• drewbufalini

Undercover Creatives of the Future

Surviving Suicide After the Internet Shoves Your Agency Off the Bridge to the Future

(Originally published in 1998)

Refusing to jump is the obvious solution. Putting some serious thought into the methods behind your creative should get you off the overpass and into the car. But back at the office, you’ll need to make some serious changes to avoid the techno-alarmist prophesy that agencies will soon be giving a fairly dry goodbye kiss to broadcast and print media creative. Contrary to what the web seers will have us believe, broadcast and print media will not become a thing of the past. They are not the horse and buggy to the sport utility vehicle, nor are they the Dodo to Dolly the cloned sheep. But non-virtual creative will need to undergo a significant metamorphosis to survive the new virtual age of advertising. The change won’t come from our research or media departments, but from within the hallowed halls of our creative departments.



In his article, “Darling, I’m Not Content!” Chris Worth of Ogilvy Interactive, Paris, differentiates between advertising and content for web sites, which are rapidly becoming the most effective medium for tracking consumer habits and the only point-of-advertising sales outlet available. “Advertising tells you how to buy tickets on the web. Content is a travel agent putting her travel diary on the web. Content tells me who you are. And if I like you, I’ll buy from you. But if you shove your logo in my face, I’ll walk away.” Traditional methods of advertising will need to adapt quickly to content-oriented advertising to avoid becoming irrelevant.

Broadcast and print media do not have to fade into the pages of advertising history texts. Rather, they need to learn a few lessons from the web and adapt themselves to the changing landscape of advertising. Realize corporate identity as we know it will soon vanish – only products and advertising will represent corporations.

The first thing to do is cease and desist with this hard sell business. No matter how loudly a client screams for a whiskey-voiced announcer to bellow features and prices, we must do them the service of being well-informed and confident enough to say “No!” We must go back to the days when clients actually relied on agency input to produce successful advertising and divest ourselves from the committee culture that bogs down the creative process.

Forget about focus groups. While focus groups are lauded as an effective tool to discover the habits of consumers, they do not produce the information necessary to reach consumers on a visceral level. They supply none of the real or true information that a creative department needs to create effective advertising for the shrinking demographic groups that are being created by the Internet. The very nature of focus groups negates the possibility of a consumer sharing their true feelings or habits – how do we know if they are telling the truth? The information we need to answer our client’s demands can only be found within the consumer. We must go undercover to get it.

It’s time for another creative revolution.

Tomorrow, there will be more to advertising than hard sells, spokespeople, intrusiveness, shock value, analogies, emotive garbage and direct comparison – unless it is properly executed within the context of these splintered demographic groups.

Research supposedly provides creative departments with everything they need to know about the target audience. The problem is that we can rarely use that research to know the target audience. My mother once told me that what I wore to school directly affected my behavior. If I dressed nicely, she posited, my behavior would improve. She had more of an inkling about advertising than any researcher. In the next era of advertising, it stands to reason that if you’re advertising snowboards - go riding, hang with the snow surfers, learn their language, wear what they wear, eat what they eat. Knowing the demo is the only way to advertise to them without insulting them. While this may seem like common sense, ask yourself how many creative briefs you’ve seen with the demographic listed as men and women between the ages of 25 and fifty? I rest that particular case. By developing a friendly relationship between the target and the product we’ll have more than a great ad, our client will have a loyal customer with an intimate connection to his brand rather than a one time buyer.

The simplicity of this idea is flawed by the fact that the creativity business is marred by prima donas who are inclined to dispose of any research personal or professional and rely on their own infallible instincts to target a consumer. Where do these omniscient powers come from? Every single stereotype about a huge demographic listed in a sub-par creative brief. Every ivory tower speculation that does not come from real experience, but from overestimated intuition. And every misconception brewed in the cauldron of generalizations go into coming up with a wrong, purely insulting campaign. Generalizing about our target demographic is nothing more than a commercial version of racism.


