This is the end…for now, anyway.
A little history
Ad of the Day began three and a half years ago, as a way to force myself out of the account man’s cave of process, spreadsheets and business plans, and instead have a look at the world of creativity in which I presumably had been working all those years. It was a transformational experience, somewhat like going from a couch to a light workout, and then sticking to it for a couple of years. Initially AoTD appeared on a blog I had started up (adboardingpass.com), with a readership consisting of my parents and my grandmother. Once I started working in Ogilvy Shanghai a few months later, I started sharing it with my immediate team, with the hope of starting a conversation about what makes good creativity.
And then it began to slowly spread, mostly by word of mouth. It crossed borders and found a strong foothold in many Ogilvy and client offices around the world, from Chicago, to Buenos Aires to Bogota, to Singapore and back. (And of course, India…for some reason I gained a ton of readers among the India offices, and some of the most responsive and engaged readers too!) I always made it a point to not pester: with very rare exceptions, you’re on this mailing list because someone told you about it and you (or they) asked to be put on it. And thus, things took on a momentum of their own.
For those of you who like data, here are some rough stats:
500+ readers on the mailing list. 571 posts. 93 cities around the world featured, in 47 countries, on every continent. Most commonly featured: London, NY, Paris and Sao Paulo, in that (not surprising) order. Most exotic? Yangon, Vilnius, La Coruña, Nairobi, Reykjavic, Ankara, Curitiba, Hanghzhou. Dozens of Cannes winners (grand prix, gold, silver, bronze – all categories) spotted early.
If you’ve kept up, you’ve seen a lot of work. Mostly good stuff, some just ok, hopefully very little bad. And although you probably disagreed with my commentary much of the time, it made you think about creativity for a few extra seconds each day, and maybe it strengthened your own ability to judge work. That is the hope, anyway!
Learnings and musings
What happens after a while is that you start setting patterns. You start sensing common threads in good work, and seeing how those ingredients mix well, or sometimes not. And if you think about it a lot, you come up with your theory about the very essence of great (not just good) advertising.
In my opinion these are the key ingredients of great advertising.
1. A simple story, well told – Since we were cavemen sitting around a fire, people have loved stories. There’s something in our brain that gets stimulated by “story”, something that makes us lean forward and drop our guard down. And in advertising, getting people to drop their built-in mental ad-blockers is half the battle. And why should you strive to make your story “simple”? For two reasons: To make it easier for people to engage with it, and to make sure you’ve gone through the work of distilling your story and stripping away the added weight until you reach the essence…which is always interesting…and simple (not simplistic!)
2. A simple story, well told – There are plenty of idea zealots out there, but you’re missing the point if you don’t look at the “how” and see its potential to amplify an idea. Crafting can turn work from good to sublime, and there is something noble about the care and dedication that the word implies. And let’s not forget the medium…which in some cases can become the key driving force of the idea. I agree with Keith Reinhard, who predicts that the next frontier of advertising will be (at long last) the convergence of digital disruption and old-school storytelling.
3. When the world zigs, zag – I have never found a better way to say it than the famous BBH tagline for Levi’s. I think this is where most people in our industry miss the point by a mile: if it’s not different, if it’s not disruptive…it’s just not going to get noticed in the real world. And if you don’t get noticed, you don’t have a chance. As simple as that. I cannot stress this enough, and it’s so important. So I’ll repeat it in italics for greater drama: if it’s not different, if it’s not disruptive…it’s just not going to get noticed in the real world. And if you don’t get noticed, you don’t have a chance.
4. An important, credible role for the brand – Only rookies think that the brand or product get in the way of the idea. An ad without proper branding is at best art, at worst a jumbled visual collage…but it ain’t advertising. Advertising exists for a commercial purpose…”we sell or else,” as David Ogilvy so aptly put it. The best ads are stories that exist because of the brand/product, not in spite of it.
5. “Great” is pretty damn universal – Don’t let the international experts tell you differently. I’m convinced that today’s world, for all its glorious diversity, is far more alike in its appreciation of great advertising than it is different. Great work unites almost universally because it reflects back at us the very core threads of our shared humanity: family, love, humor, empathy, dreams, and more. It is one of the more wonderful hidden truths about our industry.
