Creative concept. Yellow light bulb made of yellow crumpled, paper ball.
October 3, 2017
Advertising  |  13 min read

Creative Advertising in the 21st Century

Created with Sketch.
Philip Piletic

Creativity is the once and future foundation of effective advertising. But what effective creativity means in 21st-century advertising is something very different than it was in the second half of the 20th century. It must be elevated above simple advertising to the place where it influences everything you do.

Avi Dan, a successful brand manager for many iconic brands and now a consultant, says we’re living in a “post-advertising age.” He’s right, in many ways. To be successful in this age, advertising professionals are immersing themselves in the new reality and embracing it wholeheartedly. That’s the foundation. From there, they are creating an entirely new game plan for their business future. This requires the hard work of thinking and planning. Most won’t do it, so that opens the door for you. Infusionsoft CEO Clate Mask says, “When you take the time to define where you’re going, you can develop a plan, stay on course, make adjustments as needed and reach your destination.”

That’s where the hard work and thinking come in. From there, the proven cycle of plan, do, check, and adjust can take you beyond your past hopes of being a great ad creator to striving to become the creator of great brands and businesses.

We’re getting ahead of ourselves by casting a little vision at the start. Let’s get to the heart of the revolution that is turning advertising into science and how creativity will come to rule the day once again.

Creative business idea

Advertising as a science

Data, lots of data, big data—it drives advertising today, and its influence will only grow. Alexandra Levit claims, “As fast as technological innovation has multiplied and spread in recent years, it is poised to change and grow at an exponential speed beyond the power of human intuition to anticipate.” A wealth of information is being gathered about consumers’ demographics, online browsing and shopping habits, preferred social media and even their favorite colors.

Related Article:

Clark Howard says, “Tech giants like Amazon, eBay, Facebook, and Google can all track users across devices. [Currently] 6 percent of all marketers can reliably track consumers across device, according to the research firm eMarketer. But more will get that capability as technology advances. Smartphones are a gold mine for people looking to track you, dissect who are and sell to you.”

Is it starting to feel like former Fox Business News contributor Charles Payne might have been right when he said, "At one point, Amazon will send things to your house that you didn't order, but when you get it, you'll keep it because they knew you wanted it"? Even if we’re not there yet, the forces that could make that a reality is now leading the industry.

Advertising is targeted and aggressively pervasive despite the ability of consumers to turn it off. In fact, since consumers do have tools like AdBlock Plus, Privacy Badger, and Disconnect to prevent tracking your online activities, marketers attempt to throw as many ads as possible at you across as many channels as they can in hopes that a few will get through. Websites that rely on ad revenue are refusing to show content to users that won’t whitelist their sites. In Forbes, one of the “whitelist us or else” sites, Ad agency McKee Wallwork + Company partner Jonathan David Lewis recently summed it up aptly, “The modern consumer is overwhelmed by the sheer amount of media noise while simultaneously more empowered than ever to tune it out. But instead of seeking new relevance, the advertising industry has responded by trying to get better at spamming consumers.”

That’s what advertising has become in an age of 300 TV channels and innumerable other ways to reach consumers. Track a consumer to find out what they’re looking at, then get an ad in front of them precisely customized to their metrics, and do it at a ridiculously low cost. Lewis explains the demand to cover all advertising channels with content made “faster and cheaper” and uses Henry Ford’s development of the assembly line in automobile manufacturing for analogy. “The only way to make a lot of content both faster and cheaper is to be extremely efficient. Thus, creative quality goes down and quantity goes up. Add in growing access to ‘good enough’ freelance communities, dashboard design tools like Squarespace, and the coming artificial intelligence revolution, and you have the dawn of assembly line advertising,” he says.

A great line from “The Hucksters” a 1947 classic film about advertising suggested the best way to sell a product was to “irritate, irritate, irritate,” until consumers were psychologically cowed into buying the product.

The strategy used to sell Ivory soap on soap operas and through print ads 70 years ago now haunts web pages and social media pages where ads appear for products we were just looking at somewhere else.

There’s no use decrying this reality, nor, perhaps should it be knocked. Regardless, it is the current state. Google AdWords and Facebook Ads Manager are the tools of the trade that are threatening the existing of the traditional ad agency. Metrics like impressions, click-through rate, completion rate, time spent viewing, and effective cost per mille are driving strategy.

With the demise of traditional creativity, advertising professionals must understand what being creative must mean to thrive in this reality.

What creativity once meant

The late Bill Bernbach, one of the founders of Doyle Dane Bernbach (DDB), was an advertising maverick and is now a legendary figure in the industry. His ads for Volkswagen’s introduction into the American market, Alka-Seltzer, and Ohrbach’s thrift department store brought huge results for the clients because they told compelling stories readers and viewers could relate to. He was a master when creativity in advertising meant what it used to mean.

