Creative Isn’t Dead. But It Could Be.

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Anyone who thinks creative advertising is dead doesn’t know history. Even back in 1947, agencies were pronouncing its death. They talked about new techniques, new ways to make people buy things. Only they didn’t. All they had was a singular belief in numbers and science. They talked a good game, until the day came when one man called their bluff.

In his resignation letter to Grey Advertising, Bill Bernbach said this:

“I don’t want academicians, I don’t want scientists. I don’t want people who do the right things. I want people who do inspiring things.”

I wont belabor this. Many people have referred to Bernbach as “the father of creative advertising,” and others have asked: “Isn’t he dead?” Well, yes, he died quite awhile ago. But today we’re seeing the same thing he worried about in 1947. The numbers people are back, the scientists, the academicians, the hucksters worshiping numbers instead of substance.

When I say substance, I’m not talking about content writers arguing endlessly about how they’re giving consumers “the real stuff.” It may be the real stuff but it’s the boring stuff. It’s the stuff you can find reading any company’s prospectus or annual report. It’s numbers overblown, overstated and ultimately devoid of any heart at all.

One of the greatest crimes we commit today is when we treat consumers like shareholders. It’s a con and it’s a dereliction of our duty. When a member of a university faculty tells students “Creative is dead” (as a teacher told a class last week), that faculty member is a con. They’re conning students, they’re conning the faculty, and they’re conning themselves.

No amount of technique will ever replace one second of inspiration. And the reason for this is simple. While numbers look good on paper, they also yellow with age. They get discarded, they get forgotten, all because nothing remains that leaves people feeling any emotion.

Bernbach spoke of interviewing some eighty people in his last year at Grey, mostly writers and artists. While they had technique, he was appalled by their lack of imagination. What he wanted was “genuine creativity,” something he would search out, building an agency of his own that not only focused on creativity — it demanded creativity.

Was he right? Of course he was right. The Creative Revolution of the Sixties defined advertising, instilling not only a desire for new ideas, but a business model that saw success after success for the clients it served. History has never seen a time when advertising has had such an impact on corporate identity and sales.

Bernbach called it “distinctive personality,” and together with people like Leo Burnett and Mary Wells, Bernbach built brands. He built phenomenal brands and brilliant notions. I say “notions” because there was no notion of creative before these people came along. From their agencies, more creative grew, with more brilliant, inspired people who didn’t create headlines — they created a world around their clients.

Creative builds worlds. If that sounds too highbrow, think of the Jolly Green Giant. Burnett built a world that still exists to this day. We didn’t just think of peas and beans, we believed in peas and beans. When Volkswagen told us to “Think Small” the emphasis wasn’t on “Small” it was on “Think.” We were asked to change our belief systems, and by association, we went from normal thought to extraordinary perception.

When researchers present numbers today saying, “This is how normal people think,” I keep remembering all the internal reviews where someone would say to me: “That isn’t what I was expecting.” In other words, I wasn’t creating “normal.”

We forget that people aren’t looking for normal. They’re looking to believe. Without that push, without introducing new ideas, all they can do is think the same old way. Bernbach called it “mental weariness.”

With mental weariness comes mediocrity of ideas. Watching the last Super Bowl, I saw some interesting spots, but they felt forced. I saw spectacle but no substance. In a spot called “Farmers” for Dodge trucks, I felt a tingling, a sense that I was hearing something real. Yet, as real as it sounded, it was just an echo of Hal Riney, brilliantly copied, but copied nonetheless.

The other night, I was watching an old SNL episode where Steve Martin and Gilda Radner suddenly break into a dance routine at a bar. I wondered why it was funnier than today’s SNL skits. Then it dawned on me. It wasn’t a skit. Behind that silly dance routine, these two brilliant comedians created human interest, human fallibility, human want. Their expressions were so Chaplinesque, I realized this wasn’t comedy as much as empathy. It spoke to everyone looking for grandiose love. We want to dance, sing, stand in the spotlight, but it’s a formula perpetuated by movie studios.

Bernbach said it another way in that same resignation letter:

“The danger lies in the temptation by routinized men who have a formula for advertising. The danger lies in the natural tendency to go after tried-and-true talent that will not make us stand out in competition but rather make us look like all the others.”

I doubt anything I’ve said here will put it more plainly. We’re relying on so-called giants instead of real giants. We’re saying, “That’s not what I was expecting,” instead of expecting something we’ve never seen before.

If we don’t fight the normal, the sameness, the mediocrity, we have no one to blame when clients leave. We’ve lost our value by being notetakers instead of trailblazers. We’ve lost their faith.

It won’t be easy getting that faith back. And it won’t be easy for clients when they realize they’re as much to blame for the mediocrity as the agencies who did nothing to stop it.

We’ve given the scientists, the academicians, the number tumblers and the theorists a shot. As Bernbach said:

“They know all the rules. They can tell you that people in an ad will get you greater readership. They can tell you that a sentence should be this sort or that long. They can tell you that body copy should be broken up for easier reading. They can give you fact after fact after fact. But there’s one little rub. Advertising is fundamentally persuasion, and persuasion happens to be not a science, but an art.”

And let’s remember, this was written back in 1947. If it sounds too familiar, think how we’ve come full circle — repeating what Bernbach, Burnett, Wells and many others fought so hard to avoid.

If we want creative to be dead, we’re going about it the right way. But if we have any sense at all, we’ll stop repeating those same old mistakes, and create something worthwhile for us — and our clients.

Do you feel the same way? Let me know at rcormack@rogers.com

Robert Cormack is a freelance copywriter, novelist and blogger. His first novel “You Can Lead a Horse to Water (But You Can’t Make It Scuba Dive)” is available online and at most major bookstores. Look for the paperback version coming out this spring. For more details, go to Yucca Publishing or Skyhorse Press.

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I did a poor imitation of Don Draper for 40 years before writing my first novel. I'm currently in the final stages of a children's book. Lucky me.

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