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A New Definition of Creative

Mic Feld, Founder and CEO of Feld Advertising, shares his perspective on what the word creative has come to mean.

I remember when the word “creative” was an adjective. Of course today it’s also a noun. I believe this semantic drift is a pretty recent development. David Ogilvy used “creative” as an adjective. Back in his day, creatives were called copywriters and art directors and they made advertising. Spell check hasn’t quite made the adjustment yet. When it locates a lone “creative” not paired with a noun in a Word or Google doc, it will suggest using “creativity” instead.

I suggest it’s time to push the meaning of creative even further. “Creative” in our industry today should not only refer to imaginative ideas and the makers behind them. As clients increasingly demand fully measurable results in advertising, “creative” also can describe the fine art of creating innovative client success stories. As Sir Martin Sorrell once famously observed: “Data enriches creativity.” I would like to propose that being creative nowadays also refers to scientific, ingenious and winning business decisions.

Dalí Atomicus

Here’s where I’m coming from. After graduating from college, I started working as the advertising director at my father’s chain of small-town discount clothing stores. The day I started, Dad said “Just remember, if the boots don’t sell, the advertising didn’t work.” Simple and eternally useful. We did everything in house, from circulars to silk screen banners, radio production to printing, and weekly creative for forty newspapers. The advantages of having everything under one roof were remarkable. Lower cost, quicker turnaround and total coordination on message. I quickly learned, however, that I loved advertising much more than the family business. So I went to New York City, resume in hand, and got hired by Ogilvy in 1981.

Ogilvy was masterful in teaching their global workforce the Ogilvy way. There was a lot of weight put on consistent training and uniformity. And at the heart of the training were David Ogilvy’s philosophies on advertising, the first being advertising’s role was to sell clients’ products and services. Another pillar was “Only first-class business, and that in a first-class way.” His invaluable insights on every facet of the business were captured in short films called Magic Lanterns that were shown only to staff and were highly valued and protected. It’s noteworthy that he started his career selling stoves door-to-door. That led to his strong belief in direct response advertising as well as brand. I met him one night when I was working late. He was in town from London for a board meeting. He walked into my office wearing his trademark tweed suit and we talked for fifteen minutes. He was immensely impressive.

Later, at FCB Direct in San Francisco, I learned the power of direct marketing through direct mail, seeing how tracking and measuring led to constant testing and refinements, which led to increased ROI, and how small changes make enormous differences in response. We produced only mail when I took it over in 1993, but added direct-response TV in my fourth year. A television campaign for a golf club manufacturer which held the world record for distance was outstanding and successful — but caused an uproar in the general side of the agency: How dare we at the direct mail division do TV!

The direct mail and DRTV experience led to my being recruited for CMO of the largest subprime lender in the country. They spent $100 million a year on mail and DRTV. That size budget allowed us to robustly test anything and everything in-market on TV — frequency, rotation, length, creative, network, local, syndication, broadcast, dayparts, offers, spokespeople, testimonials — and the takeaways were clear and actionable. Among them, frequency is number one in DRTV. Also, the aggregate response from a bunch of targeted messages that spoke with more relevance to individual tranches of consumers always outperformed a one-size-fits-all creative approach. TV was the rising tide that really lifted all boats.

We learned that audiences were very literal — what you asked for, you got. By not targeting homeowners in the first few words, one-third of the calls were from renters and therefore wasted. We tested dozens of factors. We found that emotion, usually and inexplicably reserved for brand advertising, increased response. When combined in rotation with rationale messaging, response increased even more. But the biggest takeaway was that by testing multiple messages simultaneously on air and in-market, the winners and losers could be quickly identified, and when media dollars were redirected to the winning spots, the results shot up fast. This greatly accelerated time to success. Bringing the testing methodology of direct mail to TV was not only rocket science, it was an art.

That was then. This is now. Digital disruption has made the marketplace even more complex, and an advertiser’s toolbox has grown into a multi-drawer rolling shop chest filled with the likes of MRISimmons, eMarketer, Commspoint, Tableau, Comperemedia, in addition to old standbys Nielsen and Kantar. It takes the skill of a craftsman, indeed an artist, to manipulate these implements, to build predictive models that identify prospect segments based on demographic, psychographic and behavioral insights, to test and retest responses, reduce risks, lower costs and drive more results per ad dollar spent. Yes, it’s about time we acknowledge the fine art of enriching creativity with data and business ingenuity. It’s about time we call it for what it is: Creative.

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