Risky Business

Someone once said, and I believe, that if you don’t risk anything, you risk everything. It’s certainly true on a personal level, and in our business of communication and marketing, it’s the only way to grow and prosper.

The problem is that most American businesses operate more by intimidation than inspiration. In such companies, there is no room for trying the new and different, for taking risks. They promote a “let’s-play-it-safe” attitude. In our business, that stance produces marketing and advertising without convictions. And advertising without convictions won’t sell anything.

There is an alternative to this kind of approach. But risks must be taken on everyone’s part—agency and client. Why would smart businesspeople want to take a risk if it could be avoided? It’s much better to have a sure thing. The problem is, to get really effective advertising, risk is something you can’t avoid.

What do I mean when I say effective advertising? Effective advertising is advertising that results in greater sales more economically achieved. Notice I didn’t say creative advertising.

Creativity, the buzzword in our business for the last 30 years, has not only been used inaccurately but irresponsibly. Creativity has been worshiped blindly. It has been attacked. It has been maligned. It has been exploited by the unscrupulous. It has been deliberately misrepresented by the dishonest promoter. Perhaps most damaging of all, it has been misunderstood by good, honest, principled businesspeople. That’s unfortunate, because when understood and properly practiced, creativity does result in greater sales more economically achieved. Properly practiced, creativity can make one ad do the work of 10. Properly practiced, creativity can lift your claims out of the swamp of sameness and make them accepted, believed, persuasive, urgent.

Is creativity some obscure, esoteric art form? Not on your life. It’s the most practical thing a business can employ. Creativity is the tool used to make advertising effective by making facts come alive in a fresh, memorable and persuasive way. Simply put, creative advertising is good business. It moves more goods at less cost.

The question really is, if it makes so much sense, why isn’t everyone doing it? Because it involves risk. What is so risky about it? It cannot be formularized—although there are those who try. Yes, there are a lot of great technicians in advertising who work by formulas. They know all the rules. They can tell you that having people in an ad will get you greater readership. They can tell you that a sentence should be this long or that short. They can give you fact after fact after fact. They are the scientists of advertising.

But here’s the rub: Advertising, as Bill Bernbach said, is fundamentally persuasion, and persuasion happens to be an art, not a science. Therefore, not one of those advertising scientists can tell you how to create an idea. They can build the body, but they cannot send the blood coursing through the veins. They cannot supply the great insight or imagination or intuition that breaks new ground and makes revolutionary progress.

It’s been our experience and our clients’ that it’s in that place—the new, the untried—where the biggest business rewards are.

Bernbach, considered by many to be one of the greatest advertising figures of the 20th century, once said: “Safe advertising is the riskiest advertising you can do.” We live in a world where there are thousands of messages a day aimed at the consumer. To create advertising that is effective, it must be original. And to do that, you must step away from reality, because reality is what exists, reality is what has been done before. You must abandon the safe and secure.

All great advertising has two things in common: It’s effective, and always preceded by a meeting in which someone says, “Are you crazy? The client’s never going to buy this!” This is not an unusual response. But why is it our first? Simple. Because we’re afraid—afraid of losing an account or losing our jobs, afraid of the different. But what we miss is what I deeply believe—the new and untried can generate the big gains. Most agencies and clients aren’t looking for the most exceptional advertising; they’re looking for the most acceptable advertising. “The client bought it!” is music to everyone’s ears. What he bought doesn’t seem that important.

All of us in advertising have become too insular; there is too much inbreeding. We have a little love affair with ourselves, showing each other our commercials, reading our little press clippings, copying or being asked to copy whatever is the hot formula of the day.

We are comfortable in our cocoon of sameness, but risk taking pays off—for the agency and the client. What you should copy is not the style or content of great creative advertising, but the courage it takes to do it. We have nothing to offer but used ideas. Take the risk of being yourself. You have your own style, your own way of thinking.

Bernbach said: “To keep your ads fresh, you’ve got to keep yourself fresh. Live in the current idiom, and you will create in it. If you follow and enjoy and are excited by the new trails in art, in writing, in industry, in personal relationships … whatever you do will naturally be of today.” He was right.

What I have found: Study advertising and you will not produce great advertising. Study life and you will. If you study life, I’m sure you’ll discover what Herbert Bayard Swope did when asked for a formula for success. “I can’t give you a formula for success. But I can give you a surefire formula for failure—try to please everybody.”

The essence of American business is risk. The day it ceases to take risks, that day it ceases to be either American or business.

Bob Kuperman is president and CEO of the Americas, TBWA Worldwide