What is a good ad?

Before I tell you what I think makes a good ad, there’s something we ought to sort out first. And that is – what is advertising? Is it ‘the art of arresting the mind long enough to pick the pocket’? The economist JK Galbraith thought so.

And, since the publication of Vance Packard’s ‘The Hidden Persuaders’ in the 50’s, dishonesty has been one of the traits most strongly associated with the 20th century adman. But I feel it is a bit unfair. There are probably more ‘porkies’ told by private advertisers in the classifieds than by all the mega-agencies under the sun. And besides, lots of advertising doesn’t arrest the attention anyway.

Advertising does have one thing in common with theft, though. Both tend to be acts desperation. Because if you want to sell something – short of going round and knocking on everybody’s door – there’s not much else you can do.

These days, an ad can take just about any form: from conventional ads to DM to pay-per-click, from brand theatre to ambient, from conventional PR to ‘flogging’. And with so many people pitching these sub-sets as specialisms, it’s got clients confused – especially how to allocate marketing budgets. So, look at it this way. If it’s a communication and it’s designed to sell – a product, a service or an idea – it’s an ad. (That’ll keep your mind and your objectives clearer.)


Of course, like that other well-known profession, ads have been around a long time. In ancient Egypt people passed around ‘lost & found’ notices on papyrus, a kind of slow direct mail. And in Pompeii, there are excavated reliefs from 70 AD advertising, in quite explicit detail, the fun you could have at the local baths.

And as you know, sex has remained a bit of an obsession with admen to this day.

Mass communication only began to be possible in Mediaeval times. In the 15th century, William Caxton, the first English printer, was running off a few posters which he swears will be delivered tomorrow.

But the business of advertising didn’t really get going till the last century. Fuelled by the industrial Revolution – the sudden availability of more products; the spread of literacy and the explosion of popular publishing – advertising was an inevitable consequence of a mass market society.

What’s in a name?

Marketing was quite a simple business. Merely putting the product’s name in front of the populace was enough. People had heard of it – so it must be better than other products you hadn’t heard of.

This is one example of a phenomenon which psychologists call the dominance of individuating information in intuitive prediction – which is a pity really because it’s a simple powerful concept. It’s the way we can allow all sorts of qualities – fame, the availability and salience of information, regency, frequency, charm – to skew our decision making.

Ask the next person to walk into your office to choose from this list “the most original and creative scientist”:

A) Einstein

B) Oppenheimer

C) Willard Gibbs

Unless you work in a physics laboratory, few people will have any real idea. However, most people should answer “Einstein” with little hesitation. (Other than the smart-ass second-guessers among us.)

However, Willard Gibbs was the man Einstein described as “the most creative and original scientist”.

Sure it’s a subjective question. But it shows how easily – when faced with uncertainty – we swap “fame” for all sorts of other qualities. We tend to prefer the “well-known” and even unfairly disparage those with lesser reputations. (How seriously, for example, did you take the name of Willard Gibbs?)

Today, when the market is noisier then ever before, raising awareness – or more to the point – getting noticed and standing out from the mass of mediocrity is even more crucial.

Creating Awareness

Bill Bernbach once said, “If your advertising doesn’t get noticed, then everything else is academic.” And I think most creative people understand this.

But it seems to me that very few people understand the proper way to get attention. They think that to get noticed you have to do something louder or wackier or more controversial.

Psychologically speaking, there are only two ways to get attention. The first is to use familiarity or personal relevance. As in Colin Cherry’s famous Cocktail Party experiments, that’s how – even though apparently engrossed in one conversation – we can hear our own name being mentioned across a crowded room. And that’s how personalisation works in DM and email.

Be different

The only other way to get attention is to do something different. Not necessarily bigger, or louder, or more peculiar, or more extravagant. It just has to be less expected.

It’s due to the way our attention systems are tuned to filter out irrelevant information in our environment to allow us to concentrate on things that matter (or sleep). But we still need to be alerted to potential danger or items of interest.

