The Mediocrity of Best Practice

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There are fundamental differences between three enormous cultures in the world of mass communication — the advertising industry, the digital marketing industry and the mega-consultancies.

Advertising and digital are fated to merge through the vagaries of global economics and its ultimate end of ‘share grabbing’ in identified growth areas. That is to say, the advertising companies set out to acquire digital capability, just as the digital companies aim to acquire advertising capability, and thus ensure future growth. (The buyout of Sapient by Publicis is a well-publicised example of the past few years.)

Sitting outside these cultures, but very interested in acquiring their most profitable models, are the enormous corporate consultancies such as KPMG, Accenture and Deloitte, who have recently ventured into developing their own digital media arms, and acquiring independent creative shops.

There’s one huge problem with these acquisition strategies. The advertising culture sees creativity differently from almost everybody else.

In Silicon Valley, the creative process begins with ‘inspiration’. Steve Jobs imagines an iPod and voila! He brings the idea to a team of techs and engineers and they work at iterating the construction of this bit of genius. The same process is applied to the building of a web site, the creation of an app or the birth of a startup. Inspiration comes from an individual and then a team iterates and optimises and employs best practice principles to make the best job they can of bringing that inspired thought to life.

Within this iterative process, creativity is most often an application of design, in order to make the finished product appealing to the consumer or user and, in some cases, to regulate their behaviour in the path to purchase (loosely termed UX).

The problem with applying best practice principles to this arrangement is that everything ends up looking the same, being the same, not standing out. Quite apart from the restrictions placed upon the ‘builders’ by consumer expectations of functionality and the forced similarity of responsive parameters (in the case of web) and production parameters (in the case of products), few people in the digital world seem to think this is a problem. Rather, they see it as a goal. Anyone who has been to a UX conference can see for themselves how this particular group share ‘best practice’ as a way of reaching the holy grail of defining the best possible way for consumers to navigate their way to purchasing a pizza or a designer handbag. The consumer’s emotional state does not fit neatly into this quantitative demarcation of the brand-human interface.

That’s why they just don’t get it.

(Of course, the good digital agencies do, which is why I often point to R/GA as a prime example of one that understands the ‘special sauce’.)

Creativity in advertising is not design. This is where it gets confusing. Pure design companies have a discipline of thinking that evolved in parallel to advertising — for the purposes of this story, let’s leave them out of it. Design is part of the advertising creative process after the conceptual thinking has been done. Conceptual thinking that is deliberate, not relying on inspiration. Creative teams actively set out to create ideas that are not the same as other ideas. That differentiate. That help set brands apart from their competitors — in fact, that is the very reason this type of creativity exists in the first place, to make brands stand out and connect with consumers on an emotional level. Everything after that conceptual activity is what we call ‘craft’. Writing, art directing, design, production.

So, “What’s the difference?” you ask. Many digital agencies are happy to get started working on a brand by building them a web site or some such thing, iterating and optimising as they go, incorporating ‘creative’ as a kind of window dressing. This approach will not help a brand differentiate.

Advertising agencies will not start producing anything, be it a web site, a film, a stunt, an ambient thingamajig or a product until the idea is right. You can’t iterate the idea. You can’t optimise the idea. You must kill all the ideas that are not the right one, before you even start crafting.

It’s not an approach that’s well understood by any of the digital agencies I’ve worked with. But it’s the one thing that can make them great.

I’m invited back often to lecture at a University on ‘Best Practice Copywriting’, and I throw a few principles around here and there — but mainly I try to impress on students that this is an oxymoronic statement. There is no best practice, because the best thing you can do with advertising ideas is to be different.

That’s why David Hegarty wrote ‘There are no rules.’