The resurrection of creative brands – Part 1

15 Jan, 2024

The task of creating interesting creative brands has been tough for a long time now. Ironically it seems to have been since I got into the industry 15 years ago. But it has very much been a case of the boiled frog, it was getting incrementally tougher to be creative and interesting but there was always the hope that it would change. There were stand out brands that were still doing it and inspired the rest of us that we could resist the decline, we just needed the right client and the right idea. In hindsight I’m not sure they were inspirations but rather last bastions made to look better by the diminishing competition. The truth is many things were happening simultaneously that made it incredibly tough for advertising agencies. The social media revolution, the growth of ad data and digital advertising and a focus on “performance” (I bloody hate that word) marketing. Our work all got boiled down to a click and so many in the industry started churning out ‘targeted is enough’ advertising.

We fought on, but many didn’t. But how to resist? I recently read an article by Rory Sutherland about how media-only thinking is killing creative advertising; it perfectly described the problem for me. Never more so than when he said “The snake-oil used to justify this thievery is the mantra that you don’t need human insight or creativity if you have enough data”. It sums up so many meetings where I have sat with clients looking at data and reports wondering when the great insight from the data would come that would inform something meaningful. It never did.

So far so depressing. However, reading Rory’s article I actually didn’t feel as depressed as you might expect. It absolutely reflected and described a truth, it was though one that I feel has been and gone. In fact I have never felt more optimistic about the future of brands and creativity, especially in financial services. In this two part article I will explain my optimism.

A change is happening, and I am hearing it in conversations with almost every client and new business prospect we speak to. I am also seeing it in the work that clients are buying from us. I believe its seeds lie in the pandemic and now we are starting to see the green shoots emerging. When everything went completely digital because of lockdowns I think we all had to confront the realities of digital and the data that stood behind it in a way that hadn’t been done before. And the truth is the data was found wanting; over time the focus on the performance ad leading to a click through to the website was proved to have diminishing returns.

Now the tide has turned and, with the benefit of hindsight, I can see that for us the change came at a very specific moment, with an email from the Marketing Manager at Baillie Gifford in November 2020. We had recently presented to him some research on Millennials we had commissioned and luckily for us they were at that time thinking about what they could do to start introducing this audience to the Baillie Gifford brand. This brief represents the answer to so much of what has been challenging marketing in FS. It was a pure brand brief but it was a test so the media was relatively small and, because of the audience, very focussed on social media and Linkedin particularly. It was an exciting brief with a client prepared to buy some really interesting work. And it worked, when the data first started coming in it beat almost all benchmarks for clicks. The irony, it was completely brand focussed, there wasn’t even a call to action on the ad. It was interesting, engaging and relevant to the audience and placed in the right media for them so they clicked on it. We had created a campaign that was in no way driven to get clicks but had delivered more clicks than the typical ad of the last few years.

After a while we had more and more evidence that ‘targeted is enough’ was less effective than good brand advertising, regardless of media. But in the second part of this response to Rory we’ll look at why typical FS advertising isn’t just less effective but is actually damaging brands.