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Effective Advertising—More Than a Creative Black Box
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Effective Advertising—More Than a Creative Black Box

By Randall Beard, Global Head, Advertiser Solutions

What makes a great ad? It’s an age-old question with no simple answer despite the countless hours and dollars that have been spent to find out. Early in my career I was asked by my employer to pack my bags, jump on a plane and spend several months as a young creative in New York. Ostensibly, this was all about making me a better brand manager upon my return, since I was supposed to learn what it really takes to develop entertaining and engaging advertising—that is, I would learn by doing.

And doing I did. Learning would take a while longer. I was designated the copywriter, and I paired with a fantastically funny and entertaining art director. He was frequently found reclining in a dentist’s chair in his office, a position which he claimed amped up his creativity. To protect the innocent, I’ll call him Denny.

Denny had about 10 ideas for every one that I somehow ginned up, and most of his were immeasurably more creative and provocative than my hackneyed attempts. While fighting creative block, I frequently wondered, “is creative just a black box? How does he come up with all of these ideas?” In time, I began to wonder if there were some underlying principles or architecture—a science, so to speak—that form the foundations of great advertising—of which I was unaware. Are there?

Well, the answer is yes—to some degree. I was never able to discern them in my brief and unsuccessful copywriting stint. But, years later, Nielsen has mined its TV Brand Effect database of 250,000-plus TV ads to understand what drives real world advertising memorability and brand impact.

As it turns out, there are several common building blocks among the best-performing ads, regardless of category or brand. What are they?

  1. Storytelling: Great advertising almost always tells us a good story. Great ads have cogent, understandable and entertaining storylines that engage the audience and pull them into the world of the advertised brand. If your brand isn’t telling a good story, it should be.
  2. Simplicity: Simpler is generally better, and this applies to advertising too. A simple story well told is easily remembered. Too many cuts and complex stories create confusion and obscure your storyline. It’s that simple.
  3. Relatable situations: Ads that are “for people like me” are more effective. They speak directly to the consumer and what they care about. Including situations and characters that viewers can relate to make it easier for viewers to engage and care about your advertising.
  4. Humor: Audience-appropriate humor is another hallmark of great ads. What an 18-year-old guy attending high school and a 65-year-old retired schoolteacher find funny is probably not the same. Age appropriate humor can uplift your audience’s spirits and contribute mightily to memorability.
  5. Branding: The best ads have strong branding by definition. An ad can’t be a strong ad if no one remembers that it’s for your brand. Well-branded ads communicate their brand through both audio and video, and they use brand cues early and often. Often, they use mnemonic devices—iconic characters or music that immediately identify the brand.

Do these five principles describe every great ad? No. Are they a failsafe recipe for creating a memorable ad? No. Unbridled, intuitive and organic creativity will always be the foundation of the best advertising concepts. But these five elements are consistently present among the best ads in the Nielsen database. And I would argue that they’re almost certainly present in your best ads, too.

So, whether you’re lying in a dentist chair in some creative’s office trying to think up the next great advertising campaign, or just a brand manager worried about driving brand equity and sales, remember these five principles of advertising success, and that there is a science to great creative.

If you do, you’re likely to end up with great advertising. Unlike me, who after two months of lying in the dentist chair and whiffing it, was told by Denny to pack my creative bags and head back to Cincinnati—without a great advertising campaign to my name.