For example, one of the most telling examples of this occurred in Chicago in 1972. In the middle of the night, a police precinct received in rapid succession a stream of telephone calls complaining that “something strange had happened”.

The police soon realised that – apart from the fact that there were no “incidents” actually occurring at any of the locations – all the complaints came from people living along one part of the cities elevated railway.

Even stranger was that this particular section had been closed down that night. It transpired that the local residents had been waking up when a train didn’t go by at the expected time. In fact nothing had caught there attention.

The point is that people are capable of tuning out all sorts of ‘noise’. And that’s why you should strive for ‘singularity’ in your creative work – because it’s the only way to get a clear, distinct signal through to your customers.

Unto thine own self be true

Over the years I’ve had innumerable discussions with clients about their ideal positioning. And you’d be surprised how many UK people say they ‘wannabee’ the Marks and Spencer of their industry.

In most cases this is simply not true – since very few companies have the commitment to quality of M&S or rigour to test new products and the ruthlessness to kill off unsuccessful ones.

However, it does point up the more general problem of wanting to emulate some-one else – instead of looking for a powerful individual position of your own.

Behind this phenomenon is the fact that, when you ask people to profile their companies, they tend to say more or less the same things.

For all your quality price service requirements

Everyone wants to offer quality, value, service – and to be friendly and caring – really on the basis that no-one wants to be seen to offer low quality, low value, poor service or to be unfriendly and uncaring.

But because most competing companies use the same technologies, work on a similar cost basis and sell to the same audience, you frequently find a clustering round what the uniformed observer might call ‘optimal market positioning’.

So all these companies slog it out for a relatively small territory in the market.

Obviously, the high ground is vastly to be preferred because it’s easier to defend and harder to attack.

But the ideal situation is not to get involved in this kind of expensive conflict at all. You want to find a position that is currently defended and can not be attacked.

In other words, the secret of success is to find a strategically important position that no one else is taking – or can take in the immediate future – and to concentrate your resources for maximum effect.

You often hear People saying ‘Dare to be Different’. But, as I hope I’ve explained, going along with the herd may be the easy option, but in the long run it can also be the most dangerous.

Why getting noticed isn’t enough

Awareness is a relatively weak comparative effect. In media and communication terms, it’s expensive to maintain.

There’s more competition too, crowding the public’s mind. There are 60,000 products in the average hypermarket…. and more products are growing ever more similar…. And even a simple low-rent cut-price offer from an inferior competitor can blow away your hard-won brand affinity at point of purchase.

But even if much has changed in terms of media, and technology in marketing, the seller still only has three more weapons in his arsenal.


Most clients are fairly rational individuals and are usually comfortable with a fact-based approach to selling: ‘Now washes 33% whiter’.

Sometimes you can get this sort of stuff past the advertising standards authorities. But I genuinely doubt whether, in 25 years in advertising, a client has ever presented me with a categoric, competitively compelling ‘fact’. Sometimes they think they have but after I ended up in a European court under Germany’s harsh competition laws, I have grown sceptical.

So, yes, making a proposition is perhaps like chatting up someone in a bar. It helps if you’re famous. But if your conversation consists entirely of ‘facts’ about yourself, it’s unlikely to cut it. Being a good listener helps you to know your audience – and then you’re left with what? Emotion. Persuasion. In a word, charm.

The straightforward and the surprising

And yet, don’t they say it’s really about being in the right place at the right time?

So how do you establish a winning position? Apart from selecting your target and concentrating your resources, there are two essential elements in a successful strategy – the straight–forward and the surprising.

To achieve a major goal, there will come a time to direct action.

To change analogies for the sake of decency – if you’re playing football and you want to win, you can’t really avoid trying to put the ball in the net at some stage.

But by the same token, if every time a team gets the ball, they try to run right down the middle of the park towards goal, they’re likely to meet a wall of defenders from the opposing side – and a wave of indifference or irritation from the crowd.

