The Wacky Ad Firm: Am I Being Too Conservative?

Dan Heath, co-author of the upcoming book Switch, offers advice on how to choose an ad campaign the is provocative without losing credibility.


A: Dear Reiner, I bet I can out-wacky you. I once worked at a startup where we offered online tutoring help to college students (with courses like calculus and biology). We had an ad agency that we’d hired to help get the word out. After months of creative brainstorming, the agency’s creative director pitched the following concept: “So you’re a college student. You open up your dorm mailbox and there’s a mysterious postcard in it. It says ‘’ There’s nothing else printed on the card. So you’re intrigued and later you type in the URL, and a video launches. You see an attractive coed taking a shower, though you can’t see anything naughty. Suddenly, just when you think you’ll get a peep, she turns around and looks straight into the camera and says, ‘Why are you studying anatomy when you should be studying calculus?’ And then–POOF!–you’re redirected to the calculus tutoring site!”


True story. And it would have been the perfect campaign, too, if it weren’t for a few small details, like our aspiration to have the occasional female customer, and also our hope of respecting the basic norms of human decency. (Nor did it seem particularly fair to the poor people who responded to the ad, hoping for some hot shower action, only to be redirected to the Central Limit Theorem.) We fired the agency the next week and hired a different agency that ended up doing great (and porn-free!) work.

So back to you. Advertising has to walk a tightrope between unexpectedness and credibility. You need bold, surprising creative to get attention, but if you get too edgy, you lose credibility. I think most of the time, it’s the clients that are too conservative–they are too quick to blunt the edge of an agency’s creative. But it sounds like your agency might be pushing things too far–“edgy” and “provocative” might be okay, but I don’t like the sound of “wacky” and “embarrassing.” I think what you’ve got to ask yourself is this: If their handiwork did indeed generate WOM, would it be the kind you’d want? If not, don’t feel bad about pushing for a new direction (or a new agency).

[Photo of Man in Suit: Nelson Pavlosky]

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