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So you think you can make an ad

One of the summer's most popular TV shows, Fox's "So You Think You Can Dance" provides a provocative parallel to the influx of consumer-generated ads of late. Apparently there are hoards of people out there who think making a TV commercial is as easy as moving their bodies to music and calling it dancing. But the parallel is not just in the challenge issued by the show's name.

As the show pits dancers with classical training and impeccable technique against those who have taught themselves a unique, unconventional style, we in the ad industry are prompted to consider whether or not the average Joes who enter ad contests are as capable of creating work as great that produced by experienced and trained ad agency creative directors.

Regardless of where we stand on the issue, we can agree on one thing. If we're going to be seeing more work from people outside the industry, it better be good work. There have been far too many mediocre ads heralded as great ones simply due to the novelty of their origin. If we want advertising to continue to be a creative force in our culture, we should expect -- perhaps even demand -- more.

The seasoned and savvy have the responsibility to apply the same standards of evaluation to which we've long been held. And aspiring ad makers should appreciate the wisdom of a few proven principles for creating great work.

First, there's strategy. An inspired strategy fuels inspired creative. The advertising strategy must be explicitly stated -- and implicitly understood -- by all stakeholders at the genesis of creative development. The strategy articulates the objective of the ad, and importantly the objective is not to make people laugh. Ads help companies achieve business and brand goals: increase awareness, generate leads, create perceived differentiation, etc.

A fresh and proprietary consumer insight should drive the work and a single, differentiating proposition is another critical element of an effective strategy. It can be debated whether the company should dictate the strategy or the ad's creator should be left to devise her own, but strategy as the starting point for advertising is axiomatic.

Great communications are based on a big idea -- not a visual gag or clever joke that can be set up, told and wrapped up in 30 seconds. I'm talking about a BIG idea that changes the way people think and feel about the brand. GE's ecoimagination campaign and Dove's Evolution spots are examples that relay a unique and compelling brand point of view that transcends the product or service being sold.

Crafting a compelling brand vision is more important than devising a cool ad contest. Before soliciting ads we should ensure there is a clearly articulated vision of what the brand should stand for -- and then hold ourselves and the ad makers to it.

The brand idea should be big enough to extend beyond a single execution, even beyond TV commercials in general. In fact, one could argue the traditional 30-second spot should be the last creative unit sought, not the first. The maxim "the media is the message" is more true now than ever before. Non-traditional creative resources should promote non-traditional ways to engage consumers. Truly original and innovate connections are what should be sought and submitted.

Finally, aspiring ad makers must be forced to swallow the tough pill of humility. An ad is not about its creator; it's about the brand. Any creative director will, however reluctantly, acknowledge he or she is a commissioned artist. Creativity for the sake of creativity has no place in the advertising world. Certainly advertising is part art but we do the craft a disservice when we promote people whose only interest is a moment in the spotlight. Instead, those who create advertising should be motivated by and rewarded for moving the needle for the brand.

As the number of companies that turn to the public for their next TV commercial grows, so does the importance of these fundamental principles of great advertising. They are the baby with the proverbial bathwater that is at risk of being thrown out in the pursuit of a PR-worthy marketing effort.

Come to think of it, these points are so elemental they're worth consideration by no-names with camcorders and creative directors with display cases full of Lions alike. After all, creating breakthrough brand-building advertising is not as easy as it seems. It requires discipline in addition to entertainment. Just like dancing.

I use the term "consumer-generated" because that's how everyone refers to these ads, but I think we need to do a reality check here. The ads that win the contests and get exposure are not created by consumers. They're made by aspiring filmmakers and "pro-sumers" looking for their lucky break. Case in point: the Doritos contest winner whose spot aired during the 2007 Super Bowl is not a consumer. He is a partner at a firm that specializes in creative video production.

According to Doritos' website, his firm was "looking for any opportunity to launch the company into the public eye." By calling these ads "consumer-generated," we are propagating the myth that they are engaging a brand's users. Let's come up with a different term.

Denise Lee Yohn is an independent brand resource who partners with clients to translate brand strategy into operational reality. She can be reached at [email protected]. Read full bio.

Blending a fresh perspective, 25 years of experience, and a talent for inspiring audiences, Denise Lee Yohn is a leading authority on building and positioning exceptional brands. Yohn initially cultivated her brand-building approaches through...

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