A Battle-Tested Process for Making Truly Great Ads
March 9, 2017
Creating great ads is like making a good action film.
In filming, you start with script writers. That script then needs to be polished and then sent to producers. Once it gets proper funding you can start looking for directors. Then you go get the right crew and set of actors and visual effects team to make it certifiably amazing.
If you execute that process right, you’ll end up making a instant classic like Warrior or John Wick. If you mess around with that process, then you’ll make a terrible movie like GI Joe.
In advertising, you start with a creative brief. That brief is sent to your creative team (copywriters and art directors). They approve their work with their account managers and the AM’s activate the campaigns.
Whether you’re talking about movies or advertising, what divides the strokes of genius from the flops is the process that is used to create your ad content.
Now, every advertising campaign is different, but the key to great advertising is your process. Better process = better content. So, here are the most helpful tips and tricks that I’ve seen used in making killer ad campaigns.
1) Make Time for Planning
It’s easy to see the quality difference between the original Lord of the Rings trilogy and the Hobbit trilogy. Peter Jackson had years of pre-production on LOTR, but only months for the Hobbit. Jackson was run ragged as a result.
I’ve worked for companies that function in a similar way to the Hobbit. They were always creating their campaigns the same day they wanted to run them. The boss would walk into the room and say to me, “I need a Facebook post to advertise this event…now.”
Unfortunately, in my haste to get an ad out, it was often difficult to create Facebook ads that matched the tone, style, and strategy of my previous ads. There was no bigger vision. I had no clear marketing goals aside from just getting that one ad out.
Rather than trying to make an ad that helps contribute to a campaign as a whole, my ads became stand-alone ads. If you have too many stand-alone ads, they don’t relate to each other and you’ve lost a huge opportunity to reinforce your branding.
One of the best things you can do when you are planning things ahead of time is to break things into phases. There are generally four phases that you can break your time frames into.
- Message Creation – this includes writing copy, art direction, filming commercials, taking photos for your instagram. You need to give yourself ample time to make everything and look at it as a whole. This is the best way to spot if anything isn’t in line with the other ads. If something is off, work on it. We’ll go more into this later.
- Stamp of Approval – odds are, you have to show your work to whoever is controlling the brand messaging before you can push it live. They will most likely have notes and things they want to change. Make sure you give yourself a couple weeks to work on it during this phase.
- Showtime – this is the time when you are actually getting the ads out there. Make sure that this phase is sufficiently long enough to deliver the desired results.
- If you are advertising for an event, plan 3-4 weeks of air time before the event for your ads to be effective.
- If your ads are brand reminders, then let them run for what is economically feasible for your company.
- Sometimes ads needs a couple months on adwords to run at peak performance. Be patient and be willing to adapt to the situation. Ads may start with high ad spend and then get cheaper after one to three months of active campaign time.
- Analysis – a week or two into your campaigns, take some time to do some in depth analyses of your campaign. You can learn a lot about what you should continue doing or change just by taking a look at your past successes and failures. If you skip this step and just start on the next campaign, you’ll never get better at making ad campaigns.
Break up your time into phases like this that will help you set your sights on measurable goals. With those goals in mind, you’ll make ads with a central theme very naturally.
2) Get the Right People in the Right Places
I cannot emphasize this enough, teamwork is the key to successful filmmaking and advertising.
However, to effectively work as a team, you need to be able to identify the strengths and weaknesses of the people that you are working with.
For example, while filming the classic action film Warrior, the stunt team was faced with a difficult situation. Their two main actors, Tom Hardy and Joel Edgerton, had very different levels of martial arts training, but both needed to look like capable fighters.
Tom Hardy hadn’t had much training in martial arts prior to filming Warrior. In order to make him look like a total boss, the stunt team choreographed short, high power (which is easier to act) fight scenes that required very little technical Jiu Jitsu work. It was very effective.
Joel Edgerton, on the other hand, actually had some martial arts experience before filming Warrior. The stunt team worked on training him as technically as they could, so that he could realistically win his fight via skill rather than just use brute force like his brother.
Playing to these actors’ strengths enhanced the storytelling of this film and it became an instant classic. However, had they tried to force things and make Tom Hardy more technical and Joel Edgerton more brutish, the fight scenes (much less the whole film) would have fallen flat.
Just like the film industry, advertisers often have to perform many jobs that they are unfamiliar with at the beginning at smaller scale companies and smaller ad agencies. This is fine as long as you are able to recognize your own strengths and weaknesses.
If you are uncertain about what your strengths in advertising are, start by asking your boss, coworker, or friend.
When you know what your limits are, you can bring in other people to complement your skill set. If you are a talented copywriter, but you know that you could be better at designing art, consider hiring an art director to help you out.
If you are good at all of the “creative” jobs but you know that you struggle with big picture ideas, then you may want to consider bringing in account planners whose job it is to consider the long term effects of your ad campaigns.
My job deals mostly with writing, and filming commercials for clients. Personally, I know that I am a good copywriter, stunt coordinator, director, producer, 1st assistant director and editor. But I know that I struggle with sound/music editing. So, I have people on my team to help with that.
Teams will always make better content than just one marketer working on his own. Having the right people in the right places will not only speed up your creation process, but you will most likely have more fun while making the quality of your ads skyrocket.
3) Kill Your Babies
Now, before you throw up your arms in disgust, the babies that I’m referring to aren’t actual babies. They are thought babies. This phrase is used all the time in advertising. What it means is don’t get too attached to any one idea.