It was Franz Beckenbaur who said that the golden rule of football was ‘To find the far man first’. What that means is playing an early ball to a player positioned away from the action; a player who has escaped the attention of the opposing team and is standing unmarked with lots of space to exploit holes in the defence.

Without that element of surprise, you will end up with the sort of dour, painful displays which sports writers like to describe as ‘a midfield battle’ – that is, neither team gets near to goal.

In my experience, that’s the problem with conventional agency research and planning. All too often all you find out is what the market expects you to do. In your research, try to find out not just what the market really needs (as opposed to what is expected). But, more importantly, try to identify the opportunities for the most effective intervention.

That’s where the surprise comes in. Look for competitive advantages that other people haven’t thought of. (Otherwise they would have taken the initiative already.) But when we talk about surprise, we’re not talking about going off on tangents. Your aim is to address issues that are central to the business and the market.

That’s why I like to describe useful strategies as ‘surprising but inevitable’.

Judging creative

Sorting the ‘creative wheat’ from the ‘artistic chaff’ isn’t easy. As with any area of business, there’s no substitute for good advice, careful thought and positive action.

But a word of caution – about undue caution. While erring on the side of safety may be admiral in most business activities, there are few things more fatal to creative project. To paraphrase the grand old man of advertising, David Ogilvy: you can’t bore people into paying attention to you; you can only interest them in what you have to say.

While the following guidelines can’t guarantee you a great identity, they should help you avoid the wide, rosy road to mediocrity.

1. Resist the ordinary:

It’s strange, but a lot of companies demand ordinary work and still expect to get extra-ordinary results. Insist on a solution that is surprising, but somehow seems inevitable. Be prepared to take reasoned risks – because the ‘safe’ won’t make you money.

2. Beware of ‘norms’:

In the course of developing your creative work, some-one will want you to use ‘norms’. The argument comes in a number of guises, but the basic idea is that in each industry there are certain “expected” features or styles you should exhibit.

The pressure to conform is strong. But how can you hope to stand out from the crowd – be seen to be surprising, different, better – if you’re trying to blend in as ‘expected’? Be true to the nature of your company – but develop your own identity. Don’t use ‘norms’; he’s using it already.

3. Be excited

Expect your creative people to defend their work. (After all if they don’t believe its right, why should you?) But I think it’s important that you should be – not necessarily comfortable with the new identity, that takes time – but excited and delighted by it.

If for no other reason than that new idea needs some one to protect it – because one of the first laws of branding is that people will try and destroy it. Not out of malice, but for the sake of convenience, or economy or because they think they know better. Through myriad tiny alterations – like evolution in reverse – your carefully thought-out campaign can turn into an undifferentiated morass.

And that’s why I believe clients should be unreservedly keen on their creative properties.

It’s the way you tell them

There’s one final thing I’d like to say about the sort of creative work I think is most effective.

It’s all very well having a surprising but inevitable strategy. And it’s all very well having creative work which attracts attention. But you also have to encourage them to do what you want them to do.

The principle is illustrated in the story of the Roman Senator who saw the threat from Carthage and sloganised: “Carthage must be destroyed!” If he said it once he said it thousands of times because it took him years to bore the senate into sending two forces against Carthage – one to what is now Marseilles and the other to Africa.

Rewind 50 years to when Hannibal wanted to outflank the Romans. He said: “Boys, over the Alps, there’s warm sunshine, flowing with wine, beautiful women and all the loot you want. Let’s go!” As history shows, the marauding hordes probably sang the ancient equivalent of “Here we go, here we go…” as they headed hot foot over the snow-capped mountains to Rome.

That’s the difference between a statement of “what you do” – and demonstrating what that means to your audience.

That’s why in your positioning and creative work – in addition to developing a unique market positioning for your product and creating advertising that gets noticed and talked about – you will also isolate a motivating promise – whether that benefit exists now or whether you need to create it.

And when you bring them all together you have ‘marketing smarts’.