Why are creative ideas a good idea?


And how can Catherine Deneuve, a flamingo and a bottle of scent help us understand the answer? Ok I lied about the flamingo.

Image from the V&A

One question has bugged me for a very long time.

Why are creative ideas a good idea?

We all seem to believe that they are important. From a very early stage in our careers we are taught that creative work with an idea in it is better than creative work without an idea. More than that, perhaps the most pejorative thing you can say about a piece of creative work is that there is no idea in it.

Indeed many of us first became interested in advertising as a career because we saw creative ideas that we loved and wanted to be a part of creating. Obviously this was after we got the train driver thing out of our system.

But why are creative ideas so dear to our hearts? Why do we think that they work? Why do we think that they are a good idea?

Perhaps you think I have gone completely insane. Perhaps to you it is self-evident why the industry produces so much blood, sweat and tears creating great ideas. It’s just that in nearly 20 years in the business no one has ever answered this question to my satisfaction.

And it seems that it is no use asking creatives – they certainly don’t seem to know. The only thing creatives have ever been able to tell me is good creative ideas ‘cut through’ better. Whatever that means.

Well I had put this conundrum right to the back of my mind when Dave O’Hanlon, the legendary Tango planner who ran the account in the ‘90s with a semiotic rod of iron, reminded me of a woman called Judith Williamson.

In the late 1970s Judith wrote a book called ‘Decoding Advertisements’ in which she explored the way that ads communicate, the way that they create meaning.

You’d have thought this was an essential read for anyone in the planning community but it is quite possible that Dave and I are the only planners working in the UK that have ever read it. And I can absolutely guarantee that Dave is the only planner that totally understands it.

Now Judith is no fan of our industry. However, as is the case with most left leaning analyses of capitalism, she offers us a genuinely fresh perspective on this business in her quest to unpick our dark art. And re-reading her book I realised that it holds the answer to my question.

The role of the creative idea in advertisements is very simple. It is to transfer meaning from something we understand well to something that we understand less well or need reminding about.

Creative ideas transfer meaning. That is their role and that is why they are important.

Or to be more precise, creative ideas allow the consumer to transfer meaning since the idea itself is quite passive. The creative team may have suggested a meaning they wish to be transferred but this can only happen if the reader is a willing participant in the process and understands the comparison that is to be made.

Which brings us to Catherine Deneuve.


Williamson uses many examples to illustrate her theory but the most referenced example is an advertisement for Chanel No.5 featuring that icon of French style and sexy sophistication Catherine Deneuve.

She uses this ad to show the way in which the meaning of Catherine Deneuve is successfully transferred on to Chanel No.5 and in doing so helps us get our heads around those semiotic cornerstones – signifier, signified and referent system. Deneuve is the signifier, French sophistication is the signified and everything we understand about Catherine Deneuve is the referent system.

Incidentally this is why, though we strive daily for originality, there is a basic truth that genuine originality isn’t much use in advertising. Every ad needs to refer to something that we already understand in order to take that meaning and apply it to the product or service we are selling.

I find the Chanel example doubly interesting because of the recent W&K press ad for Honda in which the Chanel bottle itself became the signifier, was filled with oil and sported a Honda logo in the place of the Chanel label. I figure Williamson would also be amused by the constant recycling of meaning that that advertising delights in.

All well and good, however, even the least creatively minded of us would hardly consider the Chanel ad to be a paragon of advertising virtue. It’s simply not very ‘good’.

And that’s the question I now want to address. Why is a ‘good’ creative idea better than a ‘weak’ one?

If the role of a creative idea is to transfer meaning then by that token a good creative idea must be more successful in achieving this than a poor one. This seems to me to be important since it suggests that the quality of a creative idea is not a subjective issue, nor is a powerful idea nice to have. A good creative idea works better.

I think good creative ideas work better to transfer meaning in five essential ways:

1) Speed – The attention of the consumer and the expense of the media we use demand that meaning be successfully transferred as fast as is possible from the signifier to the subject of the ad. Good creative ideas are better at this because the link is established faster. Campaign recently ran an article on creativity in the Middle East and helped illustrate this with an ad for Sony flat screen TVs in which a ‘new’ flash is held to the front of the screen by a single paper clip. In an instant everything we understand about the thickness of the paper the clip usually holds together is transferred to the TV.

