Creative Differences Author

Clients and agencies alike appreciate the role that effective advertising executions can play in multiplying the impact of expensive media dollars in an increasingly cluttered world of television communication. Finding ways to better manage the process of advertising development in order to improve the odds of creating truly effective advertising is therefore a major area of interest to advertising managers.

Advertising effectiveness can only be defined in terms of consumer response to the advertising. But one of the creative process issues identified by Kover, James, and Sonner (Kover, 1997) is that “the defining audience for advertising creative people is other advertising people and creative in particular. That is, the people to whom creative look to for validation of their work are other professionals.” This is one of the reasons that the judgment of creative award shows appears to be held in much higher esteem by most advertising creative than research demonstrating the effectiveness of the advertisements they create. Importantly, the researchers noted above found that the response of advertising professionals to a sample of television commercials was quite different from the response of a sample of consumers to these commercials.

In theory, advertising researchers have a vital role to play in bridging the gap between consumer perceptions of an advertisement and the different, professional perceptions of the advertisement that its creators have. Freistad and Wright (1995) found a high degree of congruence between researchers’ and consumers’ beliefs about advertising, which they attribute to the greater degree of contact that researchers have with the consumer in their work. In practice, however, research is all too frequently used only to evaluate advertising, which, from a creative point of view, is counterproductive to the advertising creation process (Kover, 1995).

The difficulty that researchers have in communicating with advertising creative is, in one sense, no different from the difficulties advertising creative have in communicating with consumers. Both have trouble seeing things from the point of view of their audience. Yet creative generally concede that the one area that research can make a difference in the creative process is when it is used to help define a target audience and its needs (Kover, 1995). For advertising research practitioners, it is important to understand that one of the most important target audiences for the research that we conduct are the people who, at the end of the day, as Leo Burnett once said, have to pick up their pencils and actually create the advertisement. It is fitting, therefore, that the tools of consumer research itself be used to study the mindset of this important segment of end users of research, advertising creatives.

The term “creative” is used to collectively identify a heterogeneous group of advertising professionals – copywriters, art directors, producers, and even, in the age of the internet – computer programmers. Theories of multiple intelligence (Gardner, 1993) suggest that creative talent comes in a wide variety of forms. In order to understand the process of creating advertising, it may be necessary to analyze the players in the creative process as distinct segments. Bohm (1996) has described the process of creativity in general in terms of the dynamic process of dialogue. Kover (1995) has studied the implicit theories that advertising copywriters use in the creation of advertising and describes the process in terms of an internal dialogue. Additional work needs to be done to better understand the differences in the creative thought process between copywriters and other, nonverbal types of advertising creatives.

One of the most lasting improvements the organizational process of creating advertising was made by William Bernbach who, in the 1960s, instituted creative terms, each comprised of a copywriter and an art director. This change is credited with bringing about a revolution in the quality of creative work. The collaboration different talents is clearly the key to the creation of powerful advertising. Yet other than suggesting that two-person teams provide companionship and consensual validation, little research has been me to explain why this organizational change made such a dramatic difference the creation of advertising.

Art directors and writers obviously bring different artistic sensibilities to the process of creating advertising. Moles (1962) has used the conceptual framework Information Theory to describe how there are, theoretically, different kinds of formation present in esthetic objects.

The old saying that one picture is worth a thousand words is fundamentally wrong — there is information contained in picture which cannot be translated at all to words and vice versa.

The ability to easily process or manipulate verbal information, as compared to visual information, is clearly what distinguishes copywriters from art directors. In other words, writers and art directors process different kinds of information uniquely and therefore “see” the world differently. Our question is: What are the differences in how they perceive advertisements?

Consequently, to gain insight into the underlying process of creating advertising, it is useful to focus attention on the differences in the attitudes and perceptions of these two creative types regarding television advertising.


Telephone interviews were conducted among 100 creatives drawn from a random sample of 4A’s advertising agencies. To qualify, respondents had to have been employed a minimum of three years in the business. In order to represent adiversity of agency philosophies, a maximum of two creative per agency were interviewed. Finally, to explore differences in attitudes between these two creative types, a quota sample of 50 art directors and 50 copywriters were interviewed.

The study was commissioned and analyzed by Ameritest, with data collection provided by Survey Center LLC of Chicago, a nationally recognized research company.

