In my two previous posts, “It all starts with a good brief” and “You need a great idea”, I outlined the first two stages of a three step process for creating communications that work.  In this post I cover the final bit – expressing your idea in the most impactful, remarkable, persuasive and memorable way possible.

Idea and expression – two quite separate entities

An idea is just that – something in your head.  If you want to convey that thought to others you must give it expression and form.  That means making it tangible with words, pictures, typography, patterns, sounds, colours (or whatever elements the chosen medium affords you).

The inexperienced, or thoughtless, person doesn’t fully appreciate that the idea, and the way it is expressed are completely different entities.  They think of the idea, they express it, and that is that.

The smart marketing or creative person understands that there are numerous ways to express an idea – they visualise, imagine and explore a multitude of possibilities, playing around with the different elements, until they find the one that they believe is most effective – that captures and communicates the spirit of the idea most tellingly, that engages the emotions most movingly, that most graphically and clearly gets the message across.  This is  achieved by a process of inspired trial and error, resulting in a series of decisions

The interesting thing is that the way you express an idea can fundamentally change it – a single idea can have any number of very different manifestations.  When you experience the finished thing the idea, and the expression of it, will blend into a seamless whole.  However, when you are involved in the creative process, you need to understand that the idea, and the way it is expressed, are totally different matters.

Let me give you a few examples.

It’s the way you sing it

The Ballad of Lucy Jordan” was written by American poet and songwriter Shel Silverstein.  It was originally recorded by Dr Hook – that’s one (rather sentimental) expression.  But then Marianne Faithful covered it, and her slightly cracked and neurotic voice gave the song a much harder and more chilling slant (it was as if Lucy herself were singing it, rather than a detached observer).  This second version was then used by Ridley Scott in “Thelma and Louise”.  Set in this context it takes on further meanings and nuances – the lyrics remind us what they are running from, while (as in all the great tragedies) there’s a sense that their struggles are futile against the much bigger forces that hem them in.

So, one idea, three very different expressions and interpretations.

Other musical example include “All along the watchtower” by Dylan , then by Hendrix, and then by Dave Matthews (amongst many others).  And “Let’s spend the night together” by The Rolling Stones, and then by Bowie

Hugh Heffner meets Lady Macbeth

Another example is Shakespeare.  We don’t know how he intended his plays to be staged, and never will – so they’re wide open to interpretation.  Trevor Nunn’s version of Macbeth is a stripped-down take on the original script with a traditionally nasty Lady Macbeth.  However, when Roman Polanski was funded by Playboy enterprises to film the drama he put quite a different slant on it.  Lady Macbeth is young and seductive.  The “Unsex me now” speech (where Lady Macbeth asks the spirits to supress her softer side) is omitted altogether and she is actually “upsexed” by Polanski and Playboy.   So, one script, two very different ways of presenting it, and two very different audience experiences.

Out damn spot – pass the soap

It’s the same with a marketing or ad campaign – the idea can be expressed many different ways, and this will alter the way the audience responds to it.  I was briefed, along with my art director, to promote the suggestion that Palmolive Soap is made with natural ingredients which are good for beautifully soft skin.   That was the message, but it was so banal that it needed expressing in a more lateral and intriguing way.

We could have settled for the old cliché of the model in a bath, covered in bubbles.  Or hired a famous face, like Cheryl Cole.  Or invented the Palmolive Farm, with perfect palm nuts ripening in the tropical sun.  Instead we came up with the idea of contrasting the texture of the main ingredient (Palm Nut) with that of a flawless complexion.


But then we had to express that idea for maximum impact.  We had to find a form of words to communicate the juxtaposition between fruit and skin, and to tell the Palmolive story, plus come up with a strapline.  We had to decide whether to shoot the fruit, or illustrate it.  Having settled on photography we had to choose between shooting on the plantation or in the studio, whether to have a fresh faced natural beauty holding it (or have her in one shot and the fruit in the other?).  We had to experiment with different layouts (headline at the top, the side, or under the shot, short copy, long copy or just one line running along the bottom of the page, where to put the packshot?)  We had to choose a typeface (serif, sans serif, light, heavy…) background colours, and so on.    (Click here to see all ads in campaign – after ad 1 and 2 we slightly changed the underlying idea).

There is a clear idea here – that the soap is made from natural ingredients which benefit your skin.  With all of the elements just mentioned we were trying to emphasise this single message.  That’s what this final stage of the creative process is all about – taking what may be a relatively small point and making it appear as big a deal as possible.

However, in many instances there is no point – just a lot of spurious, but attention grabbing, froth.

Little idea big expression

In several of my previous posts I’ve pointed out that many of today’s products have very little to say for themselves – they are intrinsically unremarkable.

One answer is to shift the emphasis from what the brand physically offers to what the customer wants, and to divert attention from the product’s deficiencies by playing up to the consumer’s emotional needs. See my post “How big brands get you to buy yourself”

Another way is to just big up the expression, pour on the style and spend a fortune on production values.  It’s a classic trick regularly played by brands with big budgets.  In these instances the execution becomes the idea (because there is no idea – apart from “let’s just throw a ton of money at it and make it look good”)

Classic ways to do include shooting the commercial somewhere exotic and dramatic, hire a celebrity, feature lots of singing and dancing, or resort to impressive animation and stunning graphics.  The result is a triumph of style over content – here are some examples.

Citroen C4.  Alive with technology.   It’s fun, but what does this commercial actually tell you about the car?

BT Infinity.  Advertises a product with a huge flaw – it’s unavailable outside “enabled areas”, ie chances are you can’t have it!  But, hey, no worries…it looks good, eh?

Citroen CX.  What was all that about?

Lacoste Pink.  Well, in fairness, what is there to say about a fragrance?

Renault Clio.  The only idea here is simply to imitate the style of horror movie The Ring, just to get attention.  There is no message about the product whatsoever.

Go Compare.  When you have nothing to say, sing it.

Peugeot.  This commercial does have a message (that the car is created by perfectionists) but, ironically, the only details they fuss over are extraneous to the vehicle itself – the obsession is with the styling of the commercial, not with making a better car!

There is an old expression in the ad industry that “you can’t shine shit”.  But we now have the technology to roll it in glitter!

The three stage creative process in a nutshell

Stage one, writing the brief, is all about simplifying a mass of information down to a single point.  Stage two, coming up with an idea, is all about giving it an imaginative twist.  And stage three is about taking that idea and exaggerating like hell (often to disguise the fact that there is little or nothing to say).