By Stephanie Safari

Creativity in advertising is a fundamental strategic issue. There is such an intimate relationship between planning and creativity since it is not possible to affect a plan without an idea, or an idea without a plan.


The first mistake planners make is not interrogating the objectives, having too many or the wrong one, and so not correctly defining the focal challenge. Understanding the difference between business, marketing communication objectives is crucial. So, is ensuring that they are appropriately linked. The creative process should not be used to resolve any outstanding lack of clarity in the brief.

The second mistake is the misuse and overuse of ‘insights.’ This is a word so varyingly bandied about that it’s ceasing to have meaning. Uncovering and then crafting an insight is much harder than we think, which is why most the insights we see are bland behavioural descriptors. There is a gaping chasm between tapping into a universal truth and depicting a commonly held observation and using ‘insights’ to frame our presentations with ‘insight 1’ and ‘insight 2’ isn’t helpful.

Suffice to say that good planners are insightful throughout the process. Being insightful is a quality or practice of developing a deep and intuitive understanding of something. It is a way of looking and thinking. And it isn’t only to do with the consumer. It could be the product, the packaging or the category. It is anything that genuinely sheds new light on the business issue.


1. Spends more time listening than talking.
2. Prioritises creative questions over creative answers.
3. Accepts ambiguity and the possibility of disorder.

Good questions are surprising, often challenging, emanating from skewed vantage points. Good questions destabilise the conversation, tipping the discussion into new planes, opening new routes to a subject. Sometimes, a new question is in itself the answer. Afterall, a truly creative answer is typically the outcome of a new set of questions.

Stay, for a time, in a state of active ambivalence, resisting the temptation to arrive at a quick solution because this may close off more valuable possibilities. We must acquire the habit of challenging the assumptions that exist. And, keep asking ‘why’ and ‘what if,’ until the subconscious recognises an unspoken truth.

Policemen might gather information but detectives ask the incisive questions which solve the crime. If we use the data to provide answers before informing questions we might, like sloppy detectives, be massaging evidence to fit an obvious hypothesis that perpetuates stock notions or is entirely wrong. These questions are a mixture of experience with correct procedures, knowing the relevant precedents, then adding common sense and intuition. Chris Forrest, Excellence in Advertising, reminds us that intuition is good but, like detectives and musicians, cooks and artists, most effective when improvised from a base of solid competence in the craft skills of their trade.

Prioritising creativity requires dissent from the dominant view. It requires tolerance for discomfort. We have to accept the possibility of disorder so as to re-order and create new orders. Creative thinkers make quantum leaps. A quantum leap is an extraordinary thought, an opposite force.

“Good questions destabilise the conversation, tipping the discussion into new planes, opening new routes to a subject.”



A planner has two tasks:

1. Defining the real business opportunity
2. Clarifying the relevant ‘truth’ that will assist us in getting there.

Compromising the first means we compromise the creative opportunity.

The role of advertising is to communicate a proposition to an audience but the role for advertising has to take account of the total context and specifically fit the business ask.

What is the link between how the business needs to grow and how communications need to affect people? We must frame the goals with the behaviour we need to, and can, affect. The objective must be what you want the ad to make consumers think, feel or do. And, remember that different objectives affect your target.

So, before we look at briefing, insight development or writing propositions we have to grapple with the data to determine the need, ensuring that we are even answering the right question. This means more accurately defining the problem and this can be only one thing, joining things by clever use of ‘and’ or ‘because’ won’t work.

A good planner created this campaign with a specific business objective in mind.

‘Try something new today,’ was created to help Sainsbury’s deliver an additional £2.5bn in revenue. This idea, so purposefully created, delivered value by changing how Sainsbury’s operated from the inside, not simply by changing how it communicated to the outside.

The problem creativity needed to solve was clear: £2.5bn extra sales.

But this was too big a problem to be useful input into the creative process.

Previously communications had been used to get people to ‘switch’ to Sainsbury’s – to win shoppers. But the days when people chose one shop once a week were gone: everybody has a repertoire of grocery shops. So, what if the recovery could be led by existing shoppers spending more?

This led to an astonishingly simple analysis of the objective. With 14m transactions a week and three years to achieve the goal, the agency calculated that they would need to earn an extra £1.14 for every shopping trip: 1.14 × 52 weeks × 3 years × 14m customers = £2.5bn.

This unlocked the £2.5bn problem so that creativity could be used to help solve it. An unimaginably daunting objective was transformed into something as tangible and approachable. £1.14 became the foundation stone of an idea and transformed the role for communications:

From: Helping deliver £2.5bn extra sales.

To: Getting shoppers to spend a little extra, just £1.14.

And, the value of the idea? £550m in increased revenue over 2 years.


The planning cycle involves five fundamental questions, with each of these containing a myriad of other questions designed at getting us closer to possible answers, in a constantly shifting landscape.

1. Where are we?
2. Why are we there?
3. Where could we be?
4. How could we get there?
5. Are we getting there?

Getting to grips with 1 and 2 helps us to better understand the brand status.

Question 3 ‘Where could we be?’ is the first judgemental leap, a lateral breaking away from ‘this is how it is’ to ‘this is how it could be,’ combining where we would like to be and where we could, in practice, get to. But we cannot be sure about where to be without knowing why we did not get there before and where we are now. If we do not have a solid understanding of where we are and why then we won’t be able to see what we need to do to break from the past and enable a stronger future.

Equally, it is impossible to answer 4, ‘How could we get there,’ without having first reached a decision on where to be and whether it is possible to get there.

Finally, 5, ‘Are we getting there,’ helps us to set appropriate evaluation criteria bringing us back to, ‘now where are we’ and, hopefully, beginning a new cycle from a better position.

'A good planner watches his or her words.' (Image Source: Student Flights Campaign by TBWA Hunt Lascaris)


Lastly, the way tasks and issues are expressed tend to be limited. Often we rely on marketing jargon and descriptors which, straight away, set us off down the same familiar and well frequented paths.

Launch’, ‘announce’, ‘raise awareness,’create a lifestyle brand,’ ‘make it a brand of choice,’ or ‘be aspirational’ are not things people feel or do as a result of seeing an ad. People do things like ‘ask for by name’, ‘not accept anything else’, or ‘stop worrying’. They ‘ring up’ or ‘go to the dealer’ or ‘to the website’. Avoid fat words like ‘quality’, ‘confident,’ ‘trustworthy,’ and so on, especially those overused and now devoid of meaning, like ‘authentic,’ ‘realness’ and ‘iconic.’

If the point of communications is to get people to do things we have to figure out what things exactly and which people. That is the basis of strategy. The advertising has to affect particular people in such a way that they are moved from one mind-state or behaviour to another which in turn generates the required commercial outcome.

You have to tackle the perspiration tasks to figure out what you are trying to achieve before the inspiration task – coming up with a proposition that is distinctive from the competition, true to the product and motivating to the consumer. The better it answers those criteria, the stronger the proposition. And, you can’t achieve that until you have a firm grasp of all the available data.

With the right questions upfront planning should take on the role of advocacy, more proactive, provocative and responsive to change.



Stephanie Safari is a strategic brand consultant who has worked in some of London’s top agencies; lastly, as a Board Planning Director at AMV BBBO, the UK’s biggest agency and consistent winner of Agency of the Year awards.

She has worked on global brands including Diageo, Nike, Diet Coke and the Masterfoods/Mars portfolio, as head of EMEA planning. She was offered a position of Global Strategic Director before deciding to return to South Africa.