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Creativity Closes the Deal

By Steve McKee Creativity is at the heart of every advertising campaign. But does creativity really sell? Critics of advertising often put forth that challenge, since there are many examples of so-called creativity that haven't sold a thing. While these ads may win awards, they're not effective in the marketplace.

But creativity itself gets a bum rap. The question of whether creativity sells is never asked of movies, art, or music. Of course it sells -- just ask Disney (DIS), Pixar (PIXR), or the Rolling Stones. Creativity, in the proper context, always outperforms the absence of it.

GENERATING TRUST. It's critical for small businesses to understand this. Because of their size, they must use every element of creativity at their disposal to overcome the budget advantage of larger competitors. One of the reasons small companies struggle with this issue is because they are asking the wrong questions: Creativity or effectiveness? Sizzle or sales? Image or product? These are false choices. Creativity and effectiveness are really two sides of the same coin.

The key to making advertising effective is to create trust -- trust that the product or service will meet a need, trust that it will be of value, and trust that there will be no surprises. Trust is the common factor that all powerful brands deliver, whether it's pizza, pet stores, or dish soap. It's why people are willing to pay more for Bose speakers, to fly across the country to shop at Tiffany & Co. (TIF), and to wait months for a Harley-Davidson (HDI) motorcycle. And what's the key to creating trust? You guessed it -- creativity.

Salespeople understand this concept. Trust is based on familiarity, chemistry, and at least some level of affection. Every good salesperson is adept at building this kind of trust, knowing that the sale seldom comes down to objective criteria alone, but involves some level of good feelings about the person delivering the message. A good salesperson never goes about generating these good feelings in exactly the same way. He or she approaches each prospective client in a creative fashion.

A LOT TO LIKE. Rarely, however, can a company personally call upon all of its prospects. That's when advertising must fulfill the role of building trust. In this respect, small businesses can learn a lot from master marketers, Nike (NIKE), IBM Corp. (IBM), and luxury auto-maker BMW.

In their ads, those outfits relate to the audience, respect their intelligence, and reward them for paying attention with a chuckle, a tear, or a nod of understanding. And in return, the viewers vote with their pocketbooks for these brands. These marketers understand that their advertising is less about them than it is an extension of them. If consumers like an ad, they will typically like the advertiser. Truly creative advertising presents the virtues of a product or service in a likable context. It's that simple, and that difficult.

It's true that creativity outside of a strategic context won't do anybody any good other than win awards. At the same time, however, small businesses must avoid the fallacy of rationality that reduces buying decisions to mechanical tradeoffs between costs and benefits. Customers just don't work that way.

The best advertising, like a beautiful painting or well-crafted movie, should be stirring, moving, thought-provoking, even uplifting. Must it be strategic? Of course -- but even the best strategy won't compensate for a lack of imagination. McKee is president of McKee Wallwork Henderson, an advertising agency specializing in working with fast-growth companies and businesses whose ad budgets are under $10 million.

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