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A Design ideal

Beans: eaten by people since 7000 BC, symbolised by the Egyptians, developed by America's Henry Heinz, and a British institution since the 1950s. We got beans right... 

It was declared once that the British don't seek to be happy, they wish merely to be right. Sounds like a statement about which one could get uppity; do we lie down and get a fat, if stiff, upper lip from this, or rise up against it with principled, eloquently constructed standpoints that mush the sour fruits of arrant scrutiny; thus proving the speaker indubitably wrong and ourselves, quite rightly, right? It's not too tricky a conundrum for such an ardent bunch of islanders.

The man who tarred us with this brush was pithy and eccentric. A homosexual rights campaigner who lived to be 90 years ripe, flamboyant Quentin Crisp was also a Brit and while his allegation scrapes so painfully near to the truth as to skin our righteous knuckles, the irony of his position of course is that the British are rarely happier than when in full flow snuffing out someone else's preposterous opinions.

We love explaining, albeit courteously, how right we really are about things that come up for argument, and most subjects are acceptable. Brits are not naturally truculent or arrogant, just keen to have well-merited correctness acknowledged, and this is especially true of topics that mix emotion (where it's tricky to say what's right and wrong) with business (where rightness is all)

One such sticky wicket is the portrayal of healthcare benefits imbued by medicines. Healthcare promotion efforts in Britain are behind many of the most successful drug advertising campaigns in the world.

Admire our bulging portfolios, scan our cluttered shelves adorned with pharmaceutical marketing awards, observe how our ads gain international recognition around Europe and in America. Britain is to drug advertising what Venice was to Claude Monet: a truly creative scene from whence to fashion eye-catching, custom-made compositions, a place stalked by like-minded artists offering keen encouragement and bloody rivalry.


Everyone is entitled...
In advertising, however, 'rightness' is not simple to achieve on account of the soft-centred subjectivity that frees our minds from extraneous, intrusive contemporary opinion; or put simply, Marmite. You might think ads for antidepressants should be all gloomy and include a light saviour element, akin to the role of the burning fire in William Golding's Lord of the Flies.

I think antidepressant ads should feature graphic images that convey the despair people feel in a way that's more striking, akin to Piggy having the conch ripped from his hands, rather than be such a literal depiction of the darkness/light-depression/drug metaphor. Doctors like the dark/light thing though, so does that mean that such an ad is right?

What makes it right? When do you know it's finished? At what point, precisely, did Il Signor da Vinci decide sicuro that Madame Lisa warranted no more brush strokes? Did he ever stop in the middle of a day's painting at the mercy of a sudden angst pang that he should have done a stunning still of a flowery bowl, rather than follow the money and tap wealthy Florentine businessman Francesco del Giocondo for a commission to paint the wife? We don't know.

According to Marcel Duchamp, La Gioconda wasn't finished, or `right', until 450 years later, after he'd pencilled on a twiddly moustache and goatee beard. A madcap addition; but then here's a man who sought to inhabit Dali's world where even the clocks look like they could benefit from a dose of Viagra.

It could be argued that advertising is probably `right' when it works. But this is not a proper answer to our question, as advertising agencies need to know that an ad is right before they find out if it works for real, on live healthcare professionals. their own opinions
There must be certain clues and cues, some palpable yet some imperceptible, that collude to convince you that you're right about an approach, an idea, a whole campaign even; it's more than basic instinct. To get a big job in marketing or advertising, there's something about your mind that means fresh ideas, concepts and unexpected angles can be created, assessed and organised in the time it takes for some people to finish sneezing.

You know when you're on to something good, but how? When do you start turning water into gravy?

Believe me, you know when it's right, offers Orrin Pollard, creative director at DDB Health. However, there are so many ways to be `right'. That's what makes our industry so exciting.

He asks: What does `right' mean? Does it mean fulfilling the brief, communicating the ultimate benefit of the brand in a way that makes it absolutely clear to the audience? If this is the case, then as long as you tick all of the boxes there's a good chance that the communication will be right from the very first idea that is scribbled on the back of a beer coaster.

For me, an ad is right when it pushes the boundaries; when it resonates on both sides of the fence, agency and client; when it communicates the benefits of the product or brand in ways that haven't been done before but is highly appropriate and easy to digest. Most importantly, a way that captures and makes memorable the very essence and personality of the brand - and sells, sells, sells.

Another creative director, Reg Manser at Life Healthcare, is emphatic that experience will help you find rightness in your healthcare ads. It is relatively easy to come up with lots of different ideas, but judging which one is best is a skill that demands experience. What agencies consider to be right does not always coincide with the views of the clients, or the medical audience. So the challenge for ad agencies and marketers is to temper their idea of what is right with their customers' expectations.

Rather than an over-polished ornament, he believes that a truly `right' ad is one that has been left, in a manner, unfinished. There is a factor shared by the best British ads and that is `wit' in the broadest sense - not necessarily humour or wordplay, but intellectual engagement with the customer. The temptation of every brand manager is to fill their ad with content to tell their customers everything about the product. Yet the best ads are not closed, finished communications, but incomplete; they have a spark gap, like an electrical circuit, which is only completed by the active participation of the reader. The payback for the reader is `rewarded compensation' - the Eureka moment when they solve the puzzle.


