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The Creative Cheat Sheet

Admit it. All creatives get stuck sometimes and end up staring blankly into space. We become so caught up in a fruitless route that we’re unable to jolt our minds out of the rut.

So instead of looking for inspiration at use these techniques to give yourself the kick in the pants you desperately need. This is an ever-expanding list – so keep coming back for more. And please add your own suggestions and advice in the comments area below.

What’s the logical conclusion?

Try changing the focus of the brief. If you’ve been asked to say that a car is fuel-efficient, change your proposition to the fact that it saves you money; or it prevents you from having to make too many stops at a petrol station; or it makes the fuel gauge a very boring thing to look at. If your proposition is about a cure for the common cold think about the doctor’s surgery being empty; or a doctor being bored in their office; or a supermarket doing a special on their surplus order of hankies; or someone having to come up with a better excuse to pull a sickie.

What’s the illogical conclusion?

Now it’s time to step into the world of cartoon. You’ve been given a brief for an incredibly fuel efficient car again. This time you’re going to be a bit daft with your solutions. If you start thinking like Homer Simpson, the proposition could now mean that you forget where the petrol cap is because it’s so long since you’ve used one; the only thing you refuel at the service station is yourself when you buy a some donuts; petrol stations start going out of business because so many people are buying this car.

These are unbelievably wild outcomes but they help to illustrate the proposition in a more entertaining way.

Beat up the competitor

Is your product better than the competition? Even in just one way? Show people how your product compares favourably. Do a good-old-fashioned side by side comparison to show how your product stacks up. Or, if it can be done in an acceptable way, rip the competition to shreds.

For example, if you have a brief for a smaller quality newspaper, show how unwieldy and awkward the other big broadsheets are. If you have a brief for a lower-rate bank loan, show how the competition’s customers are having to take on more work to pay their loan off.

If the competition has had some bad PR, twist the knife while the wound is fresh. Play dirty. Even if the ad never runs, being a bitch is fun.

Use the medium

Is the space where the ad’s going to appear of any help? Is it an unusual size or shape? Where will it appear? What will it be surrounded by? Can you use a quirk of the media to communicate the message? Your visual may just be the ad itself.

Remove all the words

See if you can do the whole job in the visual without a headline. It’s the ultimate distillation of communication. John Hegarty apparently put a screensaver on the computers at BBH which read ‘Words are a barrier to communication’. And I believe him.

So how would you get the message across to a person who can’t read? Or what would it look like if it was a road sign? Aim for doing the whole job in the visual and if you end up having to chuck in a few words, at least your ad will be simpler.

Look at it in the mirror

What’s the exact opposite of what you’re trying to communicate? How about having one beer for the price of two? Or guaranteeing that your product is the worst one available? How could your sports car become the slowest on the road?

This will at least provoke you to think in a different way. And surely that’s what creativity is all about.

Look at it upside down

Ask yourself what the product doesn’t do. Who would have no use for it whatsoever? What doesn’t it cost? How would it be inefficient?

What’s it like then?

Are there any metaphors for the product? Is it like a lion or a camel or a clockwork chicken? Is it a Harley Davidson rider wearing drag? Or a car that runs on custard? Or a dolphin with an aqualung?

Metaphors are great ways of helping the audience understand something in a simple way. But it’s easy for them to be cheesy so be careful and avoid clichés. Please! If I see another image of a zebra amongst horses as an analogy of how a company stands out from the crowd, I think I’ll borrow a metaphorical rifle and climb a metaphorical clocktower.

Tell the truth

Revolutionary, or what? Most people have a healthy distrust of advertising, so being blatantly honest can have a dramatic effect. Look at the old classic Avis campaign – ‘We’re number two, so we try harder’. Genius! They hit you with something so surprisingly truthful in the first half of the phrase that you have no option but to believe the second half.

Or how about Skoda’s advertising? They never tried to hide the fact that they had a stinking image. Instead, they capitalised on it. The whole campaign was even stronger because it was backed up by award-winning products. It convinced me enough to go out and buy one, anyway.

Go on! Prove it!

If you’ve got a strong proposition about how your product is better than the rest, prove it. But do it in an interesting and surprising way.

Could you show your washing up liquid cleaning a truck full of plates as well as the truck? Could you show your car beating an F-15 fighter jet along a runway? Could you pile up coins higher than a house to demonstrate exactly how much your mortgage will save someone in the next 12 months?

Demonstrations have been used since the dawn of advertising. But that doesn’t mean they’re out of date. Just remember two things: keep them honest and make them dramatic.

Use a celebrity

I hate this one. But it may just work for you.

Please, please, please don’t use a celebrity just for the sake of it. Borrowed interest is only useful if it actively builds on a strong concept. Unfortunately, when the latest fast-rising celebrity appears, they are usually over-exploited by advertisers. We were all sick to death with Dom Jolly and Fast Show immitators 5 years ago. I’m just glad that Little Britain and Catherine Tate didn’t sell out in the same way. Unfortunately Gordon Ramsey and Jamie Oliver seem to have made up for it.

This seems to be the route when an agency doesn’t actually have a big idea. Tread carefully. It can suck big time.

Turn a positive into a negative

What is the downside to your proposition? Which part of your life will it have a negative impact on?

If you’re advertising extra strong hair gel, it may cause abrasive scratches on your headboard or take lumps out of the lintel over a door or tear holes in your hat. If it’s a computer game, magazine or TV series it may have a bad effect on your neglected relationship. If it’s an incredibly good mortgage rate, you may talk about it so much that you become the most boring person at any party.

Think ying and yang. For every positive, there’s a negative. And it’s your job to find it.

Celebrate the problem

What is the issue that your product resolves? Maybe your product frees you up to enjoy that problem all the more. This worked great for Persil with their ‘dirt is good’ campaign because getting dirty can be lots of fun. Especially if you’re 8 years old. Or drunk. So rather than stifle that opportunity for enjoyment – do it more and let Persil deal with the consequences.

This strategy will work great for products like hangover cures, liposuction and genital wart cream. But not so great for chemotherapy, psychiatric treatments and prosthetic limbs.

Shock the fuck out of people

Is there a visual you can use that will provoke a strong reaction? Or could you say something that would seriously offend your parents? If you’re advertising an amazingly powerful vacuum cleaner, you could use a close up shot of a dustmite – they scare the shit out of me! If you’re advertising a rugged bike helmet, you could show the mashed up corpse of a cyclist with tyre tracks across his chest and not even a scratch on the helmet. If you’re advertising underwear you could dress a goat up in it and say that bestiality is a serious option now. Sometimes the right thing is just to be plain wrong.


Leave a Comment
  1. Bernice Burnside- Bvisible / Apr 14 2010 10:17 pm

    When I read posts like this it makes me wish that I worked in advertising and not PR. While creativity in PR is possible and often necessary the boundaries can’t are more restricted. Some inspiring ideas though and really well put. Thanks for waking me up before I hit the sack.

  2. Europejskie Kasyno Gry / Jan 1 2011 10:02 am

    I really enjoyed reading this post. Great step by step description!

  3. Owen Jenkinson / May 30 2012 12:12 pm

    Dave, I notice you don’t mention a technique from an old creative director I once worked with that goes something like this:

    Take the proposition from the brief and key each individual word into google images.
    Retro-fit a headline that loosely marries the business problem with the image.
    Hey presto, algorithmically derived creative.


  1. The Creative Cheat Sheet compilation « The Dictionary of Specific Generalities

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