Unbounded Creativity part I- The Problem

When developing marketing collateral of any kind, too frequently marketers, designers and others involved in the process too often think more about developing a piece that is “creative” or “cool” rather than focusing on what is most likely to be successful. Don’t get me wrong, creativity is vital to good marketing. I appreciate good creativity as much as anyone. Each year when the advertising awards are presented by the various publications and/or associations, I eat them up with the rest of my colleagues.

However, it is the unbounded or unrestrained portion of the creativity that becomes a problem. This is where marketing is viewed as some sort of mystical process that magically generates business. You get a few really creative people on your team, leave them to their own devices, and “bam” sales come in the door, people give you money, and ideas are espoused. It is also where creatives get together and come up with a bunch of ideas that they think will work, without knowing if they really will. This results in nothing more than a lot of guesswork. It also results in a lot of money being spent to figure out what works and what doesn’t. I’ve had clients who have spent millions of dollars marketing themselves and have no idea if that investment paid any return.

Each year, advertising and graphic design publications and associations give out their awards for the best or most creative advertising, including print, online, video and radio/audio. Many of these are very creative, engaging and downright cool. However, I submit that if we were to give awards to those advertising and marketing tactics that proved to be the most successful, we would have a very different set of award winners.

For example, in 2004, Quiznos Subs introduced their now infamous spongmonkey commercials. You remember those—they had the quasi-mutilated rats singing incomprehensibly about Quiznos Subs. Believe it or not, the advertising community was talking about how brilliant the campaign was because it generated so much buzz.  In a 2004 article, the well-respected, online news magazine Slate said, “the spongmonkeys are delightful. They’ve got a certain winning charm—you can feel it in the way they sing “pepper baaarrrr!” And come on, the pirate hat? Kudos.[1]”

Unbounded Creativity: Quizno's Spongemonkeys

Unbounded Creativity at its Finest

A 2004 article in AdvertisingAge was more than confident that the spongemonkeys would work. The article said:

…They’re going to work. That is correct: going to work. In fact, as we shall attempt forthwith to prove, they constitute good advertising… First, the images and, uh, music, do jump out at you. Maybe like a skeleton in a Halloween Spook House, but jump they undeniably do. From the first frame, these ads break through the clutter as few ads ever have. Finally, this stuff is so weird, unexpected and reckless that it’s just plain cool. At least, it will be deemed as cool by the 14- to 24-year-old boys and men who represent 116% of Quiznos audience.

Will it implant disturbing associations about, say, mouse droppings in a food establishment? Maybe. Some percentage of the audience may be too grossed out to even deal with the more disgusting extensions of the campaign’s internal logic. Bad enough we have to think about mad-cow disease without worrying about hantavirus, too.

But we don’t believe many will take this exercise in absurdity so literally. We believe, on the contrary, that it will make the target talk and think about Quiznos.[2]

There is no question that that campaign generated loads of buzz. The fact that we’re discuss it five years later is proof enough of that. However, according to an article plublished in the New York Times in December of 2004, Quiznos had dropped its advertising agency who had created the campaign for so-called “creative differences.” The article said that “While the quirky campaign appealed to younger consumers, some older customers and Quiznos franchisees found it strange. It was replaced by more prosaic product-focused ads.” I’m guessing that the $40 million they paid that agency didn’t help them that much. Creative the campaign surely was, successful it was not. At the end of the day, it was a $40 million-lesson on how to get people to not want to buy your food.

Quizno’s still has yet to figure it out. Since they fired that agency in 2004, they have gone through at least two other advertising agencies and went for close to two years without an agency of record. Their vice president of marketing was arrested for soliciting sex from a minor and they introduced us to the very forgettable Baby Bob and the downright gross man and wolf ads. Earlier this year they a campaign pitching $4 subs that was full of sexual innuendo.

What Quiznos is not doing is succeeding. In 2007, Quiznos opened and closed exactly 439 stores for a net growth of zero. At then end of 2008, store closings were outnumbering openings three to one[3].  The company is also riddled with lawsuits by franchisees. Of course, there are other operational issues that affect the store closings, but their marketing tactics, particularly their advertising, are not happening. However, if you’re a franchisee who is paying three to four percent of gross revenue to national advertising and this is what you get while many are losing money hand over fist, you’d probably be filing a lawsuit as well.

If unbounded creativity is the problem, what is the solution? Continue reading part II, the solution.