2) Communication – Good creative ideas work better because of the richness of the data that is transferred in the process of consuming the ad. The more powerful the signifier that is being used the richer and more complex the meaning can be. The new print campaign for the Daily Telegraph offers an example of rich meaning. In this work the heads of the Telegraph’s sports writers are superimposed on to illustrations of great writers in the English language like Dickens and Shakespeare. In doing this an incredibly rich amount of meaning is transferred from the illustrations to the Daily Telegraph and the prowess of its sports writers.

3) Identification – Creative ideas ‘hail’ the audience. Good ideas not only make it clear that we are being called upon to create and transfer the meaning of the ad but they also help ensure that we identify with the product or brand concerned by using a referent system that we understand and in understanding declare ourselves part of. The Daily Telegraph ads use a referent system that Daily Telegraph readers relate to and in relating to reinforce their identification with its meaning and with the Telegraph as a brand.

4) Memorability – It is clear that an ad that we enjoy becomes potentially more memorable, though there is no guarantee that what is remembered is the important bit. Hence executional memorability is problematic. But a good creative idea becomes memorable for a different reason. Because the consumer creates the meaning and is active in its transfer they become involved in the ad. This is what Williamson describes as hermeneutics (the theory of interpretation) but we might call ‘getting it’. We find solving the puzzle on offer – literally why and in what way the signifier and the object are linked – rewarding. This enjoyment cements the idea and its system of meaning into our minds. The Economist campaign is a very good if increasingly tired example of this at work.

5) Fidelity – in an age where markets are conversations and brand success is dependent on consumer-to-consumer communication the accuracy or fidelity of this communication is critical. Good creative ideas get passed from consumer more accurately and with more of the intended meaning intact. Consider the way in which you would have talked about the Honda Diesel campaign and the fidelity with which you would have passed on the intended message that Honda hated Diesel engines so much they completely changed the way they were made. And contrast this with the way in which you talked about the Sony Bravia ad that is executionally outstanding but arguably a referent system short of a great creative idea.

The ability to transfer meaning and do so in ways that increase the speed of transfer, richness of communication, level of brand identification, and the memorability and fidelity of the message is what makes good ideas a good idea.

Fight for good ideas and defend them against the drift that so often sees them neutered and impotent

Oh and read “Decoding Advertisements’ by Judith Williamson. Here is a link.


Now that IS spooky. Funnily enough I have a copy of Judith Williamson on my shelves and I have read it (though a very long time ago). I was wondering about tracking her down to see if she would do an interview/podcast. The cultural take on advertising is a really useful one but one which those inside the ad business really struggle to do themselves. I just read James Twitchell who has attempted the same in the US much more recently but he hasn't the rigour of Williamson. Shall we try and squirrel her out? Great piece by the way. Power to your elbow Mr Huntingdon.

Posted by: John G at June 8, 2006 10:52 PM

Thanks John. I think that Judith writes for the Guardian now amongst other things. I clearly underestimated the number of people in the industry who have read her work since I can add you and Mr Davies to my list. Sorry if every one has it on their bookshelves and i was being rather offensive.

I still maintain as you observe that most people in the ad business simply can't get their heads round this stuff and yet it might be rather important.

Posted by: richard at June 8, 2006 11:43 PM

Nice stuff as usual!

I actually have read Decoding Advertisements, its a really interesting read. (Even though im not yet a planner!)

It features one of my favourite bits of copy for a Grundig television ad, something along the lines of: "Smart people don't watch television, this is what they don't watch it on."

I think creativity is also linked to trends in the same way that selling is. For example, in the 50s people bought based on a good hard sell. Then over time that changed, and now the hard sell is very much frowned upon.

The same idea applies, people generally dont want a hard sell. They want to be entertained, therefore an idea will influence them much more than a push.

Good ideas help differentiate, and that helps an ad to work and be memorable.

Posted by: Rob Mortimer at June 9, 2006 01:09 AM

Some really interesting thoughts there chief.

