Why do mediocre ads keep appearing?

When the Pukka Pies RFI landed in my inbox earlier this year, I was seriously excited. A full service, creative ask from an iconic heritage brand (with budget), this was a dream brief — an amazing opportunity to create fabulously fun, daring work.

Naturally, we were crushingly disappointed when we didn’t make it through, but we knew this was a highly competitive tender, and that feeling is part and parcel of working in ad land. So, once the dust settled, I was just looking forward to seeing the work the winning agency would produce.

Sitting in front of my TV with a pizza the other day, I suddenly realised — this is it! The hotly-anticipated new Pukka spot… my expectations were high, but 30 seconds later I was left staggered by my level of disappointment.

The dream brief had resulted in a dull, dreary and derivative ad.

In case you haven’t seen it (or in case you glazed over when it aired), the spot features a montage of people putting pies in the oven, or putting pies on their plate, or eating pies, accompanied by the obligatory vegetable medley, a tinkly piano soundtrack and a dry voiceover ticking off every UK accent that the client listed in their deliverables. That’s it.

It’s a classic example of a brand trying to be all things to all people, without actually being anything at all. I expect it will sell a handful more pies short-term (primetime TV spots tend to have that effect), but will it reignite the brand and rocket sales long-term? That should have been the aim. Does it make you feel something? Are people going to remember it? I doubt it. It certainly didn’t inspire me to swap my pizza for a pie any time soon, that’s for sure.

Pukka Pies isn’t alone here. More and more brands are filling our TV screens with ads that are so bereft of creativity, it’s an insult to our industry. All too often, we see the client’s brief on-screen, without any evidence of the agency behind the work adding any creative magic.

The recent Amazon ad, set in one of its warehouses, is a case in point. You can picture the brief as you watch it: ‘Make it look like our warehouses are actually nice, fun places to work’. And the resulting idea? Amazon employees in a warehouse, having a nice time. Not exactly inspiring stuff from the ‘world’s most valuable brand’, is it? And by the way, I’m not buying it that it’s a barrel of laughs to work in those places either.

So, what’s going on here? Why do these mediocre ads keep appearing?

Brands are nervous. They’re sticking to what they know and what they’re told. They’re scared to break the rules and they’re scared to leave anyone out. They’re scared to get called out on social media. So, brand teams are pretty much setting briefs with storyboards ready to go, with no room for deviation, no room for unexpected thinking and frankly, no room for original creativity. We end up with the same, predictable content being churned out week after week.

And let me be clear, this isn’t a question of budget. You don’t need stacks of cash to create a brilliant campaign. Take the recent Amazon Prime ads. Your mate giving you a pep talk because he thinks he’s… Pep. Like the Pukka Pie spot, these ads, which didn’t cost a bomb to make, feature real-life situations and everyday people, but with added insight, humour and (most importantly), a smart and memorable idea.

It’s also not a general category problem. KFC’s 'FCK' bucket was a masterstroke in intelligent, reactive comms that’s consistently cited as one of the best pieces of work from last year. The brand didn’t spend millions of pounds on extravagant production or A-list casting. They took a risk on a brilliantly bold idea that quite literally doesn’t fuck about. Simple as that.

Think of all those unforgettable ads that probably inspired us to get into this industry in the first place. They’re not bland, they’re fearless. They don’t allow you to play client brief bingo as they air, they make you think “how on earth did that get signed off?”.

Our industry is filled with smart, creative people, itching to make awesome work. Don’t back them into a corner. Don’t give them ready-made ideas that can’t be tinkered with. Don’t say ‘I want another ‘Specsavers’’. Give them space, give them freedom, and get your money’s worth!

You don’t need piles of cash to create a stand-out campaign, but you do need a lot of talent and imagination. If agencies can’t take client briefs and turn them into something unexpected and unforgettable, we might as well all go home.

Tanya Brookfield is chief executive at Elvis. She tweets at @elviscomms

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