Aug 12

Where do bad ads come from?

In the wake of Apple’s now-retracted Genius commercials, I received quite a few emails asking:

“How could that even happen?”

Good question. However, a much bigger question is, why does any company end up with a bad ad? Turn on the TV any given night and you’re sure to see an impressive display of world-class clunkers.

Where does all the badness come from?

Though mediocre creative people do exist, more often the problem is mediocre clients. The marketing directors at many companies (1) don’t have terrific advertising taste, (2) don’t appreciate the power of creativity, or (3) are unwilling to stand up to their superiors. Or some unsavory combination thereof.

There’s an old saying in the industry that companies get exactly the advertising they deserve. I think that’s absolutely true. Some clients push their agencies to excel creatively, others run their businesses by the numbers. Some clients put faith in agencies as full partners, others see agencies as mere order-takers.

But even that doesn’t explain all of the bad ads out there. Because even talented agencies working with terrific clients have been known to produce a dud or two.

In one sense it’s puzzling, because there are so many checks and balances built into the process of ad creation. The original idea has to pass by at least one creative director. The agency account and strategy teams weigh in, along with agency management. And finally the client must approve the idea — oftentimes more than one client.

How is it that so many people can miss the obvious?

In the case of a bad concept or bad strategy, there’s no good excuse. However, not all bad ads are born that way. Sometimes it’s a case of “a good idea gone bad.” That is, the idea started with promise, it just went south during production. For an ad to turn out great, a lot of things have to go right.

You need a talented director, perfect casting, a world-class editor and music that lends just the right emotion. If you’re a creative person, and you have all of these things working for you, you still need to deal with the comments and suggestions you’re likely to get from supervisors and clients.

It really does take a special combination of talent, experience and vigilance to protect a great idea from concept to finish. One thing going wrong is all it takes to turn an award-winner into an also-ran.

Ironically, bad ads are sometimes the result of an ideal situation. Some creative agencies are fortunate enough to have clients willing to take risks to achieve greatness. However, when an agency is allowed to shoot for the stars, an occasional failure can be the price.

A good example of this would be the Apple-Chiat relationship. The volume of great ads they’ve produced far outweighs the occasional misstep.

When I worked on IBM in days gone by, and the agency was winning awards by the truckload, our leaders frequently credited IBM for giving us “the freedom to fail.” That kind of support from a client is rare, but it’s a wonderful thing. For the fact is, clients who forbid failure limit their upside along with their downside.

Though they are born of many causes, bad ads are just a fact of life. They won’t be going away anytime soon. In a weird way, those of us in the industry should actually be thankful for them. It’s because they exist that the great ads seem even greater.


  • eriksuperman

    I can appreciate the artistry of a well developed, well executed ad campaign, but not so much that I wouldn’t eliminate the ads if I had the chance. This is exactly what I’m doing these days actually, and it’s fantastic! I work a really strange schedule at Dish, so time is of the essence. I got the new Hopper DVR, and when I watch my Prime Time Anytime recordings the next day, I can set my DVR to skip the ads entirely! It’s great not having those volume changes, obnoxious Toy ads that make my kids go crazy, or that stupid Gecko; plus, it saves me a ton of time getting through my DVR playlist! Dish is at least taking a proactive approach to giving me what I want: NO ADS!

  • Gonji

    Hi Ken,
    Just to highlight your point of giving companies creative license, I visited Jim Dalrymple’s site, The Loop, where he has a link to Carlton Drafts latest ad, ‘The Chase’. If you remember, you wrote on your site about ‘epic ads’ and had Carlton’s ‘It’s a Big Ad’ as your favourite. This latest ad shows that the creative genius, as well as the beer, is still definitively still flowing. Not sure if it is the agency or the brewery management, or a combination of both; probably the latter. But as you say, creative license usually allows for more hits than misses.

    I do not work for nor have any association with Carlton Breweries, except for, on occasion, drinking their beer.

    P.S. A quick YouTube search of Carlton Draft ads will bring up few more rippers.

  • ksegall

    Funny you should mention it, but I just tweeted about this Carlton Draught ad today. I do love it! Of course, some would say that the beer guys have it easy, because beer advertising almost HAS to be fun, and most beer companies probably encourage their agencies in this direction. That being said, Carlton has done better than most of the other guys for years — investing big money (that’s the risky part) on some pretty far-out humor. I know a lot of creative people who would kill to have a job on an account like that. Kudos to the marketing group at Carlton and to their agency.

  • 1. Overthinking.
    2. Individuals create effective art more readily than committees.

  • Peter

    Hi Ken, I am originally from Holland (as in “The Netherlands”) and we don’t produce many exciting ads on tv. Except those made by DDB Amsterdam, who for 25 years have created some iconic ads for insurance company “Centraal Beheer” and won numerous awards. They avoid the Dutch language and actually make the ad stand out without language being a barrier. Just curious as an ad-man yourself what you think about these (I consider them an example of great ad creation): “Steering Wheel” http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Zu2roSDAwF8 , “Rio” http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4Qwvst2ml4w , and the most iconic (but also banned one) “Adam & Eve” which is hilarious ad http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dg9O0Dkkbdo . I am really curious what you think of them (as in a “detailed response”)

  • ksegall

    Creative people dream of working with a client who is willing to spend big bucks making well-crafted, big production, funny commercials. My first reaction when I see spots like these is to think what fun the creative team must have had while filming. But about the ads themselves… You say that Centraal Beheer has been making ads like this for 25 years. That’s very different than a company that churns out a few spots, then moves on to something else. Once they’ve established a franchise like this, and the audience looks forward to each ad, it rises to a new level. The company must be very happy with the return they get on their investment. Some of the humor in these spots is a bit more goofy than what I personally prefer, but hey, different cultures have different funny bones.

  • Peter

    Thanks Ken for the response. Very much appreciated (and yeah, we Dutch people have a different type of goofy humor I gues ;-) )

  • “a dud or two”?? <— #epicunderstatement

    "it’s puzzling, because there are so many checks and balances built into the process of ad creation." <— It's not puzzling at all. Everyone who's ever created anything — including you and every ad pro ever — knows first hand the inverse relationship between quality and the number of people beyond the creator(s) who get to weigh in. (See also: focus groups.) Great work results only from a team overcoming this tendency for individual egocentrism.

  • The Hopper DVR is amazing indeed. Is there any more news breaking that you can send me.