He adds further that the discipline agencies must apply is knowing when to stop, and having the nerve to leave things out. In that sense, an ad is only right when it's unfinished - if it's finished, it probably isn't right.

It's probably a truism to say that in advertising it's difficult to reach unified agreement over the definition of creativity, a term which itself could be linked with the `rightness' of an advert.

When top creators come together, for example to judge awards entries, they usually achieve a high degree of consensus over what is the best (or most right) work. However, the finer points can and will come up for debate.

Understanding why some advertisements are more creative (or right) than others is vital, but a fundamental and frustrating limitation is that perceptions of creativity differ depending on who you ask - even copywriters and art directors differ in their perceptions of creativity, notes Jon Watson, executive creative director at Sudler & Hennessey.

If creativity, or 'rightness', is both an original and appropriate solution to a problem, then for high agreement on what is creative, judges have to agree on what is original and appropriate. Hopefully you have condensed reams of product information and honed countless customer interviews into a crystal clear, diamond-edged gem of insight, and if this one thought is captured in a piece of clear communication, how can it be wrong?

He adds, however, that: While studies have shown that people with at least some basic knowledge or experience agree on what is original, groups agree less on what is appropriate. So where does that leave us? Do you apply purely empiric measures to decide if an ad is right, or is there some lobe, a mysterious third eye, that just lets you know that it's right? Personally, I think it's a myth; like the multiple orgasm. Some of my 'best' ads never made the press. How wrong is that?

Treading a truly creative path
It is then, as Watson points out, easier said than done. The ideas can be simple, but to come up with an ad that, creatively, is so right that it is accepted as such universally may mean cutting a fine line between the original idea in your mind's eye and that slightly different rendition that appears in other people's heads. The one that's been breathed on subjectively; like looking at a familar face through frosted glass, it looks very similar but not necessarily quite right.

Justin McCarthy, managing director of MJL Advertising, comments on the trials in crafting great adverts for medicines: It doesn't matter whether you are talking about aspirin or monoclonal antibodies, all drugs are supposed to do the same thing; they relieve suffering, have few side effects and are good value for money bearing in mind what they do. This means that many of the creative paths have already been trodden and, in seeking new ones, it is often difficult to get the balance right between the emotional and rational aspects of the proposition.


A 'right' ad in McCarthy's camp generates a single-minded response, thereby showing an understanding of the target audience and their needs. Ideally, it will utilise a unique approach and will have an idea that is capable of campaigning across the necessary range of media. It certainly will not just be a picture with a copy line that says what the picture is already saying.

DDB Health's Pollard concurs that originality is rare in a Naughties market that has become as competitive as a gladiatorial bout at the Colosseum. As far as we at DDB are concerned, `right' is an original idea or concept that sells. It's not easy, but at the same time taking a different approach is not rocket science. It's an art, which for some comes naturally.

The challenge of striving for this unimpeachable advert is compounded further when international differences are taken into consideration.

There are a number of different aspects in this regard, but one element in advertising that is especially prone to misinterpretation between different countries and cultures is the use of animal imagery and metaphor.

Bring to mind, if you will, a colourful close-up of a well-suckered pink and white octopus, taken as the creature streams forth penetrating the dark blue ocean gracefully, legs tucked together behind with innate aquadynamic lan.

Not a common sight for the British and hence some people will exclaim wow look at that, amazing! Some will, in true Rachel-out-of-Friends mimicry, perform an instinctive eeugh. In other places people may admire the simplicty of the multi-legged operation - eight independent affiliates linked to one central control hub which even Darwin would rubberstamp as a design, while a few people in the world will see it and think lunch.

Only in Britain, for example, can you be as 'poor as a church mouse', or as 'sick as a parrot', as Phil Cox, creative director at Lane, Earl & Cox Advertising, notes in a nutshell: Only a complete ass would fail to realise that anthropomorphism and the symbol of any animal is strongly culturally mediated.

He adds: Nationalities think about their health and their illnesses in a different way. We cannot assume that everyone will respond to a brand message in the same way - even if it has been translated correctly. But of course international advertising campaigns can work. It's our job to make them work. It's just that we have to take a bit more care. Check out and re-interpret the visual, especially if it features an animal; it's a jungle out there.

Right for you
When Katie Melua went to Beijing last year, she managed to count nine million bicycles during her stay, and throughout her travels has succeeded in totting up that there are six billion people in the world.

Even given this potential for so many different opinions to exist, it seems that when it comes to marketing drugs it is quite possible to be `right', in the creative sense. Maybe not for everyone, but certainly for specific groups over periods of time.

What `right' means to individual creative marketers is up for debate - it is here in Britain at any rate - but at least we've tried to poke at the possible existence of a sixth sense that, all said and done, has a direct line to the part of your brain that just knows when an ad will be spot on.

Whether that's experience talking or a synaptic propensity to deal with this kind of information, surely what it shows is that if you think you're right, then, at the very least, you might well be.

For juniors still learning their trade, bear in mind the words of a woman who was brave enough to believe in her creation and, you might argue, ultimately make it right. If you think you're too small to make an impact, try going to bed with a mosquito in the room.

The Author
James Leeming is a freelance pharmaceutical and healthcare journalist

2nd September 2008


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