Thursday, December 15th, 2005

Reflecting on our ad campaign

Reflecting on our ad campaign
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So, I figure it’s time to finally do it. I’m going to write a little about the “Creative Within” campaign. It was one of the strangest experiences I’ve been a part of, and now that the noise has died down, I feel I can comment without seeming like I’m trying to justify our efforts. Back in the spring, we were really wrestling with the idea of a promotional piece for smashLAB. With most other projects, the conceptual process seems pretty straight-forward; however, with this one, we kept spinning in circles. As most of our work is relatively conservative, we wanted to mix things up by doing something playful and cheeky.We also felt it important to get people talking. (When you run a small shop like ours, the budgets for marketing are limited, so you’d better not rely on frequency.)

A question that lead to giggles

We talked about the fact that our creative was perhaps the most persuasive aspect of our offering. As we stumbled to find a way to illustrate this (harder than it sounds), we had many debates, and put away an unhealthy number of espressos. Finally I tossed this challenge to the other designers in the studio: “Finish my sentence… We’re so creative we (blank).” I received a bit of a puzzled response, so I filled in the first one, “We’re so creative, we shit rainbows.”

We shared a laugh, and instead of beginning a brainstorm session, everyone seemed to like the idea of playing with the off-the-cuff idea. It seemed like a fun experiment, and felt little naughty. We did have some reservations, but ultimately decided to build it and see what the response would be from a few friends.

There were some interesting moments in there, while I watched our designers build fake poo and such. We giggled a fair bit, and I continued to note that I had never expected this to be part of our job descriptions.

Upon sending out the ads to some of our peers, we experienced a wide variety of responses. While some were a little less positive, many noted that they simply couldn’t stop laughing. Shortly thereafter, Peter, our new designer at the time, started posting the ads to a number of industry sites, just to see what the feeling was like.

They like us… they hate us…

What happened next was pretty amazing. We started to get responses from all over the world. People would email us to ask about the campaign, and a number of the forums we posted to started heated debate. Honesty, a lot of things said were pretty critical of the campaign. That said, we found it mildly amusing to see how upset some could get about a little potty humour.

I sat in a bit of panic, wondering if we screwed things up, and had sacrificed our client-base by doing something that had gone too far; meanwhile, I couldn’t quite understand why some were so pissed-off about fake poo. Sheesh, I’m more freaked-out about George Bush than I am about a fake turd.

Okay in Europe

When I met Marqui’s Janet Johnson, at a presentation I was involved in, the campaign came up. She noted: “Initially I was aghast–but then I couldn’t help but send it to all of my friends.” Another common observation we heard was, “The ads were pretty sensational, but they caught my attention. Then I looked at the rest of your work–it’s pretty impressive.”

For a while there, I was pretty happy about the campaign. Sure we had ruffled some feathers, but at least people were talking, and most of them even thought it was pretty clever. In the following weeks, the ads showed-up all over–mostly in blogs, and in some of the least expected places. Russian and Brazilian bloggers seemed to love the ads, and our site traffic went ballistic for a while. Perhaps the most interesting bit of feedback to the ads was from someone who noted, “You can run them in Europe, but not in North America.”


So, would we do it again? Most certainly. The increased visibility, and the number of calls we have had for new work certainly justified a few upset viewers. That being said, I doubt that we would be quite as sensational in the next campaign, as it might feel like we were a one trick pony. Regardless, my mom thought they were funny as hell. I figure that’s pretty much reward in itself.

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  1. Val says:

    I was wondering if the campaign achieved its goal. Did you guys get more business as a direct response to the "Creative Within" Campaign?

  2. I'm going to begin this post with a bit of background, so that everyone reading will understand the nature of my response. After posting her question, Valerie sent an email to me, asking if I could further elaborate on our campaign. She is studying at the Savannah College of Art and Design, where she is enrolled in a course called "Case Studies in Advertising".

    Valerie is still keeping quiet about which side of the discussion she is on; however, she explained in her email that her class is in the middle of a debate regarding our Creative Within campaign. I've responded to her personally; however, thought it might be useful to post our response here as well for any of you who may be curious as well. :-)


    Hi Valerie,

    The campaign did result in more business, but I'm not sure that I can measure exactly how much. I'll elaborate...

