I once wrote a popular tweet that listed ten words that are used in every advertising meeting, even though nobody really knows what they mean. I only mention the popularity to indicate that there was quite a lot of agreement with the list. Anyway, I had a look for it, but it’s buried too far beneath my thousands of tweets despairing of Boris Johnson, so here’s an attempt to recall the magic ten with an additional one for good luck:
Yes, I know you all know what brave and effective mean, or at least you could give me a definition that’s pretty close to the one in the dictionary, but you know what I’m saying: these words take on new meanings in the advertising boardroom or creative review.
Does that stop us throwing them about like confetti, with no thought for how they ended up in your hand, nor where they might finally fall? Of course not
So let’s take them one by one, examining the advertising definition and how far it has traveled from its origins.
I just looked up the dictionary definition of this word, only to discover that is has several, and NONE of them is the one we use when we talk about ads. Then I realised I have no idea how to define the advertising version.
I think it’s kind of ‘pertaining to nature’, or ‘naturally occurring, but not like a flower, more like naturally occurring from a situation or process. Like when a man hits his head in a way that isn’t contrived, we say that it happened organically’. How’s that for a definition?
We tend to use it as if it vaguely means what I just wrote but can any of us define ‘advertising organic’ clearly? I don’t think so, which means we all mean something slightly different when we use it. And we’re all talking bollocks to some degree, and no one is calling anyone out on the bollocks, or admitting they don’t understand what’s just been said.
If you think that’s a little bit crazy, read on…
The dictionary says graphic means ‘relating to visual art, especially involving drawing, engraving, or lettering’ or ‘giving a vivid picture with explicit detail’. (There are other definitions, like the one that pertains to the phrase ‘graphic sex’, but none of them is relevant here.)
Of course, none of that is what we mean in our agencies. The advertising definition of ‘graphic’ is, ‘with straight lines and corners, and probably quite a lot of negative space’. That’s it. In advertising, ‘organic’ pictures are full of curvy lines and natural colours, but ‘graphic’ imagery is closer to the work of Mondrian, or the contents of a geometry text book.
Again, this has never been said explicitly, or agreed upon, but that is what people in ad agency meetings seem to think graphic means. Pay attention next time someone says it (almost certainly at some point today) and see what they’re really suggesting. From art directors to clients, all departments seem to use this meaning, possibly because all departments seem to use this meaning. It’s another silent agreement that means we can’t really go back to whatever meaning ‘graphic’ used to have.
As a noun, easy; as an adjective, it’s nowhere near as simple. The Human League song Human appeared to suggest it meant that you’re born to make mistakes, but of course an ad agency chat takes it elsewhere.
When someone says, ‘It’s really human’, I think they are saying that something is organic (see above), as in ‘pertaining to nature’, but with a further emphasis on ‘not like a computer or robot’. So the human characteristics of love, kindness, thoughtfulness tend to be what we mean by the advertising version of human. Humans can also be evil, envious, anxious, jealous etc., but those are bad things, so they do not describe characters in ads or products we try to sell (see ’emotional’ below).
A close cousin to ‘human’ is ‘intuitive’, which is more of a product word, and is closer to its real definition, but when we add it to a pre-prod meeting we soon find that any real meaning disappears and it’s simply a surrogate for ‘soft’ or ‘nice’.
Bearing in mind how many times it’s used in an ad agency, you’d think that we’d have a clear definition of what an ‘idea’ is.
But we don’t.
I know this because I once attended a management meeting where we discussed all sorts of things, one of which was ‘ideas’. It soon became clear that we were talking about different things. Some said ‘Just Do It’ was an idea; others suggested the idea was the articulation of the concept that could then be copied by anyone else, eg: ‘show how something can be worth waiting for’; others thought it was more like ‘Dell computers are easy to use’.
So we all say ‘idea’ fifty times a day, and we’re all talking about different things.
Let me complicate it further by asking you to explain the idea in the VW Lemon/Think Small campaign. Could you please articulate it in a way that is consistent with your definition of the ‘idea’ for Happiness is a cigar called Hamlet? Or the entire Old Spice campaign, from The Man Your Man Could Smell Like to Wolf CEO, to Momsong? Or the idea for the Whassup campaign?
As an industry we definitely use ‘idea’ to mean several different things, but it’s one of the most important terms we employ, so how does that work? Poorly.
This is a new one. For decades it meant that place where you found your train, but 10-15 years back it became the word used to describe a giant medium, such as Facebook or Google; a thing that acted as a starting point for lots of other things (kind of like a train platform).
But more recently I’ve heard it being used for that Old Spice thing; a campaign above a campaign. Wieden and Kennedy clearly sold P&G some kind of über campaign that could encompass the various manifestations of The Man Your Man Could Smell Like, including Terry Crews as a manipulable online character, that crooner playing the piano, Wolf CEO, Momsong, and everything else we’ve seen on behalf of that brand during the last decade.
I think The Power Of Dreams is the clearest articulation of an advertising platform (although it was never referred to as a platform), but even then, it’s kind of vague. Cog, Grrr, Impossible Dream, the banana press ad… yes, you could say they came from the power of dreams, but doesn’t everything? You think something up, and if that thing is exciting enough, it drives you to bring it to life, whether that’s a Kit-Kat, a board game or a Honda Civic.