When Douglas Coupland’s novel, Generation X, came out, he was approached by agencies and marketers alike to speak on the subject – who are these people? The novel only covers a brief period of time in the life of a small number of X-ers. How could anyone possibly speak with any authority on a group of millions of people that differ in age, geography, passions, loathings, morals, standards and education outside of a purely fictional context? Welcome to the new world – think smaller. When asked to create an ad for housewives between the ages of thirty and sixty – say no. Compartmentalize, regionalize, segment your targets and narrow down your creative brief to represent one specific group of people in a set of circumstances. Instead of a three spot campaign, do one spot per target and work with your media department to guarantee that the right audience is viewing the right ad. Speak to your audience in a way that makes them want to listen. If you understand them, they’ll like you, they’ll buy your product and then you can say – I did my job. We must never downplay the significance of using the right voice. But becoming a ventriloquist in the new age of advertising will be tricky business – one slip in character, vernacular, tone or rhythm and you’re busted. Research provides none of these things. We must learn who these people are and connect with them (not simply to them by choosing some random symbol within their lives) to sell them our products. And there’s only one way this can happen short of hiring people out of the actual demographic. Creative departments must go chameleon. We must temporarily, yet wholeheartedly become our demographic. We must go undercover by: Knowing what our target knows

Thinking like our target Sharing our target’s belief system

Eating what they eat Dressing the way they dress

Playing the way they play

In essence, as we meet anyone and learn about them, we must do this with our targets to the extent where we are fully accepted into their lives. Personal lives no longer simply entail working, eating, socializing and sleeping – our personal lives become public domain every time we turn on the radio or television, but especially when we're surfing the web. And right now, we’re alienating ourselves from the majority of people. A creative person does not need to lose his identity, only have the ability to empathize with the target rather than have the typical armchair sympathy.

It’s a fault of human nature to believe that the set of experiences and education which combine to form our personalities and belief systems are universal. That kind of closed-minded thinking has brought nothing more to the human race than conflict. As a viable business entity, why would we want conflict with our customers? The new generation of creative people must own more than a degree and above average portfolio – they must own a sense of relativity. They must be open-minded enough to accept the fact that being eclectic is not enough. Being able to relate is not enough. Like a good psychologist, a creative person must be able to listen as well as to create. The best listeners will make the best undercover creatives.

How do you foster an environment of chameleon creatives with the staff you already have? Corporate philosophy changes are as suspect as the ads we mistakenly create for mass target audiences. So don’t hold a big meeting to announce it.

  1. Discard your hiring practices. Don’t look for sycophants with interesting portfolios. New hires don’t need to be abrasive to have the chameleon-like ability – but they must be fearless. They must know themselves well enough to be secure in their undercover work. Hire people who can act.

  2. As for your existing staff? Realize that whenever you ask a group of comfortable veterans to make a change, the majority of them will resist it. The old-timers will feel un-consulted and their sulking replacements in the wings will side with them on it. Sack them all.

  3. Back to the bottom: the junior creative staff will support your changes – the boat-rockers and the sycophants alike. Personal research will get them out of the office more. Their life and occupational experiences will be enhanced.

  4. Got a good staff? Don’t bore them with in-house role playing exercises – make it outside and make it a game. Give groups of two the assignment to investigate the regulars at the new coffeehouse account you just won. Let them play anthropologist at first, just observing the regulars. Get daily updates from the creatives – ask questions and keep them accountable. Just before it’s time to sit down and create a campaign, make contact with the consumer. Not as an ad person, but as a person. Are they in college? If so, what are they studying? What kind of music do they like? Why are they always in the coffeehouse at the same time everyday? The answers to these questions will become the building blocks of your new campaign. A more personalized campaign that relates to the right group of people – no matter how small. To give the staff a hand, hire an ex-cop or other former undercover person – the more help they get, the better the outcome for the client.

  5. Always encourage experimentation and remember that it probably won’t happen in the office. It can happen after hours, on weekends and even on company time. In the long run, the more freedom you give creatives to be out of the office and exist in the real world, the better our creative product will be in the end.


  1. Fire all politicians. When a creative person takes the dive into mudslingin’ territory, your entire department will be compromised. Creatives who are friends or at least have an interesting rivalry between them, are the ones to keep around. Any negativity will put the kabosh on revolutionizing our creative product.

  2. Remember the sort of work we’re asking them to do – we’re asking that they live their jobs. Keep them satisfied. I don’t just mean financially, but make sure that there’s a tie that positively binds them to the agency. If it’s having beer night every Wednesday at four o’clock or simply rewarding success with recognition, we’ll be doing ourselves a favor.

  3. Never forget that this change in creative scope will improve our creative and the morale of the creative staff. For every revolution, there is a reason. And with every revolution comes

resistance. That resistance is there for a reason. Both sides will have valid points – synthesize the positive suggestions into a course of action. The solution doesn’t need to make everyone happy - it has to work. There’s more than one reason people are turning off their sets, switching their dials and canceling their subscriptions. The Internet is not solely to blame. Our efforts in the next ten years will determine the future of broadcast and print media. We can no longer be content with statistics and charts for there is simply no substitute for experience. The extra money we spend re-inventing our creative departments will not go to waste. It will ensure the future of our agencies, our staff and our clients.

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