Come on, it’s not difficult – there are only two kinds of advertising ideas

I mentioned that I’ve been involved recently in helping a client choose an agency, and so for the first time in a while I’ve been on the receiving end of a bunch of creative presentations.

Our brief asked for a big (or biggish) idea that could be executed across a number of different executions.  The ideas we saw took me back instantly to my long years as a creative director, and to the single comment I remember making most often in response to the thousands of ideas I was shown.

This was, almost always, “Sorry, but we need a Type 2 idea and this is a Type 1,” or, much more infrequently, “Sorry, but we need a Type 1 idea and this is a Type 2”.

From which you’ll gather that there are two types of campaign ideas.  You may be wondering what they are and what’s the difference between them, so I shall explain.

A Type 1 idea is a campaign idea that lets you say the same thing in lots of different executions.  The great Heineken campaign  Refreshes the parts other beers cannot reach is a Type 1 idea.  So is Should’ve gone to Specsavers.

A Type 2 idea is a campaign that lets you say lots of different things in lots of different executions, but in a way which is recognisably part of the same campaign.  Tesco’s Every little helps is a Type 2 idea.  So are Alexsandr and Sergei the meerkats for  So, in a slightly different way, was what is still the greatest body of work ever produced for a  single client by a single agency, Doyle Dane’s 1960s US work for Volkswagen:  there wasn’t exactly an idea, but there was a ruthlessly consistent look and feel and tone of voice, and an extraordinary attitude which said that in 1960s America, the home of the giant chrome-trimmed V8 gas guzzler, VW would revel in being ugly, small, cheap and slow.  

The fact is that for all their fame and for all the awards they’ve won, there are very few Type 1 campaigns.  There’s a simple reason for that, which is that very few brands can afford them.  Only big brands in big categories can swallow the cost of making campaigns consisting of big, single-minded, simple brand messages famous.  Back in my early days in Big Advertising I worked on a few – but ever since, I’ve worked in a world of Type 2 ideas.

Almost every brand that uses marketing communications needs a Type 2 idea.   A Type 2 idea provides some consistency, recognisability and distinctiveness to a whole bunch of messages in a whole bunch of media.  For example, an asset manager might need some “hurry hurry” ads reminding people not to miss the ISA deadline, an ad in the trade press about winning an award, some thematic messages about how active management adds value, a mailpack inviting intermediaries to a seminar, a series of digital Market Outlook pieces from the fund managers, and so on and so on and so on.

But here’s the thing:  creative people would infinitely much rather come up with Type 1 ideas.  There are two main reasons for this.  First, on the whole, they believe that Type 1 ideas are “proper” advertising, especially if they appear on TV.  Considering how few of them there are, Type 1 ideas win an awful lot of awards.  And second, they’re much, much easier to do.  Coming up with the idea in the first place is hard, but once you’ve done that you can bash out a hundred scripts by tea-time.   Or, perhaps more to the point, before down-the-pub time.

Want to put this to the test?  Probably not, but just in case, here’s your idea:  someone can’t do something, they drink some Heineken and then they can do it.  A hundred ideas by tea-time?  Well, I suppose it depends a bit on what time it is now, but if it’s before 2.30 I’d say you’re in with a chance. 

(I should add that most of those hundred ideas won’t be any good.  Writing great Type 1 scripts is harder than it looks, precisely because the idea is so clear and obvious:  as a result, good scripts have to include some kind of twist or surprise to make the commercial worth watching.  If you know from the first frame exactly what’s going to happen, it’s not a good script.  But we’ll save this more advanced discussion for another time.)

Type 2 ideas work the other way round.  It may not be so hard to come up with the original big idea – quite a few, as in my VW example, are little more than a look and feel, a tone of voice and an attitude.  (Usually, also, a strapline, although VW didn’t bother and didn’t need one.)  But then you’re going to need to come up with further ideas – smaller ones maybe, but ideas all the same – for every single execution.  When you have an ad to do for VW about the reliability of the air-cooled engine, your look and feel, tone of voice and attitude don’t tell you to write How does the man who drives the snowplough get to the snowplough?  But if you do come up with that idea, you know you’ve written a VW ad.

We almost always need Type 2 ideas.  In my recent agency selection project, that’s certainly what the pitch brief specified (although, I should say, without these unfamiliar Type 1 and Type 2 labels).  But altogether, in the tissue meetings and the final presentations, the three agencies must have showed us over a dozen different concepts – and of those, all but a couple were Type 1.

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