6. “Make it straight, or make it great” – One or the other. This is a quote from David Droga, when he visited the Ogilvy Shanghai office last spring. Not sure if it was an off-the-cuff remark, or something he always says, but it left an impression on me because it explained 90% of agency-client stress over creativity: Someone wants to go for great, someone feels they need straight, and in the ensuing battle over the middle ground is where ideas and relationships go to die. So make one choice, and go for it. There are brilliant ads that are a 15 second product demo (anyone heard of Apple?) There are brilliant ads that are a 2 minute soaring anthem (Imported from Detroit, anyone?) Make it straight or make it great. Now, on a related note: one of the things that sets humans apart is our irresistible quest for greatness. To reach beyond and explore the unknown. Why must we climb Everest? Why must we go to space? We just must. So while the learning above is “do one or the other,” I’d urge everyone to always aspire to a “make it great” every once in a while, and to chase it doggedly. It will keep you feeling fresh, feeling human, feeling excited about the work that you do.
That’s it. You select as many ingredients as you can, you mix, and you hope for the best. I’ve seen great work containing all different combinations of the above.
And yet, none of the above is uniquely embedded in the DNA of all great work. They are merely the important building blocks. So what then, is that unifying element? The one thing found in all sublime creativity? The holy grail of great work?
Courage. That’s it. Perhaps you expected something more mystical? Sorry. It’s simple, and it has been in front of our noses all along. In every single great piece of creative work, at some point in the process, someone was driven to arm themselves with courage and push things beyond a point of comfort. To push things into an area that felt a little risky. Or uncertain. A cheeky turn of the script. An unconventional director selection. A foray into an unknown medium. A quirky edit. A counter-intuitive use of music. And so on. Big risk, hopefully for a big payoff. And they felt uneasy. Felt afraid. Nobody wants to fail. Everyone has a mortgage, everyone has responsibilities. Everyone cares about how they will be perceived. We’re hardwired to move away from the cold and closer to the warm fire. So it’s hard. But courage doesn’t mean being detached from reality – it means seeing the whole picture and making a decision that “I believe passionately that this will make the work better. Let’s fucking go for it! Follow me!” And so they do it. And sometimes (often!) they fail. Advertising is hard, even in the best of cases. But other times they really nail it. And this is the work that transcends. And the world looks at the work and says to itself “damn, I wish I had made that.”
Next time you’re in the midst of a creative process where courage isn’t necessary: where everything is smooth, all goes well, everyone is aligned every step of the way, etc. Congratulations, you’ve made a (hopefully) good ad, and you didn’t have to stress it. And that might be good enough. Just know that your ad has no chance of being truly great.
On the other side of that coin…the chance at greatness beckons! Your call.
And, in closing…
Why am I choosing this moment to take a pause? There are small reasons for it: Like the work day in NY starting much earlier than it does in Shanghai, making it increasingly harder for me to find the 20 minutes to do this every morning. Or that a long-time blogger idol of mine (Andrew Sullivan) just decided to put his pencil down, which gave me permission to start thinking along the same lines. But there’s a bigger reason too: mainly that the format was getting a bit stale. David Ogilvy said “Encourage innovation. Change is our life-blood. Stagnation our death knell.” And so I must follow suit. I don’t know how AoTD will re-emerge or when. I’ve long wanted to do something in a digital format, where you can see present and past work, search and cross-reference, share, etc. We shall see, but there will surely be more to come. And, if you have any ideas, I’m all ears!
There have been a lot of ads shared, and the very last one I selected on purpose. Although it’s humorous and quite tongue-in-cheek, there’s a serious undertone too: it’s a call-to-action for our industry. It shows the disease (detachment, cynicism, lack of courage) and the cure (exposure to good work, engagement, reconnecting to the roots of why we do what we do) on the very same page.
Let’s all heed the call. Because the advertising/communications/marketing industry is a wonderful place, and there’s no better time to be in it than today.
In closing, a word of thanks to you, dear reader. For your wonderful words of encouragement and your support throughout the years. Each email meant a lot, and I couldn’t have done it without you. Let’s keep in touch!