Creative Differences Table 1

A profile of the ending sample is shown in Table1. Three-quarters of the sample were males and one-quarter female, with a good range of ages represented. A large majority of the sample were very experienced creative with 10 or more years in the business. The majority of the sample was also award-winning creative over half reported that they had won an Addy award, one in six were Clio winners, and one in twenty had won an Effie. Importantly, the demographic and professional profiles of the art directors are quite similar to the profiles of the copywriters so that the differences between the two groups reported below are unlikely to be due to differences in these factors.

Creative Attitudes

Confirming the findings of Koveretal., one attitude is almost universally held by agency creatives: 89 percent of our sample agreed with the statement “Advertising professionals see different things in a commercial than the average consumer does.”

Creative Differences Table 1
Creative Differences Table 1

A complete list of the attitude statements that creative rated is shown in Table 2. In general, the majority of creative agree that good advertising is simple and direct and should be fresh and original.

A sizable majority of creative agree that the best commercials “leave something to the viewers’ imagination.” In other words, the best advertising does not treat the consumer as a passive viewer but rather engages the consumer as an active participant in the creation of the advertising experience. The concept of “interactivity,” therefore, is thought to be relevant to advertising effectiveness in general, not just internet advertising. This finding is consistent with Kover’s finding that copywriters view the process of creating an advertisement in terms of an interior dialogue with the consumer.

There is also general agreement that “with television, consumers can see ideas they can’t put into words.” But surprisingly, only about half of creative think that the most important element in a television commercial is the visual. Creatives are polarized in terms of their perceptions of the relative contribution of visuals versus copy versus music in terms of advertising performance.

Importantly, two-thirds of creative agree that there are major differences in how writers and art directors conceptualize advertising. Roughly half of creative agree that you can tell the difference between a commercial created by an art director and a commercial created by a writer. Moreover, half of the creative in this sample feel that in most agencies copywriters have more control than art directors do over the kinds of commercials that get produced.

Writers and Art Directors

Table 3 shows differences in attitudes between writers and art directors. While many of these differences are only directional due to the small size of the sample, these differences are intriguing.

Creative Differences Table 3

Art directors are more likely than writers are to see a difference in the kinds of commercials created by art directors versus those created by copywriters. And, importantly for researchers, art directors appear more likely to hold the belief that “copytesting” research has a verbal bias in terms of the types of advertisements that score well — a belief held by almost one-quarter of the creative in this sample.

Not surprisingly, art directors have a nonverbal bias and copywriters a verbal bias in their attitudes. While it is a minority view, art directors are more likely to hold the belief that music, the other nonverbal element in the advertising besides the visual, is the most powerful tool for generating emotion in advertising. They are also somewhat more sensitive to the fundamental idea that, with television, consumers can see ideas they can’t put into words.

In contrast, writers are more sensitive to the number of words that are used in television copy — in particular, they are more sensitive to the criticism that many commercials today are “too wordy.” One might hypothesize that this is due to their belief that they are frequently forced by clients to write more rather than less about the features and benefits of the products they are selling.

Art directors are more likely than writers to hold the belief that the movie industry leads the advertising industry in the development of film technique. This may reflect differences in the sources of inspiration for these two creative types. Possibly, art directors are more likely to be “students of film” while the creative process of writers is more likely to be rooted in their experiences with books.

The Ideal Reel

Indeed, this research provides some evidence supporting the notion that writers and art directors fundamentally conceptualize television commercials differently. One of the questions respondents were asked in this study was to give examples of their favorite television commercials. In a sense, by providing these examples creative were being asked to construct an “ideal reel” which would define a standard of quality by which they would like their own work to be judged.

The definitions of “quality” represented by the ideal reels constructed by art directors and writers appear to be different. This is suggested by differences in the open-ended responses that creative gave explaining their reasons for choosing their favorite commercials, as seen in Table 4.

Creative Differences Table 4

Humor is the leading factor driving creatives’ choices for their favorite commercials, both for writers and art directors. But after that, the differences suggest differences in conceptualizations of an ideal reel.

Art directors more than copywriters cite originality, uniqueness, and the visual look of the advertising, followed by the attention-getting power and memorability of their favorite commercials. In contrast, copywriters appear to value more highly the persuasiveness of the commercial, particularly in terms of how credible it is, how intelligent it is, and how well people can relate to it.