Often, it can be easy to get overly attached to an idea, especially if you’ve put a lot of time and energy into your brainchild.
But the thing is, all ideas are not created equal. If you are getting feedback that an idea of yours doesn’t quite work or if the message isn’t consistent with the brand, then let it die!
For example, the world would be much better off if Michael Bay had killed his twin transformers thought baby in Transformers 2. But, Michael Bay pretty much just does what he wants. And we’ve accepted that while shaking our heads in shame.
However, while you need to be willing to kill your babies, don’t let it get to you if someone tells you your idea stinks.
If you are in this advertising game for the long haul, you don’t have time to waste by letting your feelings get hurt because someone doesn’t like your idea. In the poetic words of some of my family members, “suck it up, Buttercup!” There are always more ads to work on.
Fortunately, there is a way to safeguard yourself from the shame of terrible ideas. It’s called brainstorming.
I have sat in rooms with partners for hours coming up with a minimum of 100 different taglines or executions for the sake of brainstorming. Out of those 100 ideas, we were lucky if 15 of them were good ideas. With those 15 good ideas we had back ups just in case the boss said, “next!” on our first two or three.
I know you want credit for your work, but your boss will be more impressed if you come to them with a plethora of ideas and let them decide. Advertising is a numbers game. The more ideas you have the more opportunities you will have to hit those home run concepts.
4) Be a Kid, Be Original
Most adults seem concerned with making money and advancing their careers. They forget to have fun with their work. Kids, on the other hand, are more worried about having fun and being cool. Advertising is the exact place that we should be encouraging that child like creativity, not squashing it.
The movie industry can be especially guilty of not using the fun parts of their brains. For example, take the Fast and Furious franchise.
The first Fast and Furious movie was great! It was a well thought out plot that had action to help tell the story. As they kept making more you can tell the quality of the movies became less about plot and more about how they could justify parachuting cars onto a mountain pass.
Hollywood is becoming a master of rehashing the same characters in slightly different circumstances with nothing but a little extra spectacle to add. They do this because they are in it for the money, not the craft.
Advertising can be a lot like this. I can watch a Carl’s Jr commercial and I know exactly what I‘m going to get, but I’m not going to remember that specific hot girl seducing me with some burger that I’ll never eat. In advertising, you need something that will make your message stick in your audience’s brain.
To be memorable with your ads, you need fresh ideas, and no one is better at getting fresh ideas than kids are. Kids are so good at getting new ideas because they are getting educated all the time from both school and play. You should follow suit.
If you want to make sure that you are getting new and memorable ideas, stop working 16 hours a day and follow this one rule: for every hour you spend working, spend an hour outside the office doing something else.
Take an art class, watch a documentary, learn how to open a soda bottle with your belly button, go to a comedy show. Do something with your life other than just work. Your ad campaigns will become diverse and lively as a result.
5) Use Storytelling
Good action movies are hard to make for one reason—they have to be believable. Take A Good Day to Die Hard, for instance:
Under no circumstances could any human being survive any single one of the stunts that John McClain made in just this clip alone, much less the rest of this movie. Heck, his son gets a piece of steel rebar through the gut earlier and is still running around half an hour later. I don’t buy it.
Instead, take just this one sequence from John Wick. (Caution for violence, blood, and language)
There is some crazy action in this scene, however, none of it is unbelievable because of how the story has been told. John Wick isn’t doing anything superhuman. He’s just a really good hitman, and what he does showcases that fact very well.
Making your audience believe your ads will give them a reason to remember you. Give them one reason to say, “I don’t believe it,” and they are gone.
Now, this isn’t to say that your ad has to be the most realistic ad in the world.
Old Spice did very well with their Old Spice guy. That world wasn’t realistic in the least, but it didn’t ask the audience to believe in the world. It asked people to believe in the point of the commercial: women want their men to smell like their dreams. And that truth is fairly universal.
If you can find the universal truth in your ad that your audience will believe in, you’ve got gold.
Once you have that universal truth, all of your ads should tell a different part of that truth. Each ad individually should be believable by itself, but the whole ad campaign should tell a story about your brand that people understand, identify with, and believe in.
Keep in mind when creating your brand’s identity that people use different social media outlets for different purposes. Keep asking yourself, what part of the the story can I bring to the table that only this medium can tell? This will help each ad feel unique and fresh.
For instance, your Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram stories could be focused on engaging in a dialogue with your target audience. Your YouTube and Display Network ads should be focusing on brand recognition. And your packaging and point of purchase ads should be focusing on making the sale.
When your get all these different ad channels interweaving with each other, your campaigns will have a very complete and well-rounded feel. If you don’t focus on storytelling, your ads could end up fragmenting your message to the point that your consumers are thoroughly confused.
Actions movies—like ad campaigns—are hard to make well. But there is always one thing in common amongst the greats, and that’s the process that each underwent to create them.
Mastering the creative process is challenging, yet rewarding. If you choose to forego any of the steps of that process, you will be selling your creations just short of amazing. Nobody remembers ads that don’t blow them away. It’s just another drop in their bucket of media intake.
Follow these steps to making well planned, original, believable ads and you will impress yourself and others with what you can create.
By the way, if you’d like me to take a look at your current ad development process and give you some suggestions, let me know here or in the comments. I’d love to help!