The tyranny of a blank page: Why creative matters most

The burden placed on the "Big Idea" is more onerous than ever in the digital age. Contributor Peter Minnium explains that creative ideas must be strong enough to inspire creators all along the campaign life cycle.

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“And remember the tyranny of a blank sheet of paper,” my supervisor added as I turned to leave her office. I was a young account executive in the ’90s en route to read the riot act to a creative team who were tardy on an assignment. I was stopped in my tracks at this seemingly offhand advice.

We had already spent months preparing the launch of a new campaign — exploring the client’s business challenge and competitive environment, talking to consumers and investigating every nuance of the product and brand. We synthesized and summarized this into a creative brief that had been delivered to the creative team two weeks prior, and now they were about to miss the deadline to show their preliminary ideas.

This, I thought at the time, was not only unacceptable but must be a symptom of deeper issues with the team. What were they doing with all of their time if not emptying the contents of their creative minds onto a sketch pad?

I turned back to my supervisor with some impatience to inquire what on earth she meant. I had my deliverables list together with my timetable. Nowhere did it mention tyranny and it certainly did not include blank sheets of paper.

“Our client service role in the ad world is a linear and logical one,” she began, “It may be difficult at times and require clever thinking, but each step in our process follows on the last and leads to that which comes after — we have a well-worn road map to guide us.”

“There is,” she continued, “only one step in the creation of advertising that is non-linear, non-logical and that is what the creative team is doing now: coming up with the advertising idea. If we were to diagram the advertising development process in a flowchart, there would be a gap in the middle of the page labeled ‘creative idea’ and we have faith that creative teams will jump that gap for us.”

That process, as I have come to know well, always starts with a person or a team and a blank sheet of paper or its more modern version, a blank screen. And that screen can be brutal, tyrannical really — exercising an oppressive power over the creative team, demanding their full attention and labor until it’s filled.

In the old days, the creative team literally started with white paper and a pencil (the copywriter) and colored markers (the art director), while today powerful computers and sophisticated design tools are the norm. Similarly, the creative brief of old with its four or five headings (e.g., objective, audience, main idea, reason to believe and tone) would look quaint next to today’s data-infused version (layering audience behavior, social sentiment and media usage, for example).

Added data and tools, however, do not make the job of creating an advertising idea any easier, and, in some ways, it makes it harder by providing distractions. Worse, it can result in the dreaded souped-up-kitchen-sink creative that’s all too common in the digital space. You know the type — a hodgepodge of messages (all in the creative brief) displayed in a whiz-bang fashion (using all the newest cool techniques) and entirely devoid of an idea.

Creative matters most

I have previously shared research in this space that shows that creative quality is the primary determinant of the success of advertising. The data shows that creative quality is four times more important than the media plan in driving sales and that creative is the single most important factor, accounting for over half (52 percent) of the changes in a brand’s sales over time.

In addition, nearly half of the probability that an ad will be looked at depends on the creative itself (47.3 percent); this is five times more important than targeting (10.7 percent). Creative quality is a key driver of the awareness and impact of an ad; high-quality creative increases ad viewing time six times (5.8x) and nearly doubles purchase intent (+93 percent) vs. low-quality creative.

Finally, the global creative database at Ipsos (my employer) shows that 75 percent of an ad’s impact is determined by creative quality.

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Big ad ideas are more critical than ever

The role of creative agencies and creative teams developing great ad ideas — “Big Ideas” in the common parlance — has never been more important.

In the outdated analog media scenario, an agency was responsible for the entire communications supply chain — the sequence of processes involved in the creation, production and distribution of advertising from the brand to consumer. Agencies controlled not only the creation of the campaign idea, but also all of its manifestations, and often the media delivery to the end consumer.

In today’s digital world, the brand marketers and their agencies control a much smaller piece of the communications supply chain. Digital advertising has enabled a level of interaction and dialogue between marketers, consumers and the media whereby the three are becoming equal partners in the advertising experience — often as co-creators.

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Today, the brand and agency typically control the first part of the communications supply chain, the media the second, and the consumer the third: the brand and agency will create a Big Idea and a handful of executions that bring this idea to life; media owners will then create additional content (often “native”) for the brand, building on the agency’s work; and finally, consumers will respond and share their interpretations, creating “earned” media for the brand.

Creative ideas today have a higher hurdle to clear than ever. They must be relevant, distinct, and powerful enough to inspire on-brief expressions by myriad co-creators in the digital and social sphere.

Respect the tyranny

It is brutally difficult to develop a creative idea that will not only strongly spur the communications supply chain but also drive successful interpretations and iterations throughout the campaign’s life cycle.

No matter the sophistication with which the final ad is delivered to an audience (e.g., HTML5, dynamic, personalized, or even Watson-driven), it always starts with a blank page with at least one pair of eyes staring at it.

Smart marketers and agencies never fail to remember the tyranny of a blank sheet of paper. Despite increased stakes and complexity in today’s MAdTech world, overcoming this oft-oppressive task remains a triumph.

Opinions expressed in this article are those of the guest author and not necessarily MarTech. Staff authors are listed here.

About the author

Peter Minnium
Peter Minnium is president of Ipsos US, where he leads the US team in helping companies measure and amplify how media, brands, and consumers connect through compelling content and great communications. Prior to his switch to market research, Peter was Head of Brand Initiatives at the IAB focused on addressing the under-representation of creative brand advertising online.

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