Strategy vs. creative—guess which one wins?

Robin Emiliani  /  Dec 05, 2019

In 2009, Skittles turned their homepage into a feed of tweets mentioning the brand. They hoped to capture some real-time brand love, but the campaign quickly turned into a flood of sex jokes and Nazi propaganda across Skittles’ homepage.

In 2014, Subway launched an ad that told women if they’d just eat better, they’d look sexier in their Halloween costumes, damn it. Forget swimsuit season, you’d better be ready for the season of sexy corn on the cob and sexy poop emoji!

Somewhat less horrifying (unless you’re the marketing team that poured your life into it), in 2019, Planters shelled out at least $5 million on a Super Bowl ad that left watchers saying “meh.”

Here at Catalyst, we recently sat down and asked ourselves a question:

Do we want to be known as a creative agency or a strategic one?

At first glance, the difference may not seem so big. The obvious answer is that both creativity and strategy matter. Both are what we strive for. Both are priorities.

But the question was more subtle than that. Not should we give up one for the other? But rather, what’s the most important thing we do for our clients?

The answer was clear—and we’re guessing you’ve already guessed what it is.

Because you can have the best creative on the planet and still fail. You can have ideas on top of ideas on top of ideas and still alienate your customers. You can spend millions on perfect video production and celebrity cameos and still fail to move the needle on your business goals.

Just like Skittles, Subway, and Planters.

If you look at what those failures have in common, ultimately, it’s a failure of strategy, not creative.

Skittles’ homepage looked just fine. It worked just fine. The failure was strategic. Nobody asked the question “how will this help and serve our customers?” Nobody asked the question “what are all the different ways this could play out?” And, let’s be honest, nobody researched the platform they planned to use. Because anybody who’s spent more than a few hours on Twitter knows how quickly anything viral can go south.

(Just look at Microsoft’s Twitter AI failure. To be fair to Skittles, Microsoft flubbed up even worse than they did just a few years later.)

Same story with Subway’s sexist oopsie-daisy. The creative was, honestly, pretty damn good. The video quality. The production. The acting. It wasn’t creative that tanked the ad.

Again, it was strategy that went missing, just when the sandwich brand needed it most. They may have asked themselves “who’s our target customer?” But they definitely didn’t ask “and what do they want?” Or “what matters to them?

Instead, they relied on stereotypes and past cultural norms that women were already damn tired of and had been protesting for years.

And Planters? Their problem was less politically charged, but that doesn’t make it any less of a kiss of death for the marketing team. Because a $5 million ad that leaves watchers shrugging in indifference? That’s a pretty epic failure.

And here we see an even clearer line between creative and strategy. Because again, creative wasn’t the problem here. The visuals were cool. The background music spot-on. They tossed in a Charlie Sheen joke with a Charlie Sheen cameo.

Yet, there was no payoff. No compelling story. Nothing to make customers think or laugh or remember the ad after a parade of much better Super Bowl spots. The failure, in other words, was again a failure of story and strategy. It was a failure to understand audience and move people toward a business goal. It was a failure of substance behind the creative.

Which is why when we weigh the value of creative and strategy, strategy wins every time.

Do we value good creative? Do we love the feeling of getting an illustration, a video, a website design just right? Damn straight, we do.

But at the end of the day, the thing that moves the needle for businesses is strategy. And so that is where we’ll hang our hats. That’s what’ll keep us up at night. That’s where we’ll ask the hard questions, fight for our clients, and make you and your team look damn good.

If you need an agency that sees the big picture? You’ve found us. Let’s talk.


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