    Marketing a professional services firm is somewhat different from most products. The purchase is so different for the end client, and the commitment is so much greater, that we generally find the sales-cycle to be quite a long one.

    If we ran a car dealership, and advertised new VW Passats at half-price, we could easily measure the amount of immediate interest resulting from that one campaign. For us, it's a little different. If we contact a prospective client today, it may very well be six months before they need creative services. By that time, they would have to wade through their pick of very competent firms and agencies.

    As such, a great deal of what we have to do, is remind people that we are here. When it is time for a group to choose a creative company, we need them to remember us. As hard as it often is to accept, this means that being very good or very bad is often much better than being "very mediocre." In our minds it is important to break through all of the noise, and build a dialogue with potential clients.

    Therefore, it's sometimes challenging to measure the amount of new business that results from any particular campaign. Here's what I can tell you however:

    I have been in a number of meetings with new clients, who noted that they called us as a direct result of the campaign. Some of them felt it represented a more daring nature that they found interesting. They wanted to hire designers who would challenge the norm instead of running with the status quo. (Most of them did note that we had gone a little further than they might have.)

    Our site's traffic went through the roof. It did peak and has now reached a bit of a plateau, but many more people visit our site now than prior to the campaign. I also find that more people seem familiar with our firm. I must say that prior to the campaign, I had not heard of students such as you debating our work in a class setting. :-)

    A common reaction from those who visited the site was that they were initially shocked, but later were quite pleasantly surprised by the diversity of our work, as they clicked through the portfolio. It seems that our somewhat "naughty" ads managed to capture people's attention; however, the years of sensible and effective work helped illustrate that we were more than a one trick pony.

    Many of our existing clients called and felt a greater appreciation for what we do, and seemed to enjoy that we were having a bit of fun. A number of them felt the need to pass the images on to their friends.

    On the other hand, I expect that some potential clients were probably turned off by the campaign. I don't know how to measure that loss, but I can say that our sales are up significantly since the effort, so any lost business was likely not as substantial as any gains.

    I should note that we seem to now attract more clients who share our values and appreciate our sense of humour. They generally understand that we wouldn't run a campaign like this for them, but enjoy that we are sometimes a little playful. If we lost anyone as a result of the campaign, I suspect that it would have been some of the less-daring groups out there.

    A firm like ours has to earn new business. That's necessary for survival. In the meantime however, we do projects like this in large part because it is fun. This campaign was about more than just increasing sales. It was about us putting something out there that cut through some of the garbage that designers and agencies use to sell what they do. Have you looked at the average campaign for a design studio? It feels like we are all so frightened of who we might offend, that we begin to sound like bankers.

    This campaign is tempered by a great deal of less irreverent work, which is generally quite strategic in nature. We appreciate how it has broadened our portfolio and created a bit of discussion. We would never do anything derogatory or hurtful. Some may say that the ads were in bad taste, but many would argue that of popular music as well. Remember, many once felt that Elvis' music was obscene. Morality is a strange and elusive construct.

    I would invite your classmates to further debate the campaign on the blog if they would like. I think it would be interesting to read some of the differing perspectives. Additionally, please let us know how the debate turns out--we'd be interested to hear.

    I'm going to leave you with a Tibor Kalman quote that I lifted from Unbeige, "We live in a society and a culture and an economic model that tries to make everything look right. Look at computers. Why are they all putty-colored or off-fucking-white? You make something off-white or beige because you are afraid to use any other color—because you don't want to offend anybody. But by definition, when you make something no one hates, no one loves it. So I am interested in imperfections, quirkiness, insanity, unpredictability. That's what we really pay attention to anyway."

    Best wishes with your studies!


  3. Valerie says:


    Thank you so much for replying so quickly, and with so much depth. The email gave us a better insight into you campaign as well as your company -very good quote at the end, kudos- so much so that other members of my debate team brought forth further questions for you:

    1. Why did you chose those particular images for the ads?
    2. Were you aware the a similar campaign "Beautiful Ugly" produced for MTV2?
    3. Were the yours and the MTV2 ads released stimutaneously?
    4. You stated in the last email "We would never do anything derogatory or hurtful. Some may say that the ads were in bad taste, but many would argue that of popular music as well. Remember, many once felt that Elvis' music was obscene. Morality is a strange and elusive construct."