Now I have to put my hand up here and say I haven't read it - but I will - it sounds just like my cup of tea.

I think literary theory is a very useful tool when thinking about advertising - in particular, and you touch on this in your memorability point, I think it's important to remember that that the consumer of the advertising is an active agent in the construction of meaning, not a passive receiver of messages.

Reader response theory research was a bit like creative testing - studying the feelings and impressions of the readers, not just the text. Creation of meaning is subjective and the referent systems culturally variable, as Rob points out - this is why we want to recut or remake ads from other markets even if they are in the same language.

Great advertising creates culture and draws from it at the same time - all very postmodern and recombinant that.

When the construction of meaning allows room for personal interpretation and ownership of an idea, but still transmits the desired take out, you've got something special.

Posted by: Faris at June 9, 2006 10:37 AM

Great post. And I find myself agreeing with many of your "ways to transfer meaning" but i'm not entirely sure i agree with how yo get there, that "creative ideas transfer meaning. That is their role and that is why they are important".... and that "...the idea itself is quite passive". I'm not sure about this. Williamson's thesis was obviously written in 'structuralist' times, before Derrida and the take-up of post-structuralist thought. The signifier and the signified are, if you believe the hype, no-more. their anchors have been torn loose, themselves only giving meaning in a certain context through a certain interpretation. There is no referent.

Furthermore, saying that creative ideas confer meaning rather undermines the majority of everyday acts that do exactly the same thing. meaning itself is created through most acts so i'm not sure that saying this is the role of 'creative' ideas helps. for me being 'creative' is trying to play with the 'slippage' that occurs around signifiers [not signified]. in tactical/reponse work that's often to be as direct as possible, using vernacular and limiting the slippage and interpretation. In brand work often this has been around being 'playful' with that slippage, increasingly to encourage interpretation and the multiplicity of signifieds. for example through the use of irony, or the use of a self-relfexive 'knowingness' that exposes that interpretive process the reader is undertaking.

and of course there's the other thought that 'creative' is just a moniker given to define an elitist act on behalf of those trained in a certain practice [i.e. design, or 'art' or those that work in the 'culture industries' [sic]]. It always annoyed me that my ex-colleagues at the BBC would describe themselves as 'creatives', especially those that workd in telly when most just peddled derivative ideas. I've always found far more creative thoughts and acts coming from those that never use the word creative. creative itself comes to be a rather empty vessel.

Posted by: James B at June 9, 2006 11:02 AM

I like that last point James.
How many agencies say "Creatively Led/Driven", yet are nothing of the sort!

I think its interesting how even creativity has rules that balance how it works. For example, surrealism works best when it either:

Takes a sensible idea to a weird place
Takes a weird idea to a sensible place

Strange how even 'rule-breaking' has biological or psychologically defined rules!

Posted by: Rob Mortimer at June 9, 2006 11:59 AM

Hi Richard, fantastic piece.

I fully agree with the notion that an idea exists to transfer meaning, however I wonder if great ideas also create meaning in their own right? (You might argue that the meaning always has its origin in something that exists and so takes it and amplifies it … but broadly I think the point has merit).

I'm onboard with the 5 ways it does it, but fall overboard with the semiotic analysis of how. Probably my prejudice: I wasn't that enamoured with semiology when I studied it, though that might have something to do with the siren call of the Uni bar.

By way of contrast I would like to offer the Meneerology analysis for the Chanel Ad. (Meneer was a fantastic suit -and aren't they thin on the ground now?- and proud Cornishman, albeit with a Dutch name).

Faced with this kind of model, and aware of the gift-purchase dynamic in the market, Meneer would think about it and respond in Cornish burr (?) ... "we all want to sleep with Catherine Deneuve or anyone who smells like her."

It would take a true son of Cornwall to see it that way.

Posted by: jemster at June 20, 2006 03:27 PM

The funny thing is that few creatives today would rate the Deneuve ad as being in any way creative and yet I'm pretty sure it, or ads with the same formal structure, are still effective.

For sure, some "creative" ads have been demonstated to be effective, but many aren't. And likewise some "pedestrian" ads are effective, but many aren't.

