Mpume Ngobese. Picture: SUPPLIED
Mpume Ngobese. Picture: SUPPLIED

How many rounds of debriefs does it take to produce a great piece of creative work that connects, and delivers on the bottom line?

In 2015 I came across a science article published on the UK Daily Mail’s website. It was about Mick Grierson, a computer scientist, who was commissioned by Fiat to identify a song the company could use to promote the Fiat 500. Grierson used analytical software in an attempt to put a finger on what exactly made iconic tunes so iconic. It involved considering factors such as beats per minute, chord variety, lyrical content and sonic variance.

After giving a detailed factual analysis of the findings, he reported that “ultimately there is no ‘formula’ for this, other than to make your song sound as different, diverse and exciting as possible. My conclusion is that if you want a formula for creating great music, there is one: you just have to make something that sounds great.”

In my years of account management, I have received hundreds of debriefs to change great creative work that came out of a place of purity to something that ticks all logical boxes but does nothing more. Almost all the debriefs are based on some scientific rationale of how this should change to that, based on some creative evaluation criteria that marketers have developed.

The industry has fallen into the trap of thinking that these box-ticking exercises lead to good work that will drive volumes or sales. What’s even more surprising is that once these boxes have been ticked, we proceed to ask a focus group to tell us how the creative work can be further ‘improved’.

While I do believe there is a space for research, particularly in SA, where the diversity of our population makes it imperative to ensure that creative work is relevant, I cannot imagine musicians like Elton John researching Your Song and movie directors like Quentin Tarantino researching Kill Bill with people who have musical or film expertise, and then ‘refining’ the work based on the research feedback with the aim of delivering something iconic.

Numerous studies and published books have proven a direct link between creativity and effectiveness, yet we seem to use formulaic boxes as security blankets and hope the work delivers business results.

A 2018 report by Neilsen about spend across television, radio, print and out-of-home advertising showed that as an industry we’d spent R42bn on media, of which R23bn was spent on television alone.

The concern is this: in 2018 there were very few funny, clever, thoughtful, delightful and inspiring ads. One or two perhaps, but nothing to justify that kind of spend.

The big take-out

Creative work should be less about research, formulas and ticking boxes and more about gut feel that a piece of advertising is going to resonate with consumers.

Marketers need to re-evaluate the role they play in society, which should be to grow brands, as brands grow the economy, and a growing economy makes people’s lives better. Yet there seems to be a blind spot for overprocessing creativity to the point where we have lost the ability to tap into our gut feel, the feeling we get when we see something we know is special. It’s the same gut feel you get when you choose a life partner - you can’t commission research for this. You just know.

The results of ignoring gut feel about good work are overprocessed, overstylised and formulaic pieces of communication that scream “fake, staged and forced” and alienate every single person that engages with the work. And then we conclude that advertising doesn’t work.

In an industry that can afford to spend R42bn a year to sell brands, hope, good news and healthy lifestyles, that has the financial means and skills to change the country and the world for the better, the only real way to tick that creative box is not aiming to tick any box at all. Instead, advertising should look to inspire, delight, provoke thought and infuse meaning. In doing so, we may just change our businesses.

  • Mpume Ngobese is the MD of Joe Public Connect.