The Advertising Concept

Category: Marketing Strategies & Tips

Welcome to the Book Series

In this series, we delve into the concepts and ideas from thought leaders in the marketing industry. There is a myriad of resources that digital and traditional marketers consider bible-like for their timeless wisdom and tested theories that have resulted in some of the best marketing initiatives worldwide.

This week, we are introducing ‘The Advertising Concept Book: A complete guide to creative ideas, strategies and campaigns’ by Pete Barry, an in-depth resource packed full of sound advice for creatives. We hope to present you with some of Barry’s great ideas and examine them further to see how they apply to our own agency. We hope you enjoy it.

“Concept is to advertising what the little black dress is to fashion: it will always in demand.”
-Pete Barry
The Advertising Concept Book

According to French philosopher Voltaire, good is the enemy of great. This exact theory should be applied to campaign concepts. An agency must place their focus on developing great ideas, never settling for simply good ones.

According to Forbes, digital marketers estimate that we are exposed to between 4,000 and 10,000 advertisements each day. With such a massive amount of ads being presented in the peripherals to your average North American on a daily basis, it takes exceptional work in order to stand out.

However, exceptional work is always the by-product of a great idea, or in our terms, a concept.

Appealing to Both Sides of the Brain

There are two types of advertising, both with proven benefits. On one hand, we have the ‘hard sell’, and on the other — its emotive cousin — the ‘soft sell’.

The hard sell is a more aggressive approach that reflects the same cadence of a strong salesman. It is, by nature, insistent and focused on the sales pitch. For example, this can be the promotion of a special offer or incentive to buy. While the tactic has a solid track record, Pete Barry says “If all ads were like this, it would drive people crazy.”

And thus, the demand for a gentler, more creative alternative: the soft sell. This approach uses more subtle persuasion in order to drive a click, lead, or purchase. It tiptoes around the hard sell, and in lieu, leverages the audience’s emotional intelligence to sway them. The soft sell may be more challenging to execute, but when paired with a great concept, these often wind up the award-winning and most memorable advertisements.

However, it’s important to mention that this theory doesn’t apply to advertisements alone. The same theory applies to all marketing initiatives. In order for any campaign to be most impactful, you want to ensure you supply an equal helping of hard and soft sell tactics. Strategy and creativity are meant to be together.

Both strategies, soft and hard, cater to a different side of our brain. We often categorize people into two pools: left brain and right brain thinkers. The left brain is home to our more strategic and logical thinking, while the right brain is responsible for our imagination and creativity. Knowing this, we can deduce that the hard sell is catered to our left brain, while the soft sell is speaking to the right; practical vs. emotional.

Humans have evolved to use both sides of our brains in order to make decisions. While we all tend to lean more heavily on one side than another, marketers need to constantly remind themselves that in order to develop an effective concept, it must resonate with both hemispheres of the brain. When you can achieve a good balance between right and left, the ad is more likely to be successful.

“The best strategic, creative team is one that possesses a balance of logic and imagination, verbal and visual skills,” explains Barry, “As readers and viewers of ads, we respond best to ads that possess a similar balance.”


Figure: “Pass the Heinz” print ad for Heinz by David Miami.

Simple, evocative and positioned as a complement to the product. While the ad doesn’t feature the product itself, it utilizes a soft sell and the ad tells you with minimal copy and design what’s missing from the picture: delicious, tangy ketchup.

Unveiling the Truths

There is a common denominator among the best advertisements in the world: they speak to a truth.

Unsurprising given the number of ads we’re continually exposed to, speaking to the consumer honestly and authentically matters. In order to build trust between brands and communities, advertisers are moving away from the hard sell and blatant product pushing and focusing on how the product or service makes a difference.

But it has to be true.

“[A truth] can exist anywhere and everywhere, on many different levels, from concept to execution: be it within the strategy, the idea, the tagline, the typography, or the tone. It can be a large or small truth, general or specific, exaggerated, refined, induced, or deduced,” explains Barry.


