Does Creativity Count? By Noreen O’Leary Illustration

By Noreen O’Leary Illustration By Doug Besserfor ground zero in the debate about creativity versus effectiveness, look no further than the doghouse at TBWA\Chiat\Day. In the past year, the ad agency that helped make advertising a pop phenomenon—and transformed the Super Bowl into a consumer showcase—has witnessed two untimely deaths. First, the reign of one of the public’s favorite corporate mascots, Taco Bell’s smooth-talking Chihuahua, ended. Then, Pets.com, the client promoted by TBWA\C\D’s spokespup sock puppet, exploded in cyberspace.

The Taco Bell canine was retired last year, and the agency was recently replaced. Pets.com, which just went out of business, left behind the sock puppet as one of its most valuable assets. Both situations may be the result of business problems unrelated to the success of the advertising. But more than any agency, TBWA\C\D—appropriately born in the shadow of Hollywood—epitomizes the prickly tensions inherent in a business melding art and commerce.

TBWA\C\D has created award-winning advertising so entertaining it assumes a life of its own in the larger culture. Some might say that’s the problem. Advertising that draws too much attention to itself may also detract from the grittier realities of pushing product.

“I think it’s all about having faith in advertising. As a client, you have to believe great creative can give you strategic advantage. Sometimes people get caught in the headlights when they come here. They use advertising as something to save brands when they’re in trouble,” argues Tom Carroll, CEO of TBWA\C\D in Playa del Rey, Calif., “When things go wrong, how much of the blame can you lay on advertising, and how much of it reflects other things beyond an agency’s control?”

Traditionally, the industry’s two schools of thought have been divided between advertising that engages consumers in an entertaining way and creates an emotional bond and advertising that offers up boilerplate fact-fueled messages, USP promises and product shots.

“It’s absolutely absurd when people try to separate things like creativity and effectiveness. The reason creativity is essential is that it’s one of the best ways to connect with consumers,” argues Brendan Ryan, president of FCB Worldwide. “I want our advertising to be both funny and entertaining but within the context of selling. It’s the ultimate arrogance to think otherwise.”

Those distinctions may be blurring. Gary Goldsmith went from running one of the industry’s most respected creative boutiques, New York-based Goldsmith/Jeffrey, to heading up the institutional corridors of what is now Lowe Lintas & Partners.

“More and more clients are realizing creative ads work better, are more memorable and make their point more effectively in the marketplace. You can run a good creative ad fewer times. People can remember it after seeing it three times rather than 30 times,” says Goldsmith, chairman and chief creative officer at the New York agency. “Any USP advantage is gone in 15 minutes if you don’t create an emotional bond with consumers.”

That’s a notion many of the industry’s old-line Madison Avenue shops increasingly agree with.

“I’m of the opinion you should bring together art and commerce,” says Steve Novick, chief creative officer at Grey Worldwide. “But you can do some of the most engaging, funny work in the world and if it doesn’t motivate me and get me off my ass, stimulate some part of my brain to do something, then it doesn’t work.”

Part of the historical divide may have been forged in response to the industry’s swelling ranks of awards shows, blamed for allowing creative people to toast each other—and boost their careers—at the expense of client production budgets.

“Some clients are a bit suspicious of awards, thinking that all the emphasis on creativity gets in the way of the sales message. They’re more of the belief that you state the sales claim and then repeat it seven times,” contends Donald Gunn, former worldwide director of creative resources at Leo Burnett and past president of the Cannes Festival. “Commercials which are based on the right message and translate into fresh, charming, engaging and intelligent work are better than commercials with the right message but which lack these creative qualities.”

To help boost creativity’s status, Burnett and Gunn conducted a study six years ago that combed the rosters of winners from the main international shows to identify the 200 ‘most awarded’ commercials in 1992 and 1993. The agency then contacted the creators of the work, or relevant clients, to measure product performance.

In his arguably unscientific survey, Gunn found that 86 percent of those ads were successful in achieving stated goals—compared to 33 percent “across all advertising on average,” according to Gunn.

Gunn, who founded a London-based newsletter that tracks how agencies fare in creative competitions, notes the award-winning ads he researched were two-and-a-half times more likely than average commercials to be linked to marketplace success.

Still, some respected advertising practitioners wonder if the lack of business objectives as a criteria in awards shows—with the exception of the Effies—dulls the edge of creativity as a performance tool.

“[Executive creative director] Chris Wall and I were talking about awards shows, and we were saying there’s no degree of difficulty applied to a client’s business problem. Most of the ads that win are small stuff that is outlandish and fun,” says Ogilvy & Mather chief creative officer Rick Boyko. “Chris says ‘If the Olympics were run like these awards shows, Pamela Lee Anderson would win the gold for doing situps, while some Ukrainian doing back flips wouldn’t even place.”

To see how widely recognized creative campaigns fare in effectiveness, Adweek examined three clients. First, we looked at E*Trade, one of the few solid dot-coms built amid the excesses of the past year. The online brokerage brand was built at warp speed, using irreverent humor in a staid financial industry and lost none of its sass in its translation of solid marketing strategy.

The second example is Coca-Cola’s Sprite, an astonishing illustration of the pure power of image. The brand’s repositioned advertising has quite literally become the product itself and turned around Sprite’s fortunes.

Lastly, we studied Pets.com, which offers a sobering glimpse at the reality of life behind a popular advertising facade, where no matter how clever, popular and well-conceived an ad campaign is, it may not be enough to compensate for a flawed business model.

“You can have great advertising but the rest of the organization could be awful, which makes performance hard to judge–except in direct selling, where the ad is the point of distribution,” observes Tom Messner, a partner at Messner Vetere Berger McNamee Schmetterer/Euro RSCG in New York. “An ad, to be good, needs to meet an objective. A beautiful building that is washed away with the first rain cannot be good architecture. A good ad is one that meets an objective honestly.”