How to make an Ad Campaign go Viral

It’s 10.13 am Tuesday morning. I am in the boardroom with my team of creatives (ten crammed in like John West’s sardines) working on a pitch. We are searching for the big idea. Thoughts are bouncing back and forth like a Federer / Hewitt tennis match. Some hit the net. Some miss the court completely and land in England. With one we know we’ve hit the sweet spot in the racquet. Bang down the line. We know the punters will play it over and over, if we can just sell it to the client, which is a another whole article…..

This article is about TV creative. Great creative doesn’t come from some genius working in a corner on their own. Creative geniuses are another myth of agency land. And great creative rarely comes from free-lancers who are wheeled in for an hour or so by light-weight agencies who can’t afford real talent and kid you that their ‘marketing expertise’ is enough to manage your account. Great creative comes from the camaraderie amongst a team who know each other and have spent many hours debating a subject until they are bored to death by it. It’s often when you’re about ready to reach for the sedatives or stimulants, that someone says something brilliant. I saw a note recently on a wall that said ‘the best ideas aren’t in your head, they are in this room’. Very true.

Good TV ads require a kind of creative thought process that is hard to define except to say that it must remain loose. Have you ever eaten fairy floss? Tried to grab it?

Trying to mould or process creative thinking is as stupid as grabbing hold of your fairy floss. You may get hold of something, but it’s sticky shit and won’t wash off your clothes. You see companies who have lost their humanity doing this all the time. These companies (unless they have a strong marketing department with either a mad bastard in charge or someone very, very experienced) will invariably try to put their creative into a formula that can be replicated in other places around the world.

The marketers, at the direct instruction of the accountants, are told to put into logical terms the effective ads and then put this ‘brand road map’ out to the branches. You see this at Honda, Sony, Telstra, many big operations. There’s a numbness that creeps over their advertising. A dumbing down. It’s often not even conscious. But it takes whatever the idea was and fries the life out of it.  They play the jingle. They show the product. To quote a well-known Cadbury’s saying they “see it, sing it, super it and show it”. Sadly sideways, as if you eat a chocolate bar on an angle like that. As if a girl with perfect hair and perfect skin that’s a size 6 would ever, in her wildest nightmare, give up an afternoon of bullaemia to eat that chocolate bar, seriously? After the shoot, she’ll go home to her muso boy-friend and vomit up your chocolate bars then get in the shower and wash off the smell of them.

And people sooo recognise the formula ads. They laugh at the companies.

Almost as bad a situation for an agency as formula ads, is the assistant marketing manager coming down to the edit suite for the cutting process.

Most agencies regularly go through hell to squeeze decent creative through inexperienced marketing departments. Which is often what forces creative directors to go off and start their own agencies. They can’t stand bending over again because the Suit was too weak and he let the kid come along, swinging his dick.

The client sends down the marketing assistant to the edit suite, to make sure the ad fits the client’s formula. The assistant thinks it’s great fun making little adjustments that take hours. The agency/ production company go along with it because they are scared to offend the client. By the time it’s done, everyone’s seen the ad 150 times. What was a nice idea in the creative department six weeks ago is now nothing like it on the screen. (If you polish anything hard enough, you wear off the bumps and it just looks flat.) The public see the ad, yawn, and hit the remote after 4.5 seconds. Your company has paid $75,000 bucks for national prime time and got zip for it.

This article is about neither of those situations. If you work for a company where you’re only allowed to make ads on a strict formula, go read BRW for a few minutes. If you’re a marketing assistant who wants to find out how to edit movies, go do a short course at the Adult Education Centre.

This article is how to make ads that they and you don’t hate. Ads that they remember, that look brilliant on your CV and make your company lots of money. Nice ads.

Why do I care? I could make ads to a formula till the cows come home. Why should you/we do better creative? Because a good ad or two will make your career for years, if not decades. Because you’ll be able to say at the bar, or to your Mum, ‘Yeah, that’s one of my ads’.  More importantly I hope, I care because I think we ought to make ads the public want to see. We’re in their homes. A gatecrasher. They have a remote in their hands.

What’s Good Creative

One simple idea that has cache. The best ads are often the most simple – remember the Campaign Palace’s ad for red meat that showed two plates of food? A steak and a plate of green mush? The ad said ‘the same amount of iron’ then the spinach plate came closer to us and it was the size of a roasting pan. The point was made you’d need to eat kilos of spinach to equal the meat. So easy, so cheap to shoot. Such a good idea.

With an old brand, you need to make sure you’re saying something that moves the story forward. People get bored of the same old point laboured for the thousandth time. We like a multi-facted personality. Develop one.

With a new brand, it has to be something that hits right on the hot button for the brand’s reason to be. The temptation is to say lots of things. Every extra point you try to belt into the public’s head, diminishes the communication by that fraction. Three points, one third as effective. Six, one sixth.

Break the mould

Of your industry’s style. You have to do new, rather than a re-hash of old ideas. Just cause it’s different, is not a reason to say no. It’s the reason to say yes. The more unusual it is, wrong it is, the better it will work. I’ve seen clients (not ours) who want to know who else in their market has had success with this approach? This is the gutless, “We don’t want to make a mistake” approach which guarantees disaster. Why not just copy someone else? Oh, but I thought you wanted to stand out and get value for your media dollar?

Don’t complete the circle

Have the punters do it. The famous ‘bugger’ ad, from Saatchi & Saatchi Wellington, virtually silent except for one word, rips cows heads off, tears out stumps – says power without you needing to hear the word power. You draw that conclusion. And you laugh – resulting in you remembering it better.

Be funny

Funny always wins over anything else. Remember the saying, ‘If you laugh or squirm, it’s good for the firm.’ Do you email your mates serious ads?

The brand is the message

Make sure they remember the brand as well as the ad. There must be a real connection with the core promise/personality/image of the brand. There are millions of ads that have been remembered but the brand has been forgotten. A classic was TWBA Wybin’s ‘pom pom Granny cheerleader’ that you remember, but for which brand? This is the key complaint of boards about creative and the main mistake creatives make when producing ads. It’s the reason boards invariably choose dumber, boring ads that are at least on the brief for the brand.


Make sure the ad fits the vibe. Insist the directors keep the look the same – and that they reflect the core values of the brand. You must deliver on the dream.

Use of colour

Colour, a blinkingly simple tool, is often forgotten today. People are swayed by designers who are by definition followers of fashion. (A green-tinged matrix look is big at the moment.) Fashion means ‘of a fashion’ – people doing the same thing. If the designers tell you white and stark is in, do something like purple or gold.

Never use Celebrities unless you can insult them.

Hats off to the agency responsible for Heinz Big Red ‘Rich and Thick’ campaign. (CAN WE GET SHOTS OF IT?) Only time I’ve been able to justify use of celebrities. You only use a celebrity when you can’t think of any other way of giving the product/service credibility. (To quote the great David Ogilvy “the Celebrity is remembered, not the brand.”)

Length differences

Consider lengths of ads that are not 30 seconders. TV airtime is divided up in minutes, incredibly. You can buy, if you negotiate it, 10 or 15, 20, 30, 45, 60, hours or more. They are all viable. But you must look at the time issue with the eyes of the innocent first time watcher. A very short ad can only have the most basic of messages. A logo, a single, brutally simple promise. But perhaps more frequency? Longer ads can give you detail, depth.

Assuming you’re a Marketing Manager…

Briefing the agency

I’m happy if a client says ‘anyone with a mouth’ (attributed to Mojo, when asked which segment an ad was for by someone at Coke.) But the more precise you can be, the more relevant to viewers your ad can be, and thus the more effective.

I’m a big believer in having some ideas of your own that you discuss, but only as directionals. (Anyone that says ‘open brief’ is either rampantly stupid or setting you up for a fall.) But don’t go too far the other way either. A client coming in with their idea worked up in pencil, with very set expectations is wasting the agency’s time and ought to go to a TV production house who will shoot their idea, good or bad. I’m not saying you should do the creative. I’m saying it’s good for a client to have ideas, and when they are great, they ought to have as much cache as anybody elses who works in the agency team. There’s a threatened-snake mentality in agency land that if the client has a creative idea, we need to kill it straight away. This is the white-collar version of the Gangland saying ‘you’re on my turf, buddy’.

Back to briefing. Be precise about what you want from the campaign. About the budget. About the core brand values and any mandatories imposed by your Japanese or German bosses. Especially your Australian bosses, who one could argue might know more about the market, eh mate? About timings, about whether you want to win awards, run this for 5 years, or whether it is a quick and dirty one to get sales up in February. Set a definite date in 2-3 weeks to show you the concepts. Give them as much info as they ask for, willingly. Then leave them alone while they meet, stress and huddle about it.

Quality of presentation

An agency will show a brilliant idea to a brilliant client scribbled on a table napkin, or told as a story over a glass of wine. (The Campaign Palace became well-known for presenting ideas as rough sketches with one page as notes – when the guys who ran it were gods. Tom Derry, Lionel Hunt etc.) Because that’s all an intelligent person will need to see the idea. For a dummy, or people they assume to be ‘visual cripples’, they’ll get a storyboard drawn up, illustrated in pretty colours, even shoot a full-blown ad with actors etc., because they don’t have faith in the dummy’s ability to see the concept, and/or there is no real idea. They figure if it looks nice, they may be able to sell it more easily. And don’t shit well shot sell?

Approving the agencies ideas

More people, more shots, more locations, more famous the song, more toys, more effects, equals more money. Approve on the basis that you personally like the idea. You, after all, will have to justify it to everyone in the company and live with it on your CV.

At the shoot

Should you be at the shoot? It’s similar to waiting for your kids to be born. Hours of tedium and inane conversation, for the occasional bit of pure magic? Ask someone who looks important, exactly when you are allowed to speak. Yours is not a role that can tell others anything. That’s your agency’s Creative Director’s job. You are only allowed to watch, and if you’re lucky, you can speak with the agency Suit.

At the edit suite

When to shut up in the edit suite is most of the time, except to crack sexist jokes. However, this is a time to occasionally lay down the law. Logos, phone numbers, web sites and other essentials will often be ignored by a director eager to win a Cannes Lion, but unaware of the practicalities of selling, like giving the punter the means to buy.

Pre-testing vs. Post testing vs. no testing

Always test. But use discretion when viewing the results. You must read between the lines. You must draw conclusions, not just take their word for things. And if you can test with numbers, say by running interviews in shopping centres and showing hundreds of people, even better.

Let them be viral

How about running this under your ads. “Ie. To download this ad go to….www….” …. will they?

Finally, what not to do in briefing/approving/editing/anything

Don’t think ‘is this what we want/need to say to our audience?’.

Think ‘what is it we would want to hear from our company if we didn’t give a fuck?’ Not your brief. Not your slogan. How you’d like to be left by your company if you’d never heard of them before? That should be your agency brief. What they come up with from that, might give your career a boost.

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