Creative advertising and science? Some believe these make for strange bedfellows. Wrong. For starters, just consider what it means to use scientific method.
The Oxford English Dictionary defines the scientific method as “a method or procedure consisting in systematic observation, measurement, and experiment, and the formulation, testing, and modification of hypotheses.”
Just like creating ad campaign concepts, the scientific method is an iterative process. It usually begins with observations about the natural world. In advertising, we refer to these observations as insights. The scientist then comes up with questions about the things they see or hear and develop ideas (hypotheses) about why things are the way they are. This, of course, describes the creative advertising strategy process which produces a hypothesis in the form of a creative brief. A good brief states that, knowing what we know about the market situation (the natural world), we believe (hypothesize) that if we take a specific approach (creative strategy), then we can count on a specific result (advertising that works). For the scientist, the best hypotheses lead to predictions that can be tested in various ways. The same holds true for the best creative briefs. The strongest tests of hypotheses come from carefully controlled and replicated experiments that gather empirical data. Depending on how well the tests match the predictions, the original hypothesis may require refinement, alteration, expansion or even rejection. Sounds exactly like what we go through everyday in advertising.
Not only is the basic approach to developing creative advertising a good example of the scientific method, there is also a compelling scientific explanation for how great advertising ideas are seemingly conjured from thin air.
It’s not unlike the super-collider, a particle accelerator designed to propel charged particles into each other to produce an unknown result. In the case of creating great advertising ideas, two relatively unassociated thoughts spin around in our brain until they collide, producing a new thought — a new idea.
James Webb Young clearly defines this super-collider process in his short but insightful book titled A Technique for Producing Ideas. In his book, A Technique for Producing Ideas, James Webb Young suggests that when advertising creatives are tasked with producing ideas for an assignment that they prepare themselves in two areas. The first area is specific to the assignment and the second is general to the creative person’s constant need for inspiration.
Step One: According to Young, the first step in the process is to absorb as much information as possible about the specifics of the assignment. For example, if the assignment centers around advertising for a product, the creative person needs to learn every relevant fact that is available to them concerning the product, the people that use the product, and the people that make the product.
Step Two: The next step in the process is the collection of raw information. The source material for this raw information is the world. The creative person must be constantly absorbing new information and experiences from a broad range of sources: movies, books, museums, theater, parks, clubs, websites, friends, relatives, music, food… the list goes on.
Step Three: The third step is a function of the subconscious mind. Because our minds are always at work trying to create patterns and make connections, we will naturally begin to match information we’ve collected about our product with our experience at the circus. Or the funny thing our friend told us. Or the way we learned to ride a bike.
After a variable amount of time is spent in the super-collider in our cranium, we’ve got an idea. Then comes the refinement process. Keith Reinhard, former chairman of advertising behemoth DDB Worldwide, observed, “I believe that great ideas are individual acts of inspiration, but that great advertising programs result from a team effort which builds upon an original idea and expands it.”
Getting feedback on ideas that challenge our way of thinking is crucial to the process. If we generate a lot of ideas, we need to be more selective. It can be a painful process to choose to leave behind ideas but it is necessary. We have to choose the direction we will take our idea.
Of course nobody ever said creative advertising was easy. After all, it’s not magic. It’s science.