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Creativity in Advertising, does it even matter?


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Good advertising builds sales. Great advertising builds factories. (advertising proverb)

Creativity in Advertising, does it even matter?

Ten years ago, the Harvard Business Review published a research project by Werner J. Reinartz and Peter Saffert that sought to determine if creative advertising made a significant impact on actual sales versus advertising that merely listed product attributes and benefits. 

People love creative advertising; that much is true. (Check the conversation online after every Super Bowl.) Creative ads unquestionably make people feel better about your brand. But the question asked is this: Do those imaginative, hilarious ads directly affect product sales? Reinartz and Saffert point out that very little data exists to answer this question. That’s the observation that prompted their study.

Their study tracked 437 TV ads in 90 fast-moving consumer goods brands in Germany. They hired a panel of trained consumer raters to judge the creativity of the advertising involved and examined the