Ten years ago, I voiced my concern over what seemed to be a substantial drop in the creativity of South Africa’s advertising industry. It turned out that it wasn’t really the case; ad creatives weren’t any less creative or even less adventurous. It was just that retrictions on them had increassed dramatically.
Now, a decade later, I find that nothing has changed. In fact, it’s got worse; the bulk of South African advertising is rubbish.
As I pointed out all those years ago, there was a time when advertising in South Africa was able to push the envelope and test consumers’ taste and thresholds of decency to the limit. And even if the ads that went too far got hauled over the coals by the Advertising Standards Authority – well, what the heck, no real harm was done and frankly, it didn’t really cost all that much.
Clients simply wrote losses off against the fairly substantial PR value that came with peripheral publicity.
This PR value was so good, in fact, that a lot of agencies actually produced ads knowing that they were going to be banned. They inevitably ran them on Friday evenings and heavily throughout the weekend and when the ASA pulled them on Monday morning, well, the campaign was over anyway.
Heydays of the creative
These were the heydays of the creative. Days in which South Africa won relatively more international advertising awards than any other nation on earth. When advertising worked. When the vast majority of South Africans enjoyed them in spite of a tiny minority of Mother Grundies trying to impose puerile morality and pathetic political correctness.
Creatives had free rein to go the extra mile and even those campaigns that were never designed to offend ended up winning even more awards because the creative spirit was being challenged every single day to come up with something better, smarter, cleverer and more eye-catching.
Great ads were a dime a dozen. They were dinner table talking points. The sold products.
So, what happened? At the time an advertising awards panel of which I was a member was trying to select the best ad of the past year and could not think of anything offhand that stood out. Some jurists wanted to award a winner just for the heck of it and others insisted that if there wasn’t anything good enough, why make an award anyway?
Not good enough any more?
Did that mean that creatives in South Africa were just not good enough anymore? Had they lost that globally competitive edge? Had they all joined the brain drain?
Frankly, I didn’t think then and I don’t think now, that they have lost anything at all. They’re just as good as ever but unfortunately they’re having to play in a completely different league to their forbears.
Perhaps a good analogy is that of professional sport. Notice how, now that sport involves such big money, our cricketers, footballers and rugby players are under far more pressure than their counterparts of a few decade ago. How captains are fired and coaches kicked out on a whim.
Well, the same thing has happened in a way, to our advertising creatives.
Just what then, has been putting all this pressure on them?
Some time ago, I was in a meeting of agency creative heads and MDs and out of the blue a creative director gave an impassioned plea to be allowed to push the envelope, to do what was best for advertising, to be free of interference and censorship from within the agency and not have to worry about action by the ASA. A very frustrated craftsman who felt he was being denied use of all the tools of his trade like a sculptor having his chisel taken away and left with nothing but a chunk of marble and a blunt nail with which to carve a masterpiece.
Toe the (bottom) line
One of the ad agency MDs responded with venom… telling the CD he would toe the line and had better damn well worry about action from the ASA because written into the client/agency contract was an unambiguous clause stating that if an ad or campaign was banned by the ASA, the agency would be required to pay the production costs of a new campaign. And no agency, said the irate MD, no matter how big, could afford to shell out anything between R500 000 and R5-million on a new TV commercial
Add to this the fact that the people who handle advertising on the client side are very different to their counterparts of 20-years-ago. The brain drain has been crippling among brand and product managers.
The skills shortage is very real, to the point that few product managers want to take any kind of decision let alone something that involves a modicum of risk. And to hell with the fact that modern business practice almost insists on risk-taking.
There is no doubt that the creative skills, will and spirit are still burning within the creative ranks of the ad agencies. Unfortunately, however, those who hold the purse strings, the clients, are becoming less and less inclined to empower their agencies to do what is best, preferring rather, a low-profile, conservative approach that won’t get marketing and ad managers, brand and product managers into trouble with their boards.
Stifling adventurous creatives
This simply has to have the effect of stifling adventurous creatives.
The situation is going from bad to worse and clearly something needs to be done.
In my opinion, the advertising industry simply has to become a lot more businesslike. Which strangely enough will give the creatives more freedom and not less.
And the process has to become a lot more strategic.
For starters, marketing and not the great advertising idea needs to become the starting point. Going back to basics, getting all the elements of the marketing mix in line, particularly research when it comes to advertising, and then applying creative advertising within the context of a marketing plan.
Big advertising ideas borne out of marketing are the kind of advertising ideas that work and which are also more likely to win advertising awards these days.
With ad agencies being pounded by auditing firms and management consultants who are invading agency turf in large numbers, it is time for the agencies to reassess their roles.
While it will be necessary for them to move away from the emphasis on creative as an agency USP, this has to be done without diminishing the role or contribution creatives can make to an advertising campaign.
Abandon creative departments
Frankly, what is needed is for creative departments to be abandoned as such and for the creative director to simply become part of the overall strategic marketing team.
Creative people need to become marketers. They also need to become media experts. Unfortunately right now far too many creatives live in an isolated world of their own. They don’t consume media and they are not too interested in marketing or what makes the consumer tick.
They are creative people first and foremost and by their very nature disinterested in the business side of business. They are simply going to have to change because no longer will marketers accept advertising that simply gets attention. It has become too expensive not to go way beyond that. It has to hold attention, manage attention and motivate.
Creatives are also going to have to understand that not being able to be all things to all men is no longer a valid argument. Nor is creating a campaign that will upset small sections of the target market. Being all things to all men IS the creative challenge of today.
Ultimately there will be no strategic advertising on one side and creative advertising on the other.
There will only be strategic advertising but the creative element will remain the backbone.
Times are tough right now for the advertising industry. A lot of outsiders are muscling in on what used to be exclusive territory. Ad agencies are going to have to decide: Either they can promote themselves as creative hot shops and not pretend to offer any other service other than great creative ideas produced by people with pony tails, tatty jeans, bare feet whoa are somewhat out of touch with business reality. Or they have to become strategic marketers able to offer integral creative input by very clever, businesslike, creative people wearing suits.
That way, unskilled and reticent clients will also have a far better idea of what they are buying.
There will always be some demand for purely creative ideas but the ambitious agencies that want international alignments and big accounts will have to start persuading their creatives to become a lot more businesslike.
And the challenge, of course, is to accept that the time has already arrived when the conventional “advertisement” as we know it has become redundant and irrelevant .
Follow Chris Moerdyk on Twitter @chrismoerdyk
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