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If you want to create great ideas, don’t start by watching ads

I’m not what you’d really call a heavyweight telly watcher. Well, not compared to most people in the UK at least, who spend 3 and a half hours a day watching TV according to Ofcom.

It’s not because I don’t like TV. Just that the stuff of advertising life - pitches, late client calls, later-night deckage and travelling tends to come first far too often.

More’s the pity though. Because every so often a brilliant bit of broadcasting comes along that takes the nation by the scruff of the neck, shakes us around and keeps us hanging on the edges of our seats – and reminds me that it’s not advertising that’s most helpful in making brilliant ideas.

It’s stuff like love, sex, death, affairs, heartbreak, retribution, betrayal, courage or seduction. Emotive stuff with drama and tension, that makes us laugh or cry. Because it resonates.

Which is exactly what the BBC’s The Bodyguard had in spades recently - a brilliant emotional cocktail which built in intensity over six episodes to pull in over 11 million live viewers by the finale and millions more later on iPlayer, making it the UK’s most watched content since the World Cup and the most watched drama since 2011’s Downton Abbey.

That’s no accident. For a Netflix-addled nation it was brilliantly crafted to send our neurological hardwiring into overload each week. And you could feel the buzz everywhere: in bars, on the school run, at the office water cooler (or whatever the hell the UK’s equivalent is) and social channels.

It was, to use the cliché du jour, genuinely ‘cultural content’. Creativity that real people outside our industry wanted in their lives and cared about – exactly the kind of stuff we all ache to make for our clients judging by any number of agency credentials.

A laudable ambition. Yet I worry we’re in danger of believing our own hyperbole and are losing our ability to actually deliver – according to Kantar TGI 50% of Brits say ‘nearly all TV ads annoy me’, and just 13% of people say they ‘enjoy the ads as much as the programmes’ way down from 30% in 1991. That’s a dramatic fall.

Simply put, most people don’t like most of what we do most of the time. And not nearly as much as they used to.

Sobering stuff. As an industry we’re creating cultural landfill, not cultural relevance.

There’s many possible reasons why – fetishisation of all things digital, far less time, smaller budgets and fragmenting media budgets. All valid. But whatever the reason, the result is we’ve taken our eye off the ball. And that’s bad for our business and for our clients’.

Charles Revson founder of Revlon once said ‘in the factory we make cosmetics, in the store we sell hope’. An observation that was bang on the money. Emotions don’t just drive fame. They’re the jet-engine that propels brands forwards, that move people to want to buy again and again.

But we’re in real danger of losing our biggest USP: the alchemy we know comes from producing ideas that surprise, delight and entertain. That emotionally reward them for their time.

That’s something we – and our clients - forget at our peril. It’s not rocket science. But it’s hard to do because the best creativity often feels uncomfortable: from VW Lemon to Guinness Surfer, Dove Evolution to Moneysupermarket Epic Strut, Geico Unskippable to Heineken Worlds Apart, each fearlessly brave and more culturally powerful because of it.

It’s time to regain confidence in what we do best and make ideas the world is glad exist. Ideas with rare insight and swagger, that are insanely entertaining. Ideas that are a lot less advertising and a lot more Bodyguard.

Dom Boyd is chief strategy officer at Publicis London

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