If platform can accommodate sub-campaigns, is it a campaign, or is it something else? I think it would help to call it something else; but if you do that, what do you call it? Platform makes sense, except that it already has a significant meaning in the advertising world. But here we are with two ‘platforms’ when we could have one ‘platform’ and one ‘springboard’, or one ‘trigger’. I dunno. I bet there are fifty good names for the campaign above the campaign that aren’t ‘platform’, but we now have ‘platform’ creeping into that space, so we may have to just accept the unnecessary stupidity of that.
Here’s a contentious one.
So ‘planners’ are now ‘strategists’, and by implication everything they do is in service of the creation of a strategy. But it’s not. Most strategies that I read (having ploughed through a massive deck that leads up to the hallowed ‘strategy’), are not strategies at all; they are maybe tactics, or abstract sentences that sound a bit like a strategy but are really just… not strategies.
Great strategies are hard. Bogstandard strategies are apparently also hard, because I rarely see them. They should be overall guides for what an advertising campaign is supposed to achieve, distilled into a sentence, or (these days) a paragraph (or, God help us, a deck). But they are often less specific, like ‘PayPal is the way we all need to live our lives’, or ‘Adidas is ambition, distilled’.
Those are not strategies, but we tend to accept and discuss them as if they are. Then we use Slack, Teams and WhatsApp to bitch about he fact that they are not. And then we go into the process of creating the work without a strategy…
A few years ago I attended a three-day Hyper Island course, along with the entire management of my agency. A couple of hours into it, one of the people running the course asked us (maybe 60 people) what we thought ‘digital’ meant. He received different definitions from every single person. (By the way, mine was ‘not analogue’, which was as correct as it was useless).
The point was that we all used that word without agreeing what it meant. So, to emphasise the point of this entire post, Hyper Island made it very clear that we were not speaking the same language, when it would make a lot of sense for us to do exactly that.
What do you think digital means? Do you think your definition is the same as that of everyone else in your agency? Your department? The other voices in your head?
The reality is that we all say the word ‘digital’ every day, and it could mean a dozen things from ‘online’ to ‘non-traditional’, and that is not a great basis for a useful conversation.
The weird thing about effective is that we are often left in the dark as to what it means, and what it is supposed to mean.
Is it sales figures? Awareness? Likes? Or a bunch of other odds and sods that we’re never told about?
I once asked this question of my bosses and was told (sheepishly) that our client just wanted to look cool to his colleagues. That was the effectiveness we were aiming for. Yes, we all understand what effective means; it’s just that the thing we’re trying to achieve in those terms is often kept from the people trying to achieve it, rendering it essentially meaningless.
Do you know the ultimate aim of your current campaign? Are you sure? If you’re not sure, what the heck are you doing?
People who are staying in Ukraine to protect their country are brave. Nothing that happens in an advertising agency comes under that definition.
Yes, all things are relative, but come on. How brave is ‘advertising brave’? About as brave as driving five miles an hour above the speed limit.
Of course we like to think that some of our decisions take some kind of courage, but as we all know, bland advertising is brave because it’s likely to fail. But exciting advertising is also brave because it some people might not like it. So everything is brave and nothing is brave (especially your decision to add a serif to the client’s typeface, FFS), so let’s just retire that word and allow it to go back to describing actual, y’know, bravery.
If your ad isn’t funny, or incredibly straightforward/dull, it’s almost certainly emotional, but what does that mean?
There are many emotions. Here are the eight basics: anger, fear, sadness, disgust, surprise, anticipation, trust, joy. How many times do you see all of those in an ad break? Not much disgust, I’d imagine; probably not much fear. The more negative emotions tend to be shunted off to the side, so when we say an ad is emotional, which emotion are we talking about?
The odd thing is that I’m not sure human beings are particularly good at specifying emotions, never mind advertising people. My reaction to Guinness Surfer is definitely emotional, but is that excitement+surprise+anticipation? And how much of each? I have no idea.
When we talk about very powerful ads, we often use the ‘E’ word, but it’s more of a verbalisation of ‘it makes shivers run down my spine’ or ‘it gives me goosebumps’. But if we all speak of something being ‘emotional’, that must be something both subjective and unspecific, and thus functionally meaningless.
Simply put, your simple ain’t my simple.
Simple briefs, simple scripts, simple solutions, simple edits, simple endlines, simple decks, simple meetings…
I have definitely had different expectations of that simplicity to other people in the room. Whenever I’ve said that we want something simple, I think everyone nodded in agreement, but what were we agreeing to? Different things, of course!
You know when you brief a photographer or a sound designer or a director as to what you would like to achieve? Do they always produce the exact thing you were hoping for? Or an even-better version of that vision? Not always, right? They misinterpreted what you were after, and those people were fellow creatives. Imagine how differently a client or account person defines ‘simple’. Now you know why your pleas for simplicity fall on subjective/deaf ears.
Your ad, which was striving at all times for simplicity achieved exactly that, by which I mean it achieved nothing of the sort, and all because your simple wasn’t the same as the strategist’s, the account handler’s or the client’s.
So there we have it: we’re constantly speaking different languages in quite fundamental ways.
The good news is that the first step to a solution is admitting you have a problem.
The bad news is that no one thinks this language gap is a problem.
Perhaps I can magically sum that up in language we all understand: