How Bad Ideas Get Produced and Published

The Real Reason That Awful Ideas Make It To The Public

One of the questions I get asked most as a professional advertiser is “who did that awful ad…it sucks?”

The common misconception is that the creative people in advertising agencies are all having a laugh, playing pool, drinking beer until 3am, and getting paid tons of money to act like children. Movies and TV shows play a big part in that misnomer.

The fact of the matter is, most advertising and design agencies are filled with very talented, hard-working individuals who churn out inspiring ideas day in, day out, for quite modest salaries.

So, if the advertising agencies around the US, and the world, are filled to the brim with great talent, why are so many ads so awful?

The answer is simple; advertising creatives don’t have any real power.

The copywriters, designers, art directors, creative directors, production artists, and countless other professionals employed to create ads are not the final decision makers. They can make suggestions; strong suggestions. They can advise. They can talk until they are blue in the face.

However, at the end of the day, and other such clichés, the people responsible for the mediocre (if we’re lucky) ads that we all see every day are the clients.

Now, these clients can take many forms. They can be the executives who reside in the marketing departments of big corporations. They can be the “suits” that give orders to the creative departments of in-house agencies. They can be the sole owner of a local law firm that employs a radio station to write a jingle.

But regardless of who they are, and where they reside, they all have one thing in common.

They don’t think creatively.

Everyone in the creative department of every advertising, design and in-house agency knows this all too well. These people are trained in business schools, and have a set of skills that are at direct odds with creative thinking.

They are more concerned with climbing the corporate ladder than producing a stellar piece of creative work. They are more interested in a measurable ROI than the true impact of a great creative campaign. They care about numbers, and expense reports, and business trips that take them around the world. And they have been trained to view the creative department as a bunch of petulant children that only want to produce work that wins awards.

Now to be fair, sometimes that’s true. Sometimes agencies, and creatives, do want to win awards more than they want to sell a product or service. Those are the bad apples. And to be equally fair, there are clients that understand what great creative ideas can do for a brand. They are rare indeed.

But for the most part, great creative ideas scare clients. Most don’t want to be the ones who give the green light to an idea that could fall flat on its face, because that could jeopardize their career. A campaign that does OK is better than a campaign that fails miserably, and gets complaints.

Clients feel the need to comment. On everything.

If they don’t have some part in the process, they feel like they aren’t doing their jobs. They cannot simply say, “that’s great…do it.” What value are they seen to be adding?

So, they will comment for the sake of commenting.

Clients are also incredibly subjective. They don’t view ideas through the filter of the consumer, they view it through the lens of “Do I like this? Would my fiancé like this? Would my bestie from high school like this? Will my boss like this? Oh lord, will my boss like this?”

When you add it all up, what you get is a process systematically designed to reject and destroy the great ideas, and promote the vanilla ones that most people won’t object to. They also won’t respond to them either, because they’re not very good.

So, if you’re an in agency, and the client ever asks you “why they aren’t doing great work like Nike?” reply with a one word answer.