The Line

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What happens when great Marketing creative goes bad?

It’s the oldest story in the advertising book: the agency will blame the client for getting too involved in everything from the creative brief down to the casting, and the client will blame the agency for pushing the brand too far – well beyond their comfort zone. It’s not uncommon to hear war stories that involve everyone else in the organization (and beyond) getting their opinions in on the decision making process – from the corporate affairs department to the CEO’s wife. "Too many cooks in the kitchen"? It’s the oldest line in the book, but it’s hardly the reason.

There’s a lot of bad advertising out there.

TV, radio, print, out of home, online, mobile and beyond. You name it. Lots of sucky advertising polluting our senses. This is where things get confusing. You’ll often hear consumers say that they hate advertising. They don’t. Consumers (and I’m one of them) hate bad advertising. The problem/challenge/opportunity is that there’s a lot of very bad advertising floating around out there. From bad creative to a lack of targeting to the simple fact that a lot of advertising is not executed well… at all.

It’s good to analyze the bad.

It’s pretty easy to get excited about great advertising. It moves us. It inspires us. It makes us cry. It makes us think. It gives us moment to pause…  and more. Don’t get me wrong, I admire great advertising just like the next Marketing professional, but I’m much more interested in bad advertising (I’m not joking). When I see a terribly executed creative, I don’t shut off the TV, skip the commercial or flip the page in a magazine or newspaper. I look at it. I wonder which agency produced it? I wonder about how much the budget was? What the creative brief might have first looked like? What got it to the point where I’m seeing it and shaking my head in disbelief? It’s like a strange, sick game in which I hope that – by deconstructing everything from the first client/agency meeting to the media company’s placement – I’ll be able to figure out how things went so terribly wrong. I know what you’re thinking… and you’re right: it’s a hopeless and depressing game that will only make me question why so many smart and creative people work together in an industry where our advertising can turn out so bland.

Draw a line in the sand.

Ultimately, it’s a a fool’s game and the only constant realization that comes to me – as I stare blankly at a major brand who is working with one of the leading creative shops and developed a steaming pile of messaging – is: "someone should have drawn a line." Things can always go too far: from ideation to budget and overall campaign management. The challenge is in identifying up front (and mark it in bold at the top of the creative brief) where the line is. It has to be a line that no one is willing to cross or drop below (it’s simply not allowed). This way, even if things go awry, you have the lighthouse to navigate you back to why everyone (and all of this money) is sitting in these different offices trying to make this brand successful. When you look at bad advertising, it becomes abundantly clear that the lines either did not exist or (and this one is more likely) that the lines moved. If someone moves the line, the bar gets dropped and this is how we wind up in a scenario where the last line uttered before stamping it final sounds like, "screw it, this was the best that we could do."

I wish more brands and their agencies would draw more lines… don’t you?


  1. I do too! I am the same watching the ads –trying so hard to figure out what the brief could have possibly said that would have created such terrible work. In the end, the client must be accountable.

  2. Laura is right….in the end the client must be accountable. In my opinion part of the problem is the degree disconnection between the money in the hands of the decision maker and organization. Observe the difference in how a small privately owned company spends on advertising and how a large one does. In most cases the decision making process is different.
    The typical private small company agonizes about maximizing the impact of every penny spent. The buck usually stops pretty close to the owners desk, if not right on it.
    The typical large company product/brand manager agonizes about their allotted budget and ensuring that they spend every penny of it, lest they have next year’s budget reduced. Doing more with less does not necessarily translate to more $$ in their pocket, even when it does bolster the company coffers. When the heat is on and deadlines for the spending of the budget are looming…. “Screw it, this was the best we can do”…’in the time we had’.

  3. I can’t deliver great work with a bad client and if I deliver bad work with a great client then I should find an ice cream store that needs my help. The maddening thing is, is it usually takes more money, time and stress to deliver the proverbial stinking sack of manure that it does to deliver something wonderful. The notion of the “line in the sand” is absolutely correct, we know when something feels good at the onset and we know trouble at about the same time. This topic is a great one and worthy of more thinking, specifically around “the line”.

  4. Add me to your list of advertising consumers that willingly suffers through all forms of advertising in wonderment as to how it could have ever gotten to that result.
    Beyond the head-scratching on the creative, and you touched on this, is the lack of thoughtful placement, or targeting. With both great creative and bad, it too often feels like the media buy was an after-thought at best and a dumping of inventory at worst. That problem is exacerbated at the local level where a few well-placed spots are “rewarded” with a bonus placement in auxiliary ineffective and potentially off-putting dayparts or sister media. Or the entire buy is based on what is the cheapest, regardless of appropriateness.
    Some no doubt feel even the reach in a bad placement is exposure worth having. As a researcher who spends an inordinate amount of time analyzing media delivery of target audiences and the value of those eyes and ears, I couldn’t disagree more. Poor placement or ego-based and what’s-more-fun-to create-for media choices can be as damaging as bad creative; at least if the brand is relevant to the medium, the bad creative might be forgiven.
    And while the client ultimately is responsible, as one moves down the media And while the client ultimately is responsible, as one moves down the media sophistication chain, it is the agency’s responsibility to educate and direct the client to the best results. Unfortunately, the realities of profit and loss and appeasing stakeholders aren’t very conducive to that. So yes, in an ideal creative marketplace, I do wish more brands and agencies could and would draw more lines to the point where the advertising is as valued by the consumer as the content, and we never have to hear again, “I never look at the ads.”

  5. Your comments of critiquing made me laugh since I do the same thing! Even have my 14-year-old daughter doing it. She will let me know why a commercial was good or bad, ask what they were trying to accomplish, and offers her ideas of what should be done to be effective. Cracks me up since I realize she must have heard me mutter “that is so lame” or “what were they thinking” so many times from toddler on up that now does the same!

  6. The maddening thing is, is it usually takes more money, time and stress to deliver the proverbial stinking sack of manure that it does to deliver something wonderful.

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