Business is BoringNovember 10, 2016

Business Is Boring #28 – James Hurman on why creative ads matter despite Facebook


This Bib edition is a chance to chat to a fellow who is extraordinarily influential internationally around a number of topics that this podcast is all about –innovation and creativity. If we’re going to get past growing trees, cows shitting in rivers and chasing sheep around we’re going to have to think our way out of it, and that is where James Hurman comes in.

James has built a career as one of the top advertising planners in the world, working at Colenso BBDO on projects like the Yellow Treehouse and being named the Number 1 planner in the world by the Big Won Report. James’ book, The Case for Creativity, is required reading across the marketing industry, and explores the link between investing in creativity and making lots of moolah as a return.

James left adland to found an innovation consultancy called Previously Unavailable to help more companies do that, and also put out a crowdfunded children’s book called The Boy and the Lemon to help kids get a winning mindset.

Either download (right click to save), have a listen below, subscribe through iTunes (RSS feed) or read on for a transcribed excerpt.

You wrote the Case for Creativity, which has, and I don’t think this is an overstatement, become required reading amongst the wider marketing profession. Tell me a bit about what led you to write that. It felt like you had to explain some of those things to the marketing officers quite a few times (laughs).

Very much so, it was conceived at a time – in the middle of 2000 – when there was a great deal of scepticism from the marketing community both locally and globally, about whether creativity had anything to do with the effectiveness of advertising. And there were a large camp who were firmly of the view that creativity was all about winning awards and had nothing to do with business, that it didn’t help in advertising being any more effective. And they were very sceptical about agencies motivations for creating highly creative work.

I was, at the time, head of planning at Colenso – and as planning people, we’re concerned with making the work as effective as it can be. We need to know whether we should be pushing for more creativity or if we should be pushing towards something else. We needed to ask ourselves “does creativity make the work more effective?” to be effective in our own roles. So, I really started the project out of curiosity and wanting to know where I should direct my department.

So I looked at this – got all the data I could find, looked at the other people who had actually done really significant research that was hidden away in journals that no one ever reads except for academics. When I brought all that together there were fifteen studies and all in their own way – they all came from all over the world, the spanned twenty years – they all asked the same question, they looked at creative advertising and non-creative and said let’s analyse the effectiveness of both. And every single one, without any exception, all conclusively stated that more creative work is much more effective than less creative work. What I ended up with was a mountain of evidence for creativity and literally not a shred of evidence anywhere for a less creative approach.

The reason why I was compelled to write the book was because of how conclusive the evidence was – not just my research but from research from so many different people in so many different parts of the world. So the mission of the book really was to get that information out into the world, get it in front of particularly marketing people who are in charge of big budgets and are in charge of spending those budgets as wisely as possible. And in fact if you pursue an agenda that’s against creativity you’re never going to spend that budget wisely, you just can’t. And it’s your duty as a marketing person and an organisation to make sure that you’re taking that budget and getting every ounce of value that you can out of it, and one surefire way to do that is to push a highly creative agenda in your organization and in your agency relationship.

That must’ve been a very important moment for that kind of argument to be made as well because with Google advertising and now Facebook advertising, the ability to measure the effectiveness of what’s essentially updated direct mail or updated brute force advertising, means that it’s very hard to make an argument for brands that cannot be measured as immediately as clicks on an ad or redemptions of an offer or purchases of an online product. But if you are just doing the same thing as your competitors in the same markets you will only win if you spend more money, you can only get ahead if you stand out or have a different proposition.

Yeah that’s right, and I think that Facebook, which I use for lots of different advertising for different things, I just think it’s awesome. The fact that I can sit there in my kitchen at home and have that much control over and audience and what they can see – that’s so compelling – I love that, and every marketer should love that. But, that happens at a certain level, when you’re planning marketing there’s a lot in the mix and one of those things is getting all your sort of “social stuff” and stuff that you can measure, and be seduced by how easy it is to measure, that that’s a really important part of it. But there’s another job that looks at the long term viability and sustainability of a brand. This is looking that what’s the really deep ongoing connection that it has with people, it’s very hard to create and sustain using those tiny interactions that social tends to be and a key to getting to that deeper connection is to think very creatively about those larger brand plays. So that’s something that, even in today’s world, it’s critically important. We don’t do it so much like the old days with a big television ad but still we should be asking the question – “how do we use creativity to engage with our audience in a way that’s deep and inspiring and surprising?”

It’s never been more important because if you can find the right people to talk to anyone else can. And if you don’t say something interesting enough they’ll never want to talk to you again – just like in any human to human interaction.

Yeah that’s right, I mean the wonderful thing about the world is that in a world of social media the good stuff really does float up to the top and the crap really does sink to the bottom. So that creates an environment that’s awesome for consumers because now more than ever before we’re able to evaluate whether products are truly good, whether the companies behind those products are doing truly good things and we’re able to make informed decisions like never before, which is amazing. As marketers it makes things really tough because we’ve got to stand out, we’ve got to do things which are genuinely really exciting. Gone are the days when you can sort of wade into a category with pocket fulls of money and just pull the wool over people’s eyes, it’s impossible to do that now. So I think that’s a really healthy thing but it does mean that marketers have a much higher bar to pass than they have before that.

And not just one great idea but on Facebook you need to refresh your content every eight days, so you need one big idea that carries over a thousand executions rather than one idea executed a thousand different ways.

Yeah that’s right, definitely, there’s a process of what I call “constant gardening” so rather than that set and forget “let’s do one big campaign a year” you know big bang and then we book the media out for the rest of the year and go to lunch – it’s not like that anymore and you do have to work hard at that constant gardening and constant feeding of your audience with new stuff.

Keep going!