So to your question, why are creative ideas a good idea? I believe the real reason - and you'll think I'm being flippant but I don't mean to be - is that they help the creative get laid, and they help the planner get laid by association.

Creative ideas are attractive / sexy because they demonstrate an unnecessary excess of mental ability which we are pre-programmed to interpret as a fitness indicator on the part of the person having (or contributing to) the idea - i.e. they are signifiers of good genes.

Actually calling it a signifier makes it all too cultural and interpretative. We just respond as animals to creative ideas by finding them (and their creators, if they're the right gender for us) sexy.

Like Jonathan Richman once sang "Some people, they pick up girls, get called assholes / that never happened to, Pablo Picasso"

Posted by: David O'Hanlon at June 21, 2006 11:24 PM


Genius comment old chap - very mating mind.

Wondered what you'd make about the level of semoitic denial on show in these comments. Have we all moved on or it still the fundamental underpinning of the way advertising works?

Posted by: richard at June 21, 2006 11:32 PM

Entirely mating mind :-)

I think the criticisms of Judith Williamson that she doesn't take account of agency - i.e. the ability of the reader to resist the intended reading and to negotiate their own meanings instead - are absolutely fair; but my take on this is that that is something that she simply didn't include (after her time of writing?) which now enriches our understanding of what's going on. Personally I find what she did write hard to read but i don't think any of it is wrong, maybe just incomplete in some respects.

Nice to know you and I aren't the only people who plough through these books.

Posted by: David O'Hanlon at June 21, 2006 11:53 PM

... as meneer would say we all want to sleep with great creatives or anyone that smells like them... erm not sure the 'ology works so well now.

Great comment Mr O'Hanlon, and I can see this being true for the authors of the work, I wonder whether it works at a brand level. I suspect it does... sort of.

As an aside I have to say that quite a few planners sleep around by association... but sadly only by association. People who should, by all circumstantial evidence, be brilliant, but whose ability falls apart under scrutiny. The 'I've got a clever/glamorous friend effect' is at epidemic level.

re: 'semiotic denial'. Is questioning an analytic model (for that's what it is) really denial? Denial would imply a truth (or a religion??). Those that don't buy into it aren't denying it, and while they don't find it useful, few would call it useless.

What would Freud have made of this commment?


Posted by: jemster at June 22, 2006 12:23 PM

I have to qualify the above...

on reading this through I realise I implied that planners on this page get laid by association. Nothing could be further from the truth, for 2 reasons:

i) adliterate is one of the few places to find a reasoned and intelligent discussion on communications (and I include the blogging community here). Here circumstantial eveidence stands up to scrutiny

ii) very few of us have got laid for ages

Posted by: jemster at June 22, 2006 12:37 PM

I read this book at Uni and have suddenly been transported back in time.

Sorry Richard I am unable to contribute anything of worth to the debate, my head is bleeding from too much of everything.

p.s. Getting laid by association...blimey.

Posted by: MM at June 22, 2006 06:04 PM

Hello all,

This blog is fantastic, Richard (and commentators). Incredibly thought provoking. I also like the fact that it's delivered at 'old world' speed - an entry every fortnight or so. It means I can just about keep up. The tyranny of unread books, newspapers, blogs can be overwhelming but Adliterate chills me out - I read it more slowly and think about it more than other sites...

I have to argue the case for 'creative' v 'effective' ideas everyday.

The challenge I encounter every week with HP is that we'll persuade them to buy an interesting creative idea (this really is quite ground breaking for the category):

...but then they'll put the real media weight behind crass promotional ads which do nothing but talk about price, freebies and where to buy.

Truth is, it's these crass ads that make the phones ring and allow the sales guys to hit their targets. It clearly works, but I think it contradicts our longer term strategy to decommoditise HP products, especially as HP will never have a business model that can undercut Dell.

Does anyone have any thoughts or advice about promotional advertising? Examples of stuff that has been both creative and effective? Any potent arguments about why the ad shouldn't say the price three times in twenty seconds? Any strategic models/thinking/approaches that might help me to get them to think differently.

I'd like the promotional ads to be more beautiful and to help get me laid :)



Posted by: Jonathan Isaac at July 24, 2006 05:37 AM