POV

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Terrorism, advertising and doing what's right. Mike Hughes explains.

This is a funny industry. We all say we're in the business of selling things, but who do we make stars of in advertising? The creative people. Can you name one writer or art director who's in this business to sell things? I can't. What turns us on in the creative department is creating cool stuff. We like it when our work generates great sales, but mainly because we see sales as evidence that our work is cool. It's certainly not equal to winning a Gold Pencil. But here's what's great about this business. When you make the ads cooler in an intelligent way - that is, when you dial up the creative values while staying true to a smart strategy - you end up with more effective ads. Like you, I only quote research when it agrees with me, but the fact is this point has been proven repeatedly.

That's why you want the creative people who can elevate those creative values working for you. You want people who can make that funny commercial funnier, the dramatic demonstration more dramatic, the human communication more human, the average ad an award winner. You want those creative people because in their quest to make ads cooler, they get you better results.

I know this to be true. Still, we recently ran into a case where the most creative thing we could do was to eliminate anything that smelled of creativity. We started working for the Department of Homeland Security more than a year before there was a Department of Homeland Security. We first met with Tom Ridge in November of '01, just two months after 9/11 and just a few weeks after the president announced Governor Ridge's new responsibilities. When the Ad Council first called us about doing this, we were a little starry-eyed. We were flattered to be called. We were impressed with ourselves that we'd actually be going to meetings in the White House. And most of all, we were eager to do something meaningful after the horrors in New York, in Pennsylvania and in our home state of Virginia. And, frankly, like ad nerds everywhere, we thought this would be an opportunity to create home-run, award-winning advertising.

It took a year to get the campaign off the ground because scientists had to agree on the course of action American families should take. What would actually help a family if some of the more likely forms of terrorism were to occur? How much bottled water should be set aside? Could duct tape really make a difference in an emergency? (Surprisingly, yes. Go to www.ready.gov to see for yourself.) When our team dug into this project, they became believers - in the same way that the scientists at The Sloan Foundation (which provided funding for the campaign) had become believers. Ken Hines and Cody Spinadel, the creative team, were ready to apply their ample creative talents to the task.

But when we sorted through their first ideas, something became clear. This wasn't about writing, art direction or big ideas. And God knows it wasn't about winning awards. This was profoundly scary stuff - ad the last thing we wanted to do was to make it more dramatic. So we stripped stuff away, stuff like politics and, well, advertising. Advertising tries to dial emotions up; we were in the business of dialing them down. Advertising provides motivation: our audience had received all the motivation they needed when they watched those towers collapse. We stripped everything away except the talking heads of authority figures telling us basic facts. We bent over backwards to reduce alarm while making the message important. Ken's great line - "We can be afraid or we can be ready" - will never get him into the Copywriters Hall of Fame, but it is deeply comforting. There are times when the rules change. This was one of those times. As it turns out, the stripping away of everything that smells like "creativity" - the stripping away even of "ideas," the most hallowed of creative concepts - is itself a creative act. All of our clients, yours and mine, would be better served if we raised the creative values in the work we produced for them. Happily and frankly, I commit to all of mine that we will. Happily, because it will help their sales and, frankly, because it's what we want to do. But no matter how attractive the awards and publicity might be, we'll commit most of all to doing what's right. In the end, that's even more important than doing what's cool.

Mike Hughes is president/creative director at The Martin Agency, Richmond, Va.

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