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Pragmatic Creativity: A Case for Working Backward

By July 13, 2017 No Comments

The format evolution forgot

The media industry has undergone an incredible amount of evolution. The infusion of data and technology has created space for unprecedented creativity and invention in the experiences we design for people. But when it comes to selling the ideas at the heart of those evolutionary campaigns, it’s striking that very little has actually changed.

When agencies set out to develop their creative platform, the 30 second TV spot persists as the standard currency for selling an advertising idea. The script and storyboard are presented, debated, and ultimately shaped into the cornerstone that guides the development of all of the other brand assets.

But how often do we actually get 30 seconds of a viewer’s undivided attention? Realistically, the majority of people we reach are far more likely to catch a glimpse of a banner ad on their phone, scroll past a tweet, or skip after the first five seconds of a pre-roll video.

This ideal is not reality
We still focus our ideas on what we’re going to create when we have 30 seconds (or more) of uninterrupted viewing time. With that assumption in place, other executions fall out as translations, or tools that can change a person’s path to push them closer to the purest version of the idea.

Once an idea leaves the conference room, it’s scrapping for every instant of human attention it can possibly earn. Increasingly, :30 video is swimming upstream. In mobile, :30 spots declined to only 36 percent of video ad impressions by mid-2016. In digital video as a whole, nearly two thirds of :15/:30 pre-roll ads are skipped, according to eMarketer. People are messy and unpredictable; they don’t engage in the ways advertisers prefer.

For one of our clients, we’ve tried to call attention to this by creating animated GIFs that loop only the parts of the video that the average consumer actually sees when our spots run in pre-roll. The loops are never more than a few seconds long, and they almost always omit key parts of the story. In many cases, the viewer never actually gets to the point where they can see the brand name and logo.

It’s not surprising, but it illuminates a striking dissonance.

Shifting our approach
Why should we stick to an approach that ultimately yields watered-down experiences for most of the people who come into contact with an idea?

Beyond familiarity and comfort, there’s really not a good reason. More than ever, people are in charge of their own experiences; the best thing we can do is be honest about what level of buy-in we’re going to get from people and create something that works along their desire lines, rather than demanding that people bend their behaviors to our will.

Rather than sticking to the way it’s always been done, shouldn’t we prioritize the channels that have the best track record for engagement, play the most pivotal role in the consumer journey, or can offer the greatest ROI?

A case for working backward
What if we approached creativity with more pragmatism, starting from where we already know we’re going to end? As David Bryne wrote in “How Music Works”, the best art follows the format in which it’s most likely to be consumed.

We already know that the toughest challenges for expressing an idea are the times when we have the most abundant inventory and the least abundant raw material. The smallest, the shortest, the most easily avoided placements.

If we know those are going to be our toughest challenges, why shouldn’t we tackle those spaces first? What if we forced ourselves to generate ideas that could work in the least comfortable space we could imagine, then worked up from there?

And I mean this quite literally. Brief a creative team with the specific expectation that the idea will be expressed as a 325×50 mobile banner. Or a 15-second podcast pre-roll read. Or a non-ad format entirely.

When ideas come from these less glamorous spaces, the results can be amazing. Airbnb’s Night At program started as a simple operations idea: Create a pop-up listing to drive registrations in the UK. But with an infusion of culture and a support plan optimized to generate content and PR, it’s grown into a massive global marketing platform.

It’ll take a while and it might get messy, but working backward can get you to something awesome, and something that can scale up. These constraints not only force more creative solutions, they lend a practicality to the final output that helps to generate more scale behind the purest, most compelling versions of an idea.

Every creative mind loves a tight brief, right?

Gerard Martin, Director, Experience Design at Starcom USA


A ten-year veteran at Starcom, Gerard works across brands including Airbnb, Beam Suntory, and Wingstop to infuse creativity and ingenuity into brand experiences, using data and technology to bring ideas to life. He’s collaborated on Airbnb innovative campaigns that have racked up awards at the Effies, Festival of Media, and Creative Media Awards. Gerard has been at Starcom for his whole career, with experience across a variety of roles, including a stint crafting pitch-winning ideas for Starcom’s business development team. Gerard loves living with his family in Chicago, but still owns an overwhelming number of t-shirts repping his home town of Detroit. He’s cool with it.