As a possible subject for further research, these findings also imply that there might be significant differences in terms of the relative importance that art directors and copywriters attach to widely used research measures of commercial performance. As a hypothesis, art directors might be expected to place more importance on measures such as attention-getting power and recall, while writers may place more importance on measures of persuasiveness or motivation.

American and European Advertising

When asked to rate European and American advertising on a number of different dimensions of creative excellence, these American creative consistently give higher marks to European advertising.

The key differences are the originality of the ideas and the visual, as shown in Table 5.

Creative Differences Table 5

These perceptions are supported by the generally held belief among this sample of American creative that European advertising is more visual than American advertising. Yet creative reject the notion that American culture itself is the underlying cause of this difference.

This suggests that the advertising development process as conducted by American companies and agencies may be different, and more biased toward verbal communication, than the process followed in Europe. With respect to the role of advertising research in the United States for example, researchers might ask themselves why television pre-testing research is so frequently referred to as “copytesting”?

Attitudes Change With Experience

Importantly, creative attitudes change with experience. Key differences are shown in Table 6.

Creative Differences Table 6

Creatives with less time in the business are more likely to be driven by the desire to be fresh and original. With experience, however, creative are more likely to understand the limitations of their own professional perceptions in terms of how they make a connection with the consumer. In particular, more experienced creative appear to become increasingly sensitive to the importance of visual effectiveness in television advertising.

As a positive note for advertising researchers, it also appears that with experience some creative may become more accepting of the role that research can play in the creative process.


A number of insights into the creative development process are suggested by this study.

1. There are indeed important differences in the attitudes and perceptions of advertising writers and art directors. To think of advertising “creatives” as one group, therefore, may be misleading. A better understanding of the process of getting to effective advertising is likely to come only as a result of a deeper understanding of the differences in how different creative talents operate rather than through a single, generic definition of “creativity.”

2. The long-term success of Bernbach’s model for reorganizing agency creative departments into teams underscores the importance of collaboration in the advertising development process. Blending together two creative types effectively improved the chemistry of the creative process. One reason why collaboration may be so important is that it allows the copywriter to get past the self-centered limitations of the interior dialogue described by Kover (1995) and find a more appropriate “other” in the responses of an external audience — in this case, the creative partner. A similar, but somewhat more threatening, process is generated by focus group research when a creative, watching through the one-way mirror, discovers that the consumer responds to an advertisement in completely unexpected ways. But to suggest that that is the only reason why Bernbach’s reorganization works seems like an insufficient explanation. Otherwise, why not simply team two writers together, or two art directors? Bernbach’s insight was that writers and art directors look at advertisements in different ways and see different things in them. On some level, the process of generating a creative dialogue probably requires a collaborative disagreement or divergence in perceptions — as in the movement from thesis to antithesis to synthesis — to produce truly original work.

3. The visual component of a television advertisement appears to be particularly problematic for the advertising development process. Most creative agree that clients have trouble visualizing the final commercial at the conceptual stage. One problem, in particular, is that many clients may not have a well-developed “vocabulary” for describing what they “see” in a storyboard and how they expect it to translate into final film. As a result, the dialogue which must take place between client and agency during creative development undoubtedly suffers from too much attention being given to the copy, which is easy to talk about, and too little attention to the visuals, which are hard to talk about.

4. There may be an organizational bias in many agency power structures that favors writers over art directors. Nearly half of the creative in our sample believe this to be true, with art directors somewhat more sensitive to the issue than writers. It is certainly a fact if we look at the history of the industry. We can find many more examples of writers heading major advertising agencies, such as Leo Burnett or Hal Riney, than examples of art directors rising to the top of agency power, like Lee Clow. Given the differences we have shown in the advertising preferences of these two creative types, if writers have more control than art directors do over the kind of advertisements that ultimately get produced, this factor in the creative development
against the creation of more visually effective advertising.

5. Finally, the kinds of advertising research done in this country may favor the types of advertisements created by writers over those created by art directors. Recall and other types of TV commercial research measures that ask the consumer to distill the television advertising experience into words may be short-changing more visually creative advertising. A significant number of art directors in our survey hold this view. In the future, one way that research can be used to enhance the creative development process is through the development of more balanced methods of advertising measurement which can give full weight to visual power of television advertising.


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