By Creative Review

“When you look at advertising that’s out in the real world, it is largely vacuous, patronising wallpaper that takes people for idiots,” write Polkinghorne and Palmer in the introduction to their book, which is titled How To Make Better Advertising and Advertising Better. These are strong words indeed, but ones that many would agree with.

The duo’s book then goes on to list 40 points which they believe the industry needs to address, in order to heal itself. Below is an extract of six of these points, which make some insightful, if tough, observations about the ad industry today.

Why People Buy

Agencies and marketers need a sense check. They need to ask themselves if they really know why people buy what they buy. Usually the reality is that most people just want products that simply meet their needs and do what they’re meant to do (some economists call this ‘satisficing’ – when people choose, they don’t always search through the detail of every option available to find the perfect choice). Most customers don’t need or want a brand to have a ‘higher purpose’ or to stand for something above and beyond the role that the product plays in their lives.

Of course it’s a positive thing for brand owners to feel that their products have a useful and worthwhile place in their customers’ lives. But many brands are guilty of vastly overstating and overplaying their role in grand ‘brand purposes’. Who wants to be told how to lead their life by a beer? Or moralised to by a soap manufacturer? Certainly no one outside of marketing departments and deluded agencies. “The worst thing about these hyperbolic brand visions is that they lead to equally fantastical and idiotic tactical work.” Mark Ritson, Associate Professor of Marketing, Melbourne Business School

[and Marketing Week columnist].

This kind of self-important approach leads to cynical, patronising advertising that has nothing to do with the real reasons we choose the products and services we use. People aren’t fooled by it.

Think Real

There are some folk in advertising and marketing who have developed a habit of expecting unrealistic behaviour from people in the real world. Ask most marketing or advertising people if they themselves, outside of their professional life, have ever shared brand content, or used a brand hashtag, or got involved in making or editing or uploading their own experiences of a brand, or any of the other things that they often expect customers to do, the answer would be rarely, if at all. Yet they regularly expect other people to do them.

Contrary to what appears to be popular belief inside agencies and marketing departments, most people do not want to ‘join the conversation’ or take part in any interactive, two-way dialogue with brands, even in relatively high-interest categories.

We all need to remind ourselves to be normal people at work – make judgements based on what we, and other people, are really like. Always resist the temptation to expect unrealistic behaviour from people.

Surprise, Entertain, Provoke

Advertising that surprises, entertains or provokes a reaction is much more likely to be noticed and remembered. That’s certainly not to say these things should be the sole aim of advertising. It’s not good enough to be entertaining just for entertainment’s sake, or shocking just for shock value. The surprise, entertainment or provocation needs to serve a purpose – it has to be there to make the benefit of the product and the brand more noticeable and memorable. This should be a guiding principle behind the development and direction of advertising ideas.

This is becoming increasingly important as we are bombarded with more advertising and information than ever before, and we are becoming ever more adept at screening out any uninteresting and irrelevant noise. Sadly, most current advertising falls into the category of dull, irrelevant or uninteresting. Clients and agencies often agonise over their strategy, but then package it up in bland or formulaic advertising that completely passes the viewer by.

This means that making your advertising surprising, thought-provoking, interesting or entertaining (in a way that makes the product benefit and brand more noticeable and memorable) is not a stylistic or indulgent choice, it is an absolute commercial necessity.


Advertising and marketing people need to lose the jargon.

A culture of business bullshit has slowly polluted the commercial world. Engagement, low-hanging fruit, synergy, media-neutral, content-led, always-on, ideation, adcepts, holistic approach, storytelling, user-generated content, leverage, realtime 24/7, cultural currency, the list goes on (and on). This language is symptomatic of a move towards the unnecessary complication of the world of advertising and marketing.

These terms allow people to hide behind them, and mask flimsy thinking. They confuse and conceal, where the aim of the advertising process should always be to simplify and clarify. And they make the rest of the business world even more sceptical about advertising and marketing. Let’s drive the bullshit and the bullshitters out of the process, use plain speaking, and always simplify.


To get the best out of their agencies, clients need to resist the urge to try to solve the problem themselves. There is a growing tendency to give detailed, prescriptive creative direction to agencies. This massively underuses the skills and thinking of the experts within the agency, and over time can cause poor morale and lead to a poor end product.

It’s much more productive to give the agency a clearly defined problem, and then give them responsibility for solving it. Often this will lead to much stronger solutions that wouldn’t have surfaced if the agency had not been challenged to solve the issue themselves.

What is advertising creativity?

The advertising industry needs to wake up and realise that great advertising creativity is so much more than merely execution, or thinking up funny or entertaining things.

A whole generation of advertising creatives have been downgraded to being merely the stylists of a strategy generated by a process, or the makers of (poorly) branded entertainment.

Great advertising creativity really starts with asking the difficult questions no one else asks, and searching for the thing of value and interest in the product or service that will actually mean something to the customer. It’s about understanding what people want, what makes them tick, understanding how they make decisions and what will motivate them, and pulling all that together in ways that are interesting, unexpected, relevant, intelligent and memorable. That is real advertising creativity – much more than just creativity in execution – it is creativity of thought.

The advertising creative needs to be empowered once again to operate at all of these stages. This will expose the mere stylists in creative departments – the flimsy thinkers who are only interested in making pretty things. More importantly, it will get the very best out of the most talented people in the business, leading to better solutions for clients.

This is an extract from How To Make Better Advertising and Advertising Better by Vic Polkinghorne & Andy Palmer. For more information on the book, visit

Read more here:: How To Make Better Advertising and Advertising Better