How Creativity Beats Brute Force in Marketing

By Mike Killeen

If you’re old enough to have witnessed the introduction of the first Macintosh computer, you probably remember the electrifying ad[1] that announced its release.

It was 1984, the year of Big Brother, and the thought police might be compelling conformity with IBM computers: dulling our imagination, assimilating us all into automata. And it was Super Bowl XVIII: Raiders versus Redskins, at a time out and commercial break during the third quarter.

An athletic woman in bright red shorts and a white tank top, carrying a sledgehammer, runs between rows of seated compliants who are staring up at a giant screen where a man speaks of information purification. She spins three times and hurls the hammer. The screen explodes. A voiceover announces that, in two days, Apple will release the Macintosh. He promises that 1984 will not be like 1984.

The ad, which was directed by Ridley Scott, was all over the news the next day, and Apple had, to say the least, a very successful product launch. The Super Bowl spot was the one and only airing of the commercial to a national audience. One was all it needed.

Counting the Quickening of Our Hearts

There’s an old adage that says it takes seven impressions for people to remember a marketing message and consider taking action. Or maybe it’s eleven impressions. Or three. Or, as claimed in 1885 by Thomas Smith in Successful Advertising[2], twenty. The number changes depending on who’s asserting it, usually without any evidence or citation. Attempts to study the matter with scientific rigor give more complicated and disputed results for a quantity that has been formalized as “effective frequency.”[3][4]

But whatever the number, the underlying idea is the same. Our brains are PCs running rigid procedural languages. If we enter the data, call the subroutine, and complete the required loops, then the action we want will be triggered. Over the decades, many billions of advertising dollars have been budgeted based upon this belief.

Perhaps that entire paradigm needs a sledgehammer through its screen. Memory, impressions, motivation to action: surely these arise from more than math. In the real world, we remember best that which resonates with our heart and understanding.

That time in third grade when Kristi S. looked at me in a way no girl had looked at me before. The first time I saw and heard Nirvana’s “Lithium” on MTV. The birth of my three children.

No repetition is needed for the moments that truly move us or the memories that can change us forever.

The Spark Not Carried by Semiconductors

We’re losing something important in this era of algorithms and analytics, of impressions, click-throughs, and conversions. We’re losing sight of the importance of creativity, the significance of talent, and the value of art. What is the worth of a great designer? A great writer? A talented actor? How many banner ad impressions can one gifted photographer replace?

College courses, museums, centers for performing arts: these still elevate in our culture the importance of creativity, talent, and art. But in business, we’re slipping under the sway of synthesized sirens who sing of machine learning-driven search marketing[5] and AI-managed email campaigns[6].

This is not to take away from the machines’ miracles. What digital data can do today is truly remarkable. We know so much more about our audiences. We can customize our messages and target delivery with a precision unimaginable even a decade ago. We can follow audiences wherever they may go, placing optimized impressions on every screen they may encounter.

Bending the Curve

So why do we bother to look for the creative spark, the light that resonates with a human heart? Why do we value human creators who know the mysteries of shaping fire into art?

Across the human experience, there are many reasons. But in the realm of marketing, we do the hard work of creating because it helps us bend the curve of needed impressions.

Multiple studies reported on in the Harvard Business Review found that ad campaigns with originality and high artistic merit delivered double the impact on sales.[7] They calculated that advertisers in most categories of industry could redirect a significant portion of their budget to develop more creative campaigns, spend less on buying impressions, and come out ahead on sales.

If we’re marketing a hospital birth center, we can serve up thousands of impressions that ours is “the best birth center.” And perhaps, with sufficient saturation, we’ll sway some people to suspect it is so. Or we can tell a moving story: a sacred passage, a new life entered in distress and then saved, two become three become one.

When a message is truly compelling, when it grips the imagination and quickens the heart, when it opens the poetic places within us… then we get more for so much less. We don’t have to run the ad as many times. We don’t have to follow our audience across all their screens. They may even come to us, asking us, please, tell me that story again.

This is the value of creativity, of talent, of unique physiques and voices, of ineffable humanity. When we create a message that moves people, the math matters less and the meaning matters more.

There’s an old adage that says you never get a second chance to make a first impression. But if that first impression inspires enough hearts to sing, one may be all you ever need.

Interested in making the best first impression? Contact us today!


[1] Apple (1984). 1984. Viewed March 5, 2018 at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VtvjbmoDx-I

[2] As reprinted in Kimmel, A.J. (2018). Psychological Foundations of Marketing: The Keys to Consumer Behavior. Routledge.

[3] Naples, Michael J. (1979). Effective Frequency: The Relationship Between Frequency and Advertising Effectiveness. Association of National Advertisers.

[4] Jones, John Philip (1997). “What does effective frequency mean in 1997?” Journal of Advertising Research, July-Aug. 1997, p. 14+. Academic OneFile, Accessed 30 Mar. 2018.

[5] Acquisio (2017, September). Acquisio Turing™ Machine Learning Performance Report. Retrieved March 30, 2018 from http://www.acquisio.com/sites/default/files/acquisio-turing-ml-performance-report.pdf

[6] Rathi, Nandini (2017, April 19). “4 ways AI can improve email marketing,” VentureBeat. Retrieved March 30, 2018 from https://venturebeat.com/2017/04/19/4-ways-ai-can-improve-email-marketing/

[7] Reinartz, Werner, and Peter Saffert. “Creativity in Advertising: When It Works and When It Doesn’t.” Harvard Business Review, Harvard Business Review, 31 July 2014, hbr.org/2013/06/creativity-in-advertising-when-it-works-and-when-it-doesnt.