Advertising agencies trade on big ideas. The right idea at the right time has the power to help a brand explode out of the competitive pack, or put a fledgling agency on the map. And yet, finding “big” ideas remains the most elusive part of the advertising and marketing puzzle. In fact, for many agencies, clients, and consumers, even trying to define “big idea” is a Herculean task.
Determining whether your ad campaign is worn out starts with looking at the concept it’s based on, and how that concept was brought to life. But there’s a bigger question we have to answer first.
THE QUESTION BEFORE THE QUESTION
If you’re starting to question your campaign, there’s one thing you have to ask yourself to avoid pulling your creative prematurely, when there’s still a lot of tread left on your conceptual tires.
Do you really think your campaign is worn out, or are you just tired of seeing it?
As the adage goes, “familiarity breeds contempt.” For both agencies and clients, it’s been proven time and time again that we will get tired of a campaign long before the consumer does. In fact, a Communicus study called “Advertising Wear-Out: Is It Time For A New Commercial, Or A New Campaign? found that of the 109 campaigns they studied (effective campaigns that had run for at least two years), 74% were changed for arbitrary reasons. Worse than that, only 20% of the replacement campaigns outperformed the one that was pulled.
Campaigns change for all kinds of reasons from totally legit business reasons (the market shifts, a new strategy is required, competition demands a different approach) to ones that are, let’s say, a bit more unexpected (an angry letter from a consumer, the CEO’s spouse doesn’t like the commercial, the talent shows up in an arrest report). The question is, how do you know when it’s really time for a change?
Some ideas are big enough to support 100 commercials and not wear out while others are one and done. Just look at the Renaissance of advertising for the insurance industry. Commercials that were once mostly quiet and straight forward have given way to three of the most creative, effective, enduring campaigns in history – the Allstate “Mayhem” campaign, the Farmers Insurance “Hall of Claims” campaign and GEICO’s, well… insert your favorite GEICO campaign here (The Gecko, The Cavemen, Maxwell The Pig, Easier Ways To Save, Rhetorical Questions, Short Stories And Tall Tales, The Museum Of Modern Insurance, Did You Know?, It’s What You Do, Great Answer, etc.).
What makes each of these campaigns great is that they are all built on a very big idea that allows for multiple creative executions rooted in simple, clear, foundational thoughts:
“You can stick with cut rate insurance, or get Allstate and avoid Mayhem like me.” (Bad things are lurking everywhere. You need great insurance to protect against them.)
“We know a thing or two, because we’ve seen a thing or two.” (We cover everything.)
“15 minutes could save you 15% or more on your car insurance.” (You’re paying too much if you’re not switching to GEICO.)
And it’s not just TV. Years ago, the Absolut Vodka creative team at TBWA came up with a HUGE idea for print— finding graphic ways to use the iconic shape of the Absolut bottle and the headline construction “Absolute _______” to illustrate everything from cities to artwork to the abstract. In all, they produced more than 1,500 print ads.
Clearly, these campaigns are the exception to the rule and represent the best of the best, but they also illustrate just how strong and lasting a big idea can be.
SO HOW DO I KNOW WHEN IT’S TIME TO PULL THE PLUG?
As the stats above indicate, campaigns aren’t always changed for the most rational reasons. But whether rational or irrational, it’s not an easy decision. Like a lot of things in advertising, the determination often comes down to experience and “gut feel.” But if you know what to look for along the way, there are warning signs that will let you know when it’s time to start thinking about a change.
Before you pull a campaign, ask yourself this first: is there a big idea at the heart of the campaign? Is everything based on a smart, strategic, conceptual idea that can support multiple creative executions. If the answer is yes, ask more questions to determine if it’s really time for a change. If the answer is no, it’s time for a new idea.
But let’s say your campaign does have that “big idea” at the core and you just need to determine if it’s time for a change. To help answer that, ask yourself these six questions. The more you answer “Yes,” the closer you are to needing a new campaign.
HAS SOMETHING HAPPENED IN THE COMPETITIVE LANDSCAPE THAT REQUIRES A CHANGE?
Sometimes, no matter how well a campaign is working, something happens in the marketplace that requires new work in response — work that simply won’t fit within the conceptual confines of your existing campaign. Maybe the economy shifts. Maybe one of your competitors launches a new product. Maybe there’s innovation that changes the game for everyone. When your competitive environment changes, but your work doesn’t, that can be a problem.
WAS THERE A PRECIPITOUS DROP IN SALES QUARTER OVER QUARTER?
In today’s ultra-competitive business climate, this is enough for most companies to pull a campaign in favor of something different. But be cautious of making a knee jerk reaction. Go back to the first question — did you start with a smart, strategic, conceptual idea? If you did, look at the other factors that may be causing a drop in sales. Production isn’t cheap and flushing your creative based on one data point may be throwing good money after bad.
ARE SALES DOWN TWO QUARTERS IN A ROW?
If sales are slumping over six months, it’s definitely time to take a hard look at the work. Most campaigns don’t survive sustained sales drops no matter how good they are. That said, be careful to not look at a campaign change as a guaranteed solution. Just as campaigns can get too much praise when things are good, they tend to take a disproportionate amount of blame when things go south. Take a hard look at everything surrounding the brand to determine what’s really going on. If for no other reason then to set your next campaign up for success.
ARE YOU LOSING THE SUPPORT OF PEOPLE ON THE FRONT LINES?
Great campaigns are a source of pride for people working on the brand. It’s fun for someone to say, “Hey, did you see that commercial?” and to be able to say, “Yeah, that’s one of ours.” But, at a certain point, those same people can develop negative attitudes toward the campaign. It could be boredom like we talked about earlier, but there could also be more to it. If you hear a few snipes here and there, it’s probably not worth worrying about. But when criticism starts to reach some kind of critical mass it’s worth exploring why, and may be time to start thinking about new work.
ARE YOU RUNNING OUT OF GREAT EXECUTIONS?
Every great campaign eventually runs out of executions. Some just run out more quickly than others. When you notice your once great, even award-winning work has down-shifted into work that’s just good, or even okay, it’s time to start working on what’s next.
DO YOU NEED SOMETHING TO KICKSTART THE COMPANY?
Are things a little too quiet? Did the company just get new management? Is it simply time to break some eggs and shake things up? A great campaign has the potential to galvanize everyone around a great idea and creative executions designed to make people take notice.
If you’re still unsure after all that, you can always do some quick testing to see if the creative is still relevant to your target audience. It’s not super cheap, but in most cases, a quick survey is cheaper and quicker than concepting and producing new creative.
On the other hand, if you’re convinced you need a new campaign, challenge your agency, or find a new agency that can help you get to the big idea and let the fireworks fly.
TINA TACKETT is the executive creative director at LOOMIS, the country’s leading challenger brand advertising agency and a top ad agency in Dallas. For more about challenger branding, read other posts from our blog BARK! The Voice of the Underdog