Why creativity is the only way to survive – by McCann global creative chairman Rob Reilly

Last year, president Obama was desperate to sell his healthcare reform plan, the Affordable Care Act. It was an important piece of legislation that attempted to make sure young people were protected with quality healthcare.

When it first launched, it was riddled with problems.The website was a mess, and all the traditional ways the president and his team used to promote it fell flat. It was in danger of going away because it lacked the support and participation of young people. And that was mainly due to the lack of creativity used to sell it.

What happened next was extraordinary. A person on the president’s staff, most likely somebody under the age of 25, proposed something that five years earlier might have got him fired. He suggested that the president of the United States take his message to a website called funnyordie.com.

The site, created by Will Ferrell, is widely viewed as risqué comedy, full of skits that are very inappropriate. Yet earlier this year, President Obama appeared on 'Between Two Ferns', starring Zach Galifianakis from the 'Hangover' movies. It’s basically a parody talk show where Galifianakis takes the piss out of celebrities like Brad Pitt and Sean Penn. The president went on the show to talk about his healthcare plan and why it is important, and, in between, Galifianakis took some serious comedic shots.

In the end, it worked. In fact, it was the only thing that worked and it is why I call president Obama’s appearance on Between Two Ferns the 'most creative idea of 2014'.

Of course, the irony is that it will never win an advertising award. But that’s not the point. The point is that if the president of the United States can make a bold move like this, there is no limit to what we can do for our brands when the only option they have to survive is courageous creativity.

But it is not just the president who is using creativity to survive. In Barcelona, the government put a crazy tax on theatre tickets, which led to sales tanking. So instead of packing it in, one theatre created an entirely new type of payment system, Pay Per Laugh.

Teatreneu and The Cyranos//McCann devised a new technology to measure each audience member’s facial expressions. The customers ended up only paying for the number of laughs the show garnered. It saved the theatre and now there are discussions about using the technology in other parts of the world. And there are many, many other examples of marketing creativity from all types of industries.

Pay per Laugh | The Cyranos McCann from The Cyranos McCann on Vimeo.

Of course, for decades brands that have been backed in a corner have found creative ways to claw their way out. Five years ago, the auto industry was in the gutter because the US economy was terrible. Nobody was buying new cars. Layoffs were happening everywhere, and people were afraid to buy a new car because they wouldn’t be able to make their payments if they were served a pink slip. Hyundai was one of the hardest hit.

Luckily, the car company had one of the greatest agencies in history in its corner, Goodby Silverstein & Partners. Together, they eliminated the barrier of fear by creating the Hyundai Assurance Program. Basically, if you bought a new car and later lost your job, Hyundai would buy it back from you if you couldn’t make the payments. Hyundai announced the program with an ad on the Super Bowl. It wasn’t an advertising solution to the problem, but it sure was genius. And it showed the path forward for how even a conservative industry could innovate to save itself.

If you’re a young person in this business, these examples should excite the hell out of you. Gone are the days where agencies are only being asked to make an ad. More and more companies are seeing us as true partners to help them solve big challenges, often by any means necessary.

Not that we should all be hoping our clients go into crisis mode. But it is clear that these kinds of situations offer the best opportunities for us to prove our value in an even more meaningful way. Who knows, in 10 years, when the extinction of the television commercial finally happens (wink), it might be the only thing we have left to charge a fee for.

Rob Reilly is global creative chairman at McCann Worldgroup. He will discuss ‘Creativity is the Only Way to Survive’ during his seminar at the upcoming Eurobest Festival, where he is also serving as president of the Integrated and Film, Print & Poster Craft juries.

Eurobest takes place from 1-3 December 2014 in Helsinki, Finland.

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