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A Communicator's Credo

The big idea will always be what great advertising is all about

85% of all advertising is invisible.

This wasted work may not be all bad, but it's not good enough to win your attention. Much of it could be thoughtful and well "positioned." A lot of it may even be visually appealing. But none of it is good enough to stop you in your tracks. 14% of all advertising is terrible, ugly, stupid, patronizing, demeaning.

Paradoxically, that's better than being invisible; at least it might get your attention. The remaining 1% is terrific advertising. These percentages are the seasoned speculations of creative mavericks like me whose entire careers have been in pursuit of the magical 1%, who understand that we go about our lonely work on a rising sea of dreadful advertising. There are many reasons for this dearth of brilliance and talent. Advertising, an art, is constantly besieged and compromised by logicians and technocrats, the scientists of our profession who wildly miss the main point about everything we do, that the product of advertising, after all, is advertising.

Not a marketing study or a media analysis or a research report, vital as these may be but all of zero value if what appears on the television screen is so bad it causes people to go for a beer or switch to another channel.

Advertising is what you see on the television screen, period. I'm always struck by the colossal naivete of those announcements that are reported every few years in The New York Times advertising column on momentous changes under way at some of our major agencies like Young & Rubicam or Ogilvy & Mather where major shifts of direction with a new focus on being more creative are revealed as big news.

They are admitting that their advertising hasn't been so hot and therefore "an improved creative product" must be made the new focus of their efforts and resources. These giant shops are telling us that despite their formidable size and sophisticated technology, they must return to what advertising is all about: advertising.

Despite these periodic illuminations, creating great advertising in most big "marketing agencies" continues to be a lesser priority than getting more billings. The industry constantly fails to understand that its first priority should be to create big ideas for its clients big creative ideas with extraordinary power to attract customers and build sales, so that one plus one can equal three.


(Often we will be attracted by a single commercial, a "nice" spot. Every once in a while a new young agency does a "nice" spot and is hailed as the brilliant new innovator of our business but one swallow does not make a spring and one commercial does not make a campaign that is based on a big idea.)


Often, when I read in the ad columns about new "campaigns" being unveiled, I look in vain for the big idea, for that one theme or slogan that says it all, that can be played back by the average consumer after one viewing.

 If you can't describe the big idea in one sentence or in three or four words, you don't have a big idea.


Coldene advert 1960
No picture, context or logo. George Lois for Coldene, 1960

But what can you expect when so much energy by so many intelligent people in our business is devoted to issues that have absolutely nothing to do with advertising itself, but are concerned first and foremost with growth. The only thing that gets better when it gets bigger is a penis, but the ad agency world has been invaded and almost swallowed up by the British and the French, with an obsessive primary commitment to the bottom line and to exercise rigid control over their acquires.


Big agencies are thus getting bigger and agency conglomerates have become a sinister force in the industry. Takeovers, overall, have had a corrupting impact on the quality of advertising. Talent has been squeezed out and agency managers pay less attention to advertising than to organizational acrobatics. (In explaining his agency's loss of an estimated $120 million in billings, Scali, McCabe, Sloves chairman Marvin Sloves told The New York Times (November 14, 1990) his agency's troubles had resulted in part from having been "distracted" the last several years with negotiations to buy the agency back from its parent, Ogilvy & Mather.)


In an earlier chapter I said, "You gotta have a slogan . . . the word comes first, then the visual image."


This may sound like an inversion, coming from an art director, but the best art directors communicate with a big idea, expressed in a few words, wed to powerful graphics. "I want my MTV!" is a big idea because it blends a powerful slogan with an image of physical action, an image of a young person demanding this new cable television concept. By contrast, there's a cosmetic commercial that runs now and then which shows an airplane casting a shadow over a glitzy pool. This is a graphic pirouette, not a big idea. Yet year in, year out, advertising pundits misread graphic tricks as significant trends. Every year these new techniques are trotted out by media reporters as the wave of the future quick cuts a la MTV . . . computer graphics . . .cinema verite (see page 231) . . . black and white with color accents . . . bigger stars doing testimonials. .. big-name directors to shoot commercials . . . the return of animation. You get the idea.

