Creative is Not a Silver Bullet

By David Lazarenko written about 2 years ago

Coming from the president of an ad agency, this statement may be tantamount to industry blasphemy, but it’s the truth. What we have sold as our greatest offering since the days of Ogilvy and Bernbach is no longer enough.

And this flawed way of thinking is foolhardy and extremely risky for your business (and ours).

While the majority of my agency career has been on the side of account management, this statement does not stem from some deep-seated jealousy or resentment of creative talent. Truth be told, creative was the main reason I got into advertising. The thought of solving marketing problems and driving business success through pictures and words seemed too good to be true. It was like arts and crafts for dollars and cents.

But the world changed, as it has a tendency to do. Consumers were once targeted with hundreds of well-crafted messages; that has turned into tens of thousands. Anyone with a Mac and some free time can produce an artistic expression of your brand and offering. The creative landscape has been elevated to a point that even strong creative work blends into the communications ether.

For agencies, great creative is now table stakes not a point of differentiation, and in practice it can no longer bear the entire burden of driving success.

This new paradigm isn’t entirely new. You could argue that the power of a strong statement and image was reduced significantly with the advent of the digital “experience.” While an ad can make that Porsche look and sound great (in copy), virtual experiences are so immersive now that you could almost swear you’re behind the wheel. It’s like expecting a brochure for Disney World to deliver the same impact as a day at the park.

While this all might seem like common sense, many companies still rely on their agencies to deliver the one perfect headline that will cut through all of the clutter and deliver the goods. And it’s not their fault! Few if any agencies are correcting the behavior.

For example, we were recently working on a project with a client who was looking to drive behavioral change in healthcare workers. But they faced a major problem: success depended on this audience putting themselves first, when their very nature was to do the exact opposite (as caregivers, their primary focus is on others). Over the years a myriad of copy lines, messages and images were thrown at the audience by multiple organizations using multiple agencies – with little to no success. As the new agency on the project, we were asked to help them fix this.

Their belief was that the perfect creative application had simply eluded them over the years. It was silver bullet time.

While I’d love to say that we didn’t fall into the creative trap on this one, I’d be lying if I did. As agency people, it’s hard to break old habits. Almost immediately after our initial client meeting, our minds started going to a creative solution.

Fortunately, during one of our early brainstorms, we took a moment to reflect on the task at hand and asked ourselves, “Is this really something creative can solve?” Looking at the audience and their mindset, we were essentially asking creative to convince a mother to put herself ahead of her child. We unanimously decided that was a feat no creative could achieve and instead shifted our focus.

So if creative isn’t the solution, what is? Strategy.

By going back to the challenge presented to us (to drive behavioral change), we realized that everyone had been assuming that, in order to change audience behavior, we had to change mindset. In reality, it was our mindset that needed to change, as the solution we came up with was to embrace the audience’s very nature of putting others first. We would actually encourage them to behave on behalf of others, not themselves. Only in this case the “others” weren’t patients but other healthcare workers.

By refocusing on the goal, we found a way to look at the challenge in a completely different light. Instead of being focused on the best “creative” solution (the daunting silver bullet), we allowed ourselves to focus on the best solution (the proper strategic approach).

And, ultimately, it’s the best idea that wins. We just need to stop assuming the idea needs to come with a headline and a pretty picture.


In his Working Wisdom series, David Lazarenko shares insights and inspiration gathered throughout his 15-year agency career. Through real-life examples and an analysis of industry trends, he offers up practical advice and actionable strategies for marketers.