Figure: “Cheaper” for Durex by Espiral DP
A clear illustration highlighting an indisputable truth: fear. For this particular target, the ad humourously plays off an alternative to not playing safe with a sexual partner. It’s not so much the cost difference – while this is indisputably true as well – but a human feeling of being ill-prepared for the responsibility of babies. The humour plays out on the soft sell ‘birth control is more cost effective than becoming a parent’. It’s clever, simple, and sticks to one clear message.

While the truth can take many forms, it can always be identified in strong advertising. It’s never wise to underestimate the intelligence of your audience because they will be quick to pull your card. They’ll also tune it out.

“We have evolved to the point where we can recognize commercials that concern us or interest us and grant them at least a few seconds attention,” explains Jon Steel, author of Truth, Lies, and Advertising, “It’s not that advertising is failing to present itself to its target. It appears in our homes with monotonous regularity; but when it gets there, it often fails to make the necessary connections.”

In order to make a connection, the concept must tap into a truth. People are too smart for anything less. And anything less is arguably insulting to your audience. Therefore, when developing your concept, it’s important to consider what is the message you’re presenting and measure it against the question: “is this true?”

While the concept will have to satisfy both sides of the brain, be balanced creatively and strategically, it also has to speak a truth in order to resonate effectively.

What You Say and How You Say It


Figure: “Explore the World” for Tazo by Ariadne Colliard
Adriadne Colliard explored the origins of tea for this print campaign, using architecture from tea bearing regions that entice a well-versed tea aficionado to experience their vast range of teas.

Before you can create a dynamic concept, you have to know what it is you’re trying to say. This can be deduced from the client’s value proposition. In order to make the biggest impact, what you’re communicating with your concept should be concise and singular by nature.

“You only have seconds to get your message across. You have to be single-minded,” explains Barry. It can be challenging considering the financial investment of most advertising not to be tempted to fill the space with multiple messages. By including various messages in one ad, you only dilute the concept.

This directly impacts the quality of the creative idea which supports the concept as a whole. It is best practice to explicitly or implicitly tell the consumer one thing, and do it well.

With one clear proposition defined, this naturally evolves into a key message. A variation of the value proposition worded or presented in a way that will resonate with the consumer. We’ve spoken about the importance of a strong key message at length in our previous blog posts.

For copywriters and creative directors, we often have to develop a detailed archetype of the consumer we want to attract. We consider how they speak, where they’re spending their free time, what their career looks like, and craft a strategic message that is carefully designed specifically for them.

“Many ad gurus believe that the best advertising in any medium comes from understanding people,” says Barry. Therefore, it is exceptionally valuable for marketers — especially those involved in developing the concept — to embody empathy and intuition.

If we can better understand the consumer, the better the concept will be. We must be relentlessly curious and ask exhaustive questions: how, when, where, why? In order to develop a memorable concept, we need to uncover as much context as possible. We must get under the skin of the consumer and think like them.

Our agency designs a detailed archetype of our clients’ target. The creative team uses this as a reference when executing deliverables. Even the smallest details such as what the target reads and on which device is valuable. We measure the greatness of the concept against the target, and the details allow us to consider the most powerful mediums for the advertisement.

It’s not always an easy task.

Next Week in the Series

Next week, we will continue to explore different aspects of developing knock-out concepts inspired by ‘The Advertising Concept Book’. Examining some of the most effective ads and dissecting why they’ve managed to be memorable amidst the sheer volume of advertisements coming out daily.

Later in this series, we will be looking into different books that have been fundamental to modern marketing and exploring their concepts and lessons further through our own lens.

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Faye Alexander

Faye Alexander loves to type, scribble and scrawl because words are her favourite play things. As an editor, writer and social media professional, she brought her skill-set to the evolving world of Marketing. She has a passion for inciting meaningful dialogue through crafted content and opening doors to two-way conversations. Some of her favourite words include, but are not limited to: feminism, effervescent, spoon and malarchy.

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