8 cues creative agencies should take from musicals

Photo: The Book of Mormon, currently on at the Prince of Wales Theatre in London. It's currently also on Broadway in New York.

As a creative in the advertising field, I’m constantly seeking new approaches, inspirations and strategies to fuel my work. Sometimes I find what I need through the usual suspects – design blogs, marketing publications and research articles – but recently, I found inspiration in an unlikely source that was both an entire industry a metaphorical world away – and yet really within walking distance of where I sat.

Pulsing like parallel arteries through the centre of New York City, Broadway and Madison Avenue notoriously house two of the greatest industries of the modern era: musicals, and advertising, respectively. At the surface level, they could not be more different. One is primarily a function of art, the other a function of business; one is jazz hands, the other handshakes, and so on.

But a deeper look reveals that the two actually share a common currency – persuasion – and it turns out there’s quite a lot of transferable wisdom beneath those flashing lights. Here are eight lessons lifted from Broadway that can also drive creative success in advertising:

1. Craft a compelling story

Advertising and theatre share two core goals: to captivate, and to motivate. The best way to navigate these goals is to build a story. In both, the captivation is formulaic; set a scene, introduce a character or set of characters, and establish a problem or conflict that will be solved through the progression of the story. The motivation is what the story aims to instill in the audience – the result, or ROI.

This could be as broad as evoking an emotional response or opening up a new paradigm for the audience (ie a high level brand campaign), or as specific as persuading them to take a specific action (ie a lower funnel campaign intended to directly drive sales).

2. Write a catchy chorus

The best ad copy is almost poetic, and often lyrical; it should be succinct yet powerful. It should evoke a clear emotion or tone, and should focus on one key message. In songwriting terms, it’s the chorus. The 'chorus' in brand campaigns is the tagline; in DM campaigns it’s the call to action. It’s the message that characterizes the entire campaign in a single line of copy, and it’s usually the most remembered element of the creative.

3. Don’t ignore the score

If a campaign includes video creative, take the opportunity to ignite the 'chorus' by setting it to music. Whether a brand chooses to come up with an original jingle or borrow from existing material, music can set the emotional tone of the ad and boost message recall. At Collective, we recently launched a brand campaign that included a video ad set to the tune of the classic doo-wop hit Sh-Boom (aka. 'Life is But a Dream').

While the music set an upbeat mood for the ad, it played an even bigger part as the vehicle for a catchy original chorus lyric, “life is but a screen”, that summarized the multi-screen message of the campaign in a fun and memorable way.

4. Know your audience

West Side Story is fundamentally an iteration of Shakespeare’s Romeo & Juliet, but the vast differences in packaging and delivery result in the two shows appealing to very different audiences. At the end of each show, the audience will have arrived at the same emotional destination, but will have taken separate paths to get there.

Likewise, a single product or brand may appeal to diverse audiences, but believing that it’s therefore possible to capture all audiences with a single message is a marketing fallacy. To really relate to an audience, a brand must take into account their unique needs and interests, and then cater to them. For example, a CPG brand trying to sell a microwaveable meal to both busy mums and halls-dwelling university students is going to need two distinctly different creative approaches.

Knowing that the busy mum’s main concerns are nutritional value and happiness of the child will drive the creative targeted to mums in a completely different direction than the ad that speaks to a student – whose main concerns are cost and ease of preparation.

Carefully tailored creative is what allows advertisers to sell the exact same product to different consumerswithout compromising the brand.

Britta Hoskins

5. Choreograph

Campaigns have a lot of moving parts, which are usually left to media buyers to sort out against budget and schedule. But if creatives can be included in the media planning, the campaign may be choreographed so that consumers are met with the optimal version of ad for the placement.

From story sequencing to formatting to playing off the peripheral environment of the ad placement, a close relationship between media buyer and creative director can ensure that the campaign is presented at its most flattering angle at all times. And now that advertisers can employ data-driven targeting to reach consumers efficiently and intelligently across all screens, we can only expect the choreography to get tighter over time.

6. Improv to improve

In theatre, an actor may rehearse a joke extensively, only to find it fall flat during performance. Luckily, live theatre allows an enormous benefit to the performer, who can pick up on the reactions and mood of the audience to make adjustments on the fly for an improved experience.

In advertising, there is little room for rehearsal, but we now have incredible data science and real time analytics on our side to give us similar real-time flexibility. Creative optimisation technology allows advertisers to design and test a variety of creative combinations with real online audiences before a campaign hits full scale, so that only the best performing versions of the creative are used in the end. This makes for valuable insights for creatives, but also better results for the advertiser and ideally, the most relevant and interesting experience for the consumer.

7. You’ve gotta get a gimmick

Sometimes, the simplest gimmick is all it takes to attract attention to a campaign, and if virality is a goal, this can be the ticket to social media success. Of course, there is no guaranteed formula for achieving viral success, but there is a surefire way to fail at it – and that’s by ignoring opportunities to stand out. Consumers are inundated with countless ads at every turn, and for that reason they’ve become very keen to the common tactics used by advertisers. The result is predictable: a cynical, apathetic audience that at best takes a critical eye to an ad, and at worst doesn’t take notice of it at all.

To cut through the noise, ad creative must take calculated risks. Engage consumers with interactive elements, invite them to experience something novel, tickle them with witty copy, wow them with stunning imagery, encourage their imagination, and challenge their assumptions. The excitement and buzz around Superbowl ads every year is living proof that at the end of the day, consumers want to be entertained, and will advocate for brands that invest in cleverness.

8. Take a bow

After all the hard work that goes into creating a quality campaign, don’t be shy about appreciating it. Reward those who contributed to the campaign success, champion the final product internally among the brand owners, enter it into award competitions, and seek feedback (including critical feedback). Finally, look for ways to extend the most successful elements of it into future campaigns. It may be worthy of a revival.

Britta Hoskins is a creative director based in New York, specialising in advertising, marketing, branding and graphic design. She's VP and creative director at Collective.

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