    Do you think that ads that are creative and crude affect society more in a positive or negative way?

    Once again thank you so much for taking the time to answer these questions! And I will keep in touch to let you know the outcome of the debate, and all its tidbits. :)


  4. Hi Valerie,

    I have to respond quickly, as there's quite a pile of work waiting for me, but hopefully this will help. :-)

    1. Why did you choose those particular images for the ads?
    We brainstormed a number of different images. Our choice to use these particular photographs was informed due to a number of things. First off, we felt it important to keep the compositions relatively consistent from one to the next. This meant certain limitations in terms of scale and so on. We also had to work with materials that were relatively easy to create. The runny nose was particularly difficult to shoot.

    2. Were you aware of the similar campaign "Beautiful Ugly" produced for MTV2?
    We were completely unaware of that campaign, and at the time equally unaware of a similar campaign run by NEC. We first learned that there were similar campaigns on badland, I suspect, much like everyone else did. Unfortunately no one in our studio had MTV2 in their cable package (I'm not sure that it's even available in Canada), or had seen the NEC ads.

    3. Were your ads and the MTV2 ads released simultaneously?
    No, I believe that the NEC ones ran first, followed by MTV2, and then ours. I'm embarrassed by that. If we would have known that the same concept had already been explored, we would have done something else. It's difficult to search for that sort of thing though, and it had never occurred to us that multi-coloured bodily fluids were so topical.

    4. Do you think that ads that are creative and crude affect society more in a positive or negative way?
    I don't believe that creative or crude advertising has a more notable impact on society than advertising which is void of these characteristics. I do however feel that most advertising is a nuisance, even though it is perhaps a necessary component of consumer culture. All of that said, I'd prefer to view good creative during commercial breaks, than banal advertisements.

    I feel that advertising that is manipulative
    (see: ) certainly has a negative effect on society. For example, I feel that advertisers have a responsibility to avoid making children the target of their efforts, in particular when their product is not in the best interests of the child. (i.e. unhealthy food products) I also find it rather reprehensible how some advertisers will work to break the child/parent bond, in order to help build desire for products. (i.e. Your parents are so uncool--they simply don't understand, but this product matters.) That seems more questionable than a bit of colourful poo. ;-)

    I hope the debate is a lively one!


  5. Valerie says:

    Hello Eric,
    Here is a quick summary of points that were brought up and discussed during the debate:

    Team A (Creative and crude advertising affects society in a positive
    way/creativity justifies crudeness)

    *Socially these types of ads will condition people to be more sophisticated in receiving messages within the ad, instead of focusing on its crude aspects.
    *Ads are a form of expression, will appeal to some and not to others. However, the main goal is to get people talking and generate a stir.
    *Ads were successful as they accomplished what they were meant to do (generate attention), team brought attention to the fact that there are more controversial and potentially negative ad campaigns out there. ex. (note: the team didn't cite the source of their info, so I just did a google search and this sounded like what they were describing.)

    Team B ( Negative affect on society, crudeness is not justified.)

    *Questioned originality (as this might justify crude aspect of ads) of concept, and execution. Similar campaigns had been done before, regardless if smashLAB knew, it shows somewhat lack of creativity.
    *Is it appropriate for the type of client base has and what that client would want? Does not reflect portfolio work (current trend of edgy work would show smashLAB's willingness to go further, then a one off campaign).
    *Survey Poll, of 40 SCAD students showed mostly negative results concerning campaign. Point here was that if a group of people training to be designers and advertisers fail to understand or get the self promotional campaign, then the campaigns message is not successful.

    That was about the gist of it. In the end the professor and part of the class that had argued another topic voted and came to the conclusion that the debate was a draw. Overall, I think it was a good debate, however, I would have liked it to be more true a debate in the sense that we could've gone back and forth over certain points.

    By the way, I was on Team B, and after reading your responses to our questions it made it very hard to argue against the ads. However, its always fun to be challenged :)

    Anyway, thank you again for all your help and best of luck with future projects!


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