Great ads used to be a minor miracle. But at least minor miracles used to happen. They happened regularly enough for ordinary people to remark that the ads were often better than the programmes around them.
So what went wrong?
Did advertising’s miracle workers get lured away by more worthy pursuits, changing the world with hacks and apps?
Or is it that miracles are harder to work these days? Miracle inflation? Great ads in 2017 are not minor but major miracles, in real terms.
A talent exodus might be a factor, but the increased degree of difficulty definitely is.
I’m not sure if we’re getting worse at it, but it is definitely harder to do.
There are more hoops for an ad and its agency to jump through these days, some of them so restrictively narrow that it’s more a case of squeezing through than jumping.
Take regulation for instance. Regulation is good. Regulation and being seen to be regulated are essential to the maintenance of trust. But some of the sectors that once were bastions of advertising excellence have been regulated, or self-regulated, into creative oblivion. It has gone beyond the point where constraints act to liberate creativity. Some of our hoops have become snares.
Advertising has a hoop issue.
The more hoops an idea has to jump through the less likely it is to retain its integrity or even run at all, no matter how determined and skilled at hoop jumping the agency is.
Jumping through hoops is the advertising equivalent of a multi-fold accumulator and, as any bookie will tell you, the odds lengthen dramatically with each bet because the chances of winning diminish significantly with each additional link in the chain of gambles.
There are three types of hoop that need to be jumped through for a great ad to make it unscathed into the media.
(Unscathed is the operative word here. Lots of ads make it into the media. Very few of them are great. The sad thing is that some ads are born great but they are repeatedly scathed into mediocrity by too many oppressive hoops in the process.)
There are origination hoops, approval hoops, and execution hoops.
Ideally there should be just two origination hoops, namely a great brief and a great idea.
Ideally there should only be two approval hoops as well, one to approve the idea and one to approve the finished ad, both managed by a senior client who knows what he or she is doing and who is empowered to make decisions.
And ideally there should be one execution hoop, namely the artistry of a skilled practitioner to breathe life into the ad, elevating rather than deflating the idea in the process.
Five hoops in the most streamlined process possible. Ideally.
Even the very best agency won’t successfully get an idea, unscathed, through every hoop every time.
Even if an agency has a hoop-jumping success rate of 90%, meaning that it gets an ad through one of those five hoops nine times out of ten, the probability of it successfully negotiating all five hoops from brief to final approval with a great, unscathed idea is just 59%. A brilliant agency, working to the most streamlined process possible, will get a great ad, unscathed, into the media six times out of ten.
That’s a brilliant agency.
A merely good agency, with an 80% hoop jumping success rate, has just a 33% chance of creating a great ad from the same ideal process.
This is why great ads used to be a minor miracle. Even great agencies with great clients were battling an irresistible numbers game.
But when was the last time any of us worked with a five-hoop process?
The five-hoop process doesn’t allow for more than one step in the client approval process. It doesn’t allow for any pre-testing of ideas or finished ads.
And it doesn’t allow for the inevitable requirement for the idea to pass the 360 degree, has to work everywhere, test. Advertising ideas aren’t allowed to stick to the knitting any more. Ideas have to achieve more with less, and they have to work in more places, regardless of whether the idea is fit for those places or whether those places are fit for strategy. If Jesus worked in 21st century advertising, he’d be asked to feed 50,000 people with just one fish and only three loaves.
These days a lucky agency will have to jump through at least eight hoops for a great ad to come to fruition.
With eight hoops in the process a brilliant agency will have a 43% success rate. It will deliver a brilliant ad two times out of five attempts.
For the good agency, an eight hoop process equates to a 17% chance of achieving greatness.
This is the maths of major miracles.
Enter the miracle agency. Enter the agency I would start up if I were remotely interested in doing such a thing.
I would call it Hoopless.
The agency with fewer hoops and better jumpers.
The team with highest desire and ability, taking the path of least resistance.
As a matter of principle we would only work with clients who contractually agreed to the minimum five-hoop process. This would doubtless be a polarising and restrictive principle but we’d only need a few enlightened anchor clients for the maths of miracles to start working in our favour. Pretty soon they’d be beating our door down…
I obviously haven’t put the Hoopless name through any pre-testing research. The agency would be called Fewer Hoops if I had. More logical, more precise, grammatically correct. But also crap.
Phil Adams is planning director at Cello Signal. Follow him on Twitter @Phil_Adams.