “Let’s not forget that the average brief has to spend six weeks in Planning, to ensure we have incorporated every possible angle into the single-minded proposition, and every single suggestion from all the various clients involved. Only then does the brief spend a couple of days in the creative department for them to crack an idea. So the fact that the Creatives are now working in a giant ball pit is not going to make a huge difference to the quality of work that emerges.”

Art Director Matt Hair agreed that ‘open play’ would have little effect on his working habits. “When I’m in the office, I’m just looking at Facebook or watching YouTube anyway,” said Hair. “Everyone knows that creative thinking requires peace and quiet, so when we get a brief, my partner and I already have to go outside to a cafe, or find a park bench we can work on. I guess we’ll just carry on doing that.”

Link to full story here.