Is creativity all it's cracked up to be?

Is creative advertising effective advertising? James Hurman argues it is
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Imagine I told you that I’d had ten girlfriends. Ten women who were, each in their different way, fantastic girlfriends, but all of whom had the same shortcoming: driving. They were terrible at it generally, and found parallel parking particularly challenging. Then imagine I told you that because of this utterly conclusive experience my belief about all women was that they were dreadful drivers.

Depending on your gender, you’d probably either be unconvinced or enraged by my conclusion. And you’d be right. To take a miniscule set of experiences and extrapolate it out to form a universal belief is precarious to say the least. Our chances of being wrong are extremely high.

And yet this is exactly how we form our beliefs about advertising effectiveness.

Every marketer has a set of personal advertising experiences. For some, the more creative advertising has tended to be the more effective. For others, it’s the opposite, and in fact the less creative work has driven the best results.

Some of us are highly experienced, having worked on dozens of campaigns over our careers. But even in those cases, our entire life’s work represents only the most microscopic percentage of all advertising.

But it’s those tiny sets of personal experience that we use to form our belief about what works and what doesn’t. We never ladder up and study what the truth really is. If our girlfriends were bad drivers, then all women are bad drivers.

In my first years in advertising I worked with both advocates and sceptics of creativity. “Creativity works and we should be creatively driven,” said some. “Creativity is folly and we shouldn’t be distracted by it,” said others.

Those leaders all had decades of success stories. And they were equally passionate and convincing in their rhetoric. But they were all calling only on subjective beliefs formed by their own small sets of personal experience.

Four years ago, in an attempt to understand for myself who was right, I looked for ways to see beyond the anecdotal examples. As it turned out, enough people had collected enough data to compare large sets of creative and uncreative campaigns and agencies. It soon became clear I’d be able to find out for sure whether or not more creative advertising was more effective advertising.

Three years later I’d published two major studies of my own, and found a further 13: three were from industry people like me, and the remaining ten were from universities where professional academics had studied the effects of creativity. The studies came from the UK, the US, Europe, Asia and Australasia, offering pretty significant coverage of the advertising globe. And what gave me the greatest confidence in the findings was that every single study reached the same conclusion. To this day I’ve found no broad-based data sets or academic research that supports the view that a less creative approach is a more effective one.

Oh, and by the way, all of my partners have been excellent drivers. Especially you, dear.

James Hurman is planning director at Colenso BBDO