Do you have to watch TV ads to make them?

A couple of comments on last week’s post probed the revelation that I don’t watch ads on TV.

Butterbean said: ‘Serious question: Do you think you need to watch TV ads anymore to work in advertising?’

Then Mr. Gash said: I think you should Ben. And ask Prod Co people how they feel when confronted with a team who’ve written a tv script….. but admit to not watching any tv.

I can’t be sure – but I’m guessing that Fords (as an example) are designed by people who drive. 

Do Apple check their that their staff actually use the device they’re designing?

Fair points.

I then remembered that I actually watch quite a few TV ads, just not at home. When I’m in the gym I often watch TV (news channels and Seinfeld repeats, usually) and end up ploughing through the many commercials that accompany the programmes. Here are a few recent examples:

Not that bad, really. But I also get a few of these (check the legals):

So I’m not sure how they slipped my mind, but as I usually end up in the gym during the morning or lunchtime I never see primetime ads, and very rarely see Apple ads in their natural habitat. Is that a problem? I don’t think so. The above are a pretty representative sample of the spots I see, and I think they give me a pretty good context for the commercial TV scene in general.

But what if I never watched commercial TV? Would my work suffer? If I go with Mr. Gash’s analogies then perhaps I should, but here are a few points that might stir the pot a little:

  1. I never listened to commercial radio after about 1992. That didn’t stop me writing a couple of hundred radio ads, including some that made their way into the D&AD annual. Could I just recall how radio ads worked, allowing me to produce similar things years later? Or, beyond that, did my lack of immersion in commercial radio actually help me to make more original spots? I never found myself trying to replicate what was currently out there, and that might have helped me.
  2. Are Fords designed by people who drive? Are Apple products designed by people who use them? Almost certainly, but then a large percentage of people drive and use an iPhone, so that’s a tricky question. Do you need to eat at McDonald’s to make one of their milkshakes? Do you need to wear dresses to design them? Should all barbers have amazing haircuts? I’ve often read of top chefs who rarely eat the kind of things they make because after cooking that stuff all day they prefer to eat something simple.
  3. Do we have to be deeply immersed in digital advertising to create it? That’s a little harder because it tends to come to you, and if you prove to be out of the advertisers’ reach you might not see the work (I’ve mentioned before that I was an Apple fan and dedicated runner, but the first time I saw Nike Plus was in award books). I see a lot of annoying banners but very few of the ARGs and experiential stunts that tend to pick up prizes in these categories. Can I come up with a digital ad despite a lack of opportunities to experience them as a punter? I’d have thought so, so why would the same principle not apply to TV ads?
  4. Much of my work involves producing advertising that works in different countries, but am I sufficiently familiar with the ad breaks in Jakarta, Seoul or Mumbai? Not really, but then I’d need the whole context of why Indian ads are more colourful/emotional/effusive etc., otherwise I wouldn’t really understand why the ads are the way they are. I’d also need the history of the country to make sure I get all the references, and that’s probably impossible. Instead I rely on the eyes and ears of our international staff, who are well versed in such things, but I still know what a good ad is, and I understand the brand I work for, so I can contribute.
  5. I think most of the good ads we see come to us via industry websites and award shows. Is that like the Ford workers constantly test driving Ferraris, even though they’ll never have the need or budget to make one? Or perhaps they’ll learn something from checking the gearbox that they can apply to their own engineering. Then again, many creative luminaries say that the last place you should look for inspiration is award books, which are already out of date and feature work that has already been done. You could watch TV ads all day, but if it leaves you trying to replicate the latest John Lewis style, has it helped or hindered?

At the end of the day I think TV ads are much the same as they were 20-30 years ago. They may have differed in style, but they broadly follow a similar format, so I’d have thought that a great 1990 creative emerging from a coma in 2016 could probably come up with something good, but perhaps shot by Daniel Wolfe instead of Tarsem. So do you need to stay up-to-date with the current state of the art? Or will that do more harm than good when it comes to originality?

What about you? Do you watch much/any commercial TV, and do you think it improves your ability to do your job?