What is a Creative Concept?

Considering how many years the advertising / marketing industry has been cranking out…whatever…you’d think this was a question that would receive a single unwavering answer from all quarters. And if the advertising / marketing industry were more like the sciences you might hope your expectations would
be fulfilled.

But, for good and ill, what we do is a lot closer to what happens on a cooking show. Ask a question like that and you might as well be asking “What is salad?”

It’s not so much that the question is too broad, but that the very idea of “defining salad” sounds absurd. The only way to know what a particular salad is, is to eat it.

That is, except in the current state of affairs, when it’s impossible to feel certain that if I say “creative concept,” your mind won’t immediately flood with images of a comped-up layout. And that’s the problem. A layout, whether sketchy or immaculate can only be the realization of a concept. One single realization, to
be exact.

Because a true concept is an all-pervasive thought process. That’s why every brainstorming session that begins with the phrase “Wouldn’t it be cool if…” is headed for disaster. It makes as much sense as mocking up a sleek body design for a car and then casting about for someone to invent the internal combustion engine.

Not that brainstorming sessions ever produce anything of value. At least, that is, until you’ve done the slow, silent work of crafting a concept based on an understanding of your audience’s needs and desires. Then a brainstorming session about how to realize a concept might make sense—even if it is, inevitably, more about the pizza and pasta salad than about creative strategy.

In any case, know that discovering a creative concept goes beyond deciding whether to sell the steak or the sizzle (obviously, you have to sell both). It starts with feeling and thinking your way into the mind of the people who want and need your brand the most.

And that means getting your head out of your spreadsheet and empathizing with your audience. You might even have to talk to people outside of the glassed-in booth, waist-deep in that gauzy, undefined area we’re still pleased to call the Real World.

Depending on the brand, it’s as simple as observing the people you know: What do they love about their cars? or How do they fuss over their pets?…and other aspects of human nature on display in 3D every day.

Then distill that observation into a few declarative sentences. You now have a backstory of psychological data out of which to weave a single distinctive thought process.

“Vroom and zoom conquers gloom and doom,” for example.


“More healthy nutrition for more wag time.”

Not that these are headlines, mind you. Instead, they’re background thoughts, an emotional environment out of which words and images can emerge.

Trouble is, many a creative team has neither the time nor the experience to nurture their concepts.
As often as not, absurd deadline pressures force creatives to present the mere seeds of a concept.
Unless, that is, they’re willing to grab for one of the industry’s immortal formulas:

Take 1 pop-cultural reference
Replace character/singer name with product name
Photoshop a Fender Telecaster into a standard product shot
Layer on a pun-laden headline including the phrase “Like a Rock Star”
Bake covered at 375 for 1 hr or until mildly offensive

Or to save time they may go with a kind of design-centric minimalism. For some people, a “cool image” and a three-word headline, carefully juxtaposed, is enough to create the illusion that an underlying thought is embedded somewhere within. It’s just too “honest” to come out and wave hello.

Probably the most popular variety of this creative ploy features images commonly referred to as “grainy, B&W photography,” as if the same alternative model would look any less alternative in glossy color. That fact that, regardless, the model still reads as a model never sinks in. This is the advertising world’s icon for Reality.

In real reality, all this subterfuge is much more work than talking to real people in real time. Besides, why should all that effort be lavished on everything else except what to say to consumers? For if there’s any reason at all to devise a creative concept, it’s because you believe said concept delivers a compelling message that makes people in your target universe click “Add to Cart.”


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Mark Laporta

Writer, Creative Consultant
New York, NY




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