How do you know if an advert is good?

Photo credit: El Toro, Flickr —

One of the strangest, but most satisfying, parts of teaching on a Creative Advertising degree is when we have to decide whether or not the ads that have been produced are any good.

Even the phrase ‘any good’ helps to underline the peculiarity, and intangibility, of what it is we’re trying to assess. It’s a little like a food critic commenting on the quality of an omelette with the eggs still in the shell — perhaps even still in the chicken bum.

Of course, because it is a proper school and all that, we have a set of criteria against which we mark — the thoroughness of research, the resonance of the human truth, the imagination and persistence of the idea exploration and, of course, the communication and craft which pulls it all together.

But even with such a framework, you often find yourself able to give a confident assessment of the thought and process, but are still not much wiser in terms of the important question — is this a good ad?

Now, if Claude C Hopkins were to join us in the marking dungeon, he would ask us to take a more pragmatic view of what’s before us. In advertising, an exact science according to Claude “every course is chartered. The compass of accurate knowledge directs the shortest, safest, cheapest course to any destination”.

And yet, even if we ignore the fact that student work has yet to be put through the wringer of data analysis and all those performative metrics, I’m still not sure there would be any sort of map or chart to guide us to the truth about an advert’s creativequality.

Claude is, of course, right in a very big way — advertising that doesn’t work is bad advertising. But there is still an allowance between what may be a good ad and what may be an effective one. An effective advert may by dull, unoriginal and ultimately forgettable — but it may work spectacularly well. Equally, an advert may be extraordinarily creative and enthralling, and its commercial impact may not register the first flicker on the finance director’s seismograph.

If you ask me what sort of adverts I should be teaching our students to make — effective or creative — I would of course say both. But, however unfashionable it may be, I’d argue that it is just as valuable for a piece of creative advertising to be affectingin a way that can’t be calculated, as it is to be effective in a way that can.

So, while I am looking for truth and understanding and purpose in our students’ work (and you would score desperately badly for any idea that speaks to award committees more than it does to people) these are the three, terminally unscientific, qualities I want to see in a great ad.

Photo credit: Tee Cee, Flickr —

If you hold a poor opinion of advertising it’s probably because you’ve seen a lot of it. And that’s rather likely, given that so much of it can be found in the times and places we are most unwelcoming of it.

It’s what Tim Wu, in the excellent The Attention Merchants calls “the grand bargain”– a whole industry of attention seekers who have “asked and gained more of our waking moments, albeit always, in exchange for new conveniences and diversions”.

The mass — and uniformity — of the ad landscape does open up a significant opportunity for advertising creatives — good ideas will shine more brightly it they’re surrounded by bad ones.

And, in this case at least, to be good is to be different, and to be different is to be bold. We are, at times, an industry in thrall with our own past, which can lead to some heavily trodden creative paths.

The ads I admire — and mark highly — are those that gamble. They take a leap of imagination and they welcome the plummet (if it should come) as a natural hazard of audacity.

You could call it boldness, or courage, or madness, or not-giving-a-fuckery. But really, it shows a belief that an advert should always better and bolder than all the ones that have gone before.

2. Diversion

The advertising business became fixated on attention round about the same time they began to lose it. And while it’s a business that ceases to exists if everyone agreed to never look at it, attention should never be the only goal for an advertising creative.

People who shout ‘bomb’ in an airport win attention. The guy next to you on the train with a fresh kebab, an enthusiasm for industrial techno and no headphones has successfully earned your attention.

The other side to that particular coin is entertainment. It’s something we don’t particularly associate with adverts — or at least, when we do, it’s because they have interrupted the entertainment we were enjoying.

But consider this observation from a study into the psychology of entertainment by Peter Vorderer, Francis Steen and Elaine Chan:

“Someone who is seeking entertainment usually does so for its own sake, that is, in order to experience something positive, such as enjoyment, suspense, amusement, serenity, and so on”.

Those positive sentiments, all of them, are things I have felt about the best ads I have seen. Admittedly, this is the sort of industry-eyed view that makes advertising seem so detached from the people it’s supposed to be persuading.

But the truth remains that people enjoy being entertained. They seek it out. They give their time to it. Most importantly, they share the things they find most entertaining.

Word of mouth is a holy grail for brands and agencies. It is also as difficult to quantify and harness as it is to properly define the creative merits of an advert. Consider this from Jonah Berger’sbook Contagious:

“Harnessing the power of word of mouth, online or offline, requires understanding why people talk and why some things get talked about and shared more than others. The psychology of sharing, the science of social transmission.”

Now, creating an advert with the intention of ‘sending it viral’ is an excellent way to ensure your advert is universally unseen and unadmired.

But creating something that is entertaining and amusing and moving in some truly human way, is going to be the kind of work that people willwantto share — whether it’s selling them something or not.

Consider the Kobe Bryant ‘Mamba Forever’ ad by Nike. Consider the BBC Creative Dracula billboard. Or the Ikea newspaper pregnancy test. Or even, how everyone in the playground would recreate the Peter Kay ‘Have it’ ad for John Smith from 2002.

Advertising, when done with wit, and storytelling, and surprise, and emotion, can be as entertaining (perhaps more entertaining) than the things we consider entertainment.

And the ads that earn the best marks, are the ones I instantly want to show to someone else.

3. Originality

After 12 years of copywriting the only piece of advice I have to give (seriously, there’s just one) is this: write the ad that no one is writing.

I mentioned earlier that, as an industry, we have a slightly dysfunctional relationship with our own past. And, in my experience, nothing can undermine a young creative’s view of their own potential more swiftly than a 60-second talk with the ‘golden age’ brigade.

Of course, we have a responsibility to introduce young creatives to the shoulders on whom we all stand and scribble. But there is a big difference between saying ‘Look at Ogilvy, Hegarty, Mary Wells et al. Look what they did’and ‘Look at them and do exactly what they did.

What is often lost in the discourse around advertising is that it is first and foremost a pioneering life. There is no handbook, there is no formula and there is no helpline. Advertising is getting lost on purpose and coming back with either a great idea or missing a foot.

I left originality until last because it sort of swallows up the first two. Original ideas are, by their very nature, an act of boldness. Timid creatives only ever like to tread in the footprints.

And original ideas are also far more often the ones we find diverting. We are, as a species, unfailingly distracted by the new.

So, when I’m looking through a student portfolio, I’m always looking for anything I’ve never ever seen before.

Or, maybe just do something else…

The strangely reassuring thing about giving advice on creative advertising is that a thousand other people will tell you a thousand other things.

In the introduction to his book Reality in Advertising, Rosser Reeves says:

“Before the ink is dry, some man will sit down and write a campaign that ignores every word contained here. What is more, this campaign will work”.

And that’s the only inarguable truth about what we do. There are no truths. There are no certainties. And there are millions of other factors way beyond our control that make people like, or love, or despise, or ignore your advert.

Which is why, and don’t tell the university people, the marks our students get for their work aren’t the most important thing.

What is important is that their mark is a reflection of how somebody else has responded to their work. How it made them feel, what it made them think of and what it made them want to do. In other words, the only real measure of an ad is that most immeasurable of all beings: people.

And that, whether or not you sell more fizzy drinks, or get a better degree, or land a sweeter job, or bag a shinier award, is how to you tell if an ad is good or not.

Andrew Boulton, April 2020


Senior Lecturer in Creative Advertising at the University of Lincoln & Copywriter