Bernbach famously told his team and anyone who would listen, “I warn you against believing advertising is a science.” This was long before the age of big data, but it is naïve to think ad execs weren’t busy crunching any numbers they could get their hands on about readership and viewership in determining advertising and marketing strategy. Bernbach saw the potential for the "scientification" of advertising in his day, and his foundational message that advertising demands artful creativity is being lost in the takeover by data analytics as basis for determining advertising strategy. Seth Godin’s oft-quoted line comes to mind. He said, “People do not buy goods and services. They buy relations, stories, and magic.” The industry once balanced the magic of creative advertising with the logic of successful marketing strategy. The magic is shrinking, lost in the push for “faster and cheaper.”

However, creativity is an asset that will never lose its power. Lewis calls it, “preeminent competitive advantages in business.” The creative among us will reach the front of the pack when the creativity is properly channeled. Being effectively creative in the 21st century means putting those talents to work on the logic side of the equation.

Creativity’s new role and how to use it

Creativity is a powerful asset. That’s worth repeating, and its truth must be embraced. But here is the difference for successful advertising companies and professionals: The most effective use of creativity today isn’t in content development with its “faster, cheaper” mantra. It is in elevating creativity to allow it to influence our entire approach to advertising including the business opportunities we pursue.  

Here are four principles for success in the “post-advertising world” in which consumers are difficult to reach and non-traditional solutions are making business innovators out of traditional advertisers.

Find a niche, meet the need

Product development has always been about finding or creating a need and filling it. Now, ad agencies are structuring their entire business plan around the oldest marketing principle there is. For example:

  • McKee, Wallwork + Company is having success focusing its efforts on turning around brands that are “stalled, stuck and stale” without trying to be all things to all potential clients.
  • Broadhead is filling a niche by providing sound marketing and advertising strategies to rurally focused companies in agriculture, fertilizer, and farm veterinary service niches.
  • Immersion Active boasts its track record of reaching the 50+ boomer and elderly market while Fuse Marketing is a leader in marketing to youth and millennials.

Related Article:

The term "unique selling position," is defined as, “one that highlights the benefits which make [what you offer] better than, or at least effectively different to, its competitors.” What's yours? How will you bring that to bear in an advertising world where every agency defines itself as “outside the box, thought leaders, disruptive” and other hackneyed terms? Remember what Clate Mask says about taking the time to define where you are going and developing a plan to get there. Like one great ad campaign preached, “Just Do It.”

Find a problem and solve it

Henry Ford wasn’t the first automobile manufacturer, but he was the first to find a way to solve the cost problem. His assembly line allowed Ford to make cars faster and cheaper, so most working families could afford one. Victor & Spoils solved the “faster, cheaper” demand in the advertising world by becoming the first agency to completely crowdsource creative. It started when the company posted a brief to its crowd of 7,200 creative types and used the input to win the Harley Davidson account.

Remember the goal is to sell stuff

Advertising exists to produce sales. Traditionally, this meant helping a client sell more stuff. Now it can mean becoming the developer of your own products. Advertising pros are full of creative ideas that make others’ millions of dollars. Why not make your own pile of cash?

pile of cash.gif

Anomaly created Eos lip balm and pushed the brand to be the No. 1 selling lip balm in the U.S. in 2013, beating out market leader ChapStick, while also co-creating and financially backing a cooking show on PBS called Avec Eric with chef Eric Ripert of four-star Le Bernardin restaurant.

New York-based agency Droga5 launched a software development studio DE-DE, and its first product, Thunderclap, took home a Lion at the Cannes Lions International Festival of Creativity.

Montreal’s Sid Lee agency launched an architectural firm after being the go-to agency for others and just announced its Insoapropriate “line of inappropriate soap” products like Stellar Vision glycerin soap globes and Crystalline Hearing cone-shaped soaps.

Think less about products and more about problems

We’ll assume you’re completely familiar with your clients’ products. Are you also familiar with their problems? What internal problems do they face in design and development? Can you help them find a solution? If you do, it will likely be transferable to other industries, and you will have hit on something uniquely beneficial and profitable. In this way, you’ll be less focused on selling what they have and helping them produce something better.

Opportunity knocks

We’re seeing the dawn of the post-advertising age where traditional ad agencies lose relevancy faster than travel agencies did a decade ago. It’s time to broaden your vision to see the business possibilities from idea to development to marketing and sales, whether you’re assisting clients with the process or developing your own. It’s the new and better path to producing what people want and need.

Identify your Target Market: Learn how now

philip piletic.jpeg

Philip Piletic's primary focus is a fusion of technology, small business, and marketing. He is an editor, writer, marketing consultant, and guest author at several authority websites. 

Was this post helpful?

Subscribe to our newsletter

Fresh small business insights and ideas delivered weekly to your inbox, gratis.

You may also like

gears outline on blue background

Guides | 8 min read

Why Your Logo Is Not Your Brand
Subscribe to our weekly newsletter!

What you'll get from it:

As a thank you for subscribing, we'll send you a copy of our 2018 Small Business Marketing Trends Report with insights from over 1,000 surveyed business owners. The gifts just keep on coming.

4 Reasons to Subscribe:
  • Weekly tips to dominate sales and marketing

  • Expert small business resources that cost you zero dollars

  • We're focused 100 percent on small business success

  • Righteous GIFs

    GIF of Ferris Bueler principal's assistant

P.S. We'll never give out your information. We'll only use it to send you awesome content and resources, if you're cool with that.