(There's also a new theory that a commercial or an ad should not be seen or experienced as a commercial or an ad. Wrong a great commercial or a great print advertisement signals you that, yes, this is a commercial message, that an attempt will be made to sell you, but by charming your ass off, not by pounding on your head with a hammer. Americans enjoy being sold products and they fully understand that the act of selling is being done through the popular art form of advertising. In answering research questions, many people will insist that they hate advertising but trust me, they eat it up with a spoon!)

Quick cuts and animation and computer graphics are techniques, and ephemeral techniques, at best. None of these devices is an idea. Some might attract attention temporarily, but nothing will be communicated.

Nobody ever bought a new car because of quick cuts and nobody will ever buy a six-pack of beer because of animation.

A great verbal idea can survive even terrible graphics, but a lousy idea has no intrinsic strength and will go nowhere with the most famous celebrity or with Hollywood's hottest director.

The big idea is what great advertising is all about. The big idea can change popular culture. The big idea can transform our language. The big idea can start a business or save a business. The big idea can turn the world upside down. The big idea is what this book is all about. Who really knows how far the big idea can go? If you believe in its power, the big idea can even save the world. Despite the curse of bigness and the blight of acquisition for bottom line's sake, people who dream impossible dreams and think big ideas will always surface. They are like dandelions, defiant of weather and soil, always blooming toward the sunlight. It's immensely encouraging to see young, new agencies spring up. Unknown today, they will be much more important to our industry and to communications ten years from now than the European behemoths who are swallowing up and ruining agencies that once were wonderfully inventive and original.

Where you work also affects how you work. If it's possible, find the right ambience where people want and respect great work. If you have writing talent or graphic talent or both, always try to do work that makes you proud. If it's possible, find an agency where your talents will be encouraged rather than smothered by Pecksniffian business managers. Such agencies are always surfacing. Search hard. I believe deeply that we have to create our own opportunities to do great work. I've done it by trying to control everything I've done, all my life. I have the power to decide my ambience from the way coffee is brewed in the morning (always use a cinnamon stick), to the way our conference room is prepared for a client presentation the next day.

It's not easy to balance the needs of an organization while preserving the kind of environment so precious to me and while staying unswervingly loyal to those creative standards that have made our work memorable.

I regard this as a natural extension of the personal values and experiences that have shaped my life since childhood: the striving for achievement that I learned from my immigrant parents, the love and Ioyalty from my wife of forty years, the anguish of losing my first son at an early age, the joys of watching my younger son succeed as a photographer, the deep pleasure of seeing my new grandson grow before my very eyes, while hoping to leave behind for him that same legacy of values that has shaped my life.

Yes, there has been a pattern to my years a pattern of tenacious determination to make life purposeful and to direct its unfolding as creatively as one possibly can. And for me, advertising has always been a glorious pursuit, as well as a tough business. Dealing effectively with clients summons up every talent at your fingertips. Dealing with your own staff may be even more complicated as you try to negotiate among strong individual egos to extract brilliant work in a shared, partnership-style ambience. But it's the only way I want to work.

When asked to define the problems of creativity in American advertising, some sensitive ad people say that young people entering the business are afraid to take chances, that they're as conservative as big agency bureaucrats. But that's the story of mankind. We live in fear of life, in fear of work, in fear of death. On a professional level, our kids are instructed to assemble a "professional" portfolio rather than one that explodes with imagination and inventiveness. Some of our best creative professionals protest loudly that they want young people to take chances, but when they see a portfolio that's somewhat off the wall, they say the kid lacks discipline or that he's a flake.

Alas, our young people receive no clear signals from their elders, no brave direction. Perhaps this book will fill in some of the gaps. I spent my entire life listening to people say, "George, be careful," but being careful in our business is synonymous with doing invisible advertising. "George, be reckless" has served me better. I can never say it too often: We are being paid by our corporate patrons to excite and arouse, not to sedate America. I hope my adventures (and misadventures) will at least enable the reader, in or out of the business, to understand advertising more acutely and to realize that the big idea, rich in human expressiveness, will always be what advertising is all about.

The big idea inspires unforgettable imagery the magical force of advertising that enables me to communicate with power. My continuing obsession will always be to create vivid human images that catch people's eyes, penetrate their minds, warm their hearts and cause them to act.

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