Aurora Magazine

Promoting excellence in advertising

Published in Mar-Apr 2019

Make creative ideas great again

Creativity, not technology, is what makes great ideas.

Last week, I was running a course for young advertising people. I noticed that they last no more than an hour before looking at their mobiles – as that is the maximum time before they start to look unresponsive to clients. Communications have speeded up big time and spawned a whole new language about the virtues of speed – such as ‘agile’ and the need for ‘flexibility’. It is the new lexicon rooted in the culture of big tech.

Automated everything

Programmatic buying of media, much touted these days, is a child of big tech. It means online ads are traded in real time and therefore, creative can be adapted and optimised in real time too. Tech companies are now promising that AI can replace the creative department – the creative message that is served with programmatic buying will be automated too. This all looks very efficient and streamlined. Big tech culture has invaded the ad business. No wonder my students look like cats on a hot tin roof.

Bland creative work

It is inevitable (despite claims to the contrary) that automated creative work will end up with bland creative work. At Google, I was in a team that tried to marry programmatic trading of media and creativity. I concluded that it is devilishly difficult to inject brand personality, tone of voice, distinctiveness and creative ideas into an automated process. Brand distinctiveness will therefore erode over time and weaken brands.

Losing control of customer data

Your brand will also end up hooked on the cost-effective response that the big online advertising platforms deliver (Google, Facebook, Instagram, WeChat and increasingly, Amazon). The platforms will own the customer data and importantly, the relationship with your customers.

So, here is my challenge to brand owners – is this a future that you want to live in? If not, my answer is reach for the biggest tool you have to develop distinctive and valued brands – ideas. You will wrestle back control from big tech and build a sustainable future for your brand.


Most campaigns are now executed across multiple channels and media. Ideas are therefore necessary tools for organising and coordinating diverse specialists into a team to serve your brand. Ideas also galvanise and inspire – much as strong leadership will get a sports team to perform at its best.


This takes time. In my experience, creating powerful ideas means building relationships of trust with creative people and going through several rounds of development. Yet, time is in really short supply nowadays. This is going to be an unashamedly retro column for Aurora. I want to put steel in the backbones of advertising people and brand owners. Think of it as applying the principles of the slow food movement to the development of ideas. Take time. Don’t just send each other e-mails. Meet face-to-face. Accept that you might have to throw away your early ideas to get out fresh and different ideas. Sounds inefficient and costly? Not so in the end.

Here is my counter pitch...

1. Ideas are effective and efficient

Strong ideas make your marketing a) more efficient b) more effective and c) deliver much better value for your media spend.

Efficient: Creative teams can come up with work quicker within an existing idea. (There are different types of idea and I will explain what I mean by those types of idea in a moment).

Most campaigns are now executed across multiple channels and media. Ideas are therefore necessary tools for organising and coordinating diverse specialists into a team to serve your brand. Ideas also galvanise and inspire – much as strong leadership will get a sports team to perform at its best.

Effective: New creative executions within a campaign idea build ‘memory structure’ – they refresh and build meaning for your brand in the minds of your customers. It’s like a building in which each new execution rises on top of the memory foundations you have laid down before. The benefit of this to brands is better media value.

Media value and ad stock: I have never forgotten Millward Brown tell Duracell (my client) that each pound they spent on TV advertising delivered 500% more value than their nearest competitor because they had three very valuable assets – a well-understood brand idea, a familiar campaign idea and an instantly recognisable executional idea. Media folk have a word for this – ad stock.

Don’t get me wrong – I am not saying don’t use programmatic. I am saying don’t get hooked on it at the expense of developing ideas that deliver distinctiveness and an emotional response in the minds of your customers.

2. Introducing a planner tool

Over the past 15 years, I have taught value ideas to brand owners. So, as a service to Aurora readers, I am going to share a practical planning tool that brand owners can use in partnership with their creative agency (developed by my colleague Patrick Collister, who is a creative director by background).

Great creative work contains three types of ideas as shown in the illustration. At the risk of having too many metaphors, think of how a tree thrives – the campaign idea and executional ideas are like the branches and leaves. They are rooted in the brand idea – they draw nutrition from it. They also add back to the roots, making the roots healthy and vigorous for future growth.

When a brand is at the top of its game, it will feel both confident and coherent in its messaging – this analytical tool helps explain why.


Have a look at the Trump example. He pulled off the same trick as some of the very best brands: an instantly recognisable visual symbol – The Wall. A campaign idea (that you could put on a Cap or a T-Shirt) which was rooted in a deep truth about what the American Dream means to Americans. America is a land of immigrants where people – like the fictional Jay Gatsby – could leave their past behind and reinvent themselves – not just once but several times.


3. Donald Trump – A man of creative ideas

When I was teaching in Atlanta during the US presidential election, I asked my students to analyse Trump’s campaign. Have a look at the Trump example. He pulled off the same trick as some of the very best brands: an instantly recognisable visual symbol – The Wall. A campaign idea (that you could put on a Cap or a T-Shirt) which was rooted in a deep truth about what the American Dream means to Americans. America is a land of immigrants where people – like the fictional Jay Gatsby – could leave their past behind and reinvent themselves – not just once but several times. It is no shame to go bust in America (unlike the UK) – it’s just the hard knock and learning that you need to bounce back, to be great again. Trump was heavily outspent in media by Clinton who offered a sort of bland managerialism. Can you remember her campaign idea? Me neither. What conclusion did my students reach? Black American students noted that ‘Make America Great Again’ was really code for ‘Make America White Again’ but that he would still win. They were right and I think he would have done so even without Russian gerrymandering.

You may not like Trump but he provides a lesson in how powerful creative ideas can outgun a competitor who has much more money than you. And almost all companies have less money than big tech.


Julian Saunders was CEO of Red Cell, Head of Strategy at McCann-Erickson, Planning Director at Ogilvy and worked in an innovation team at Google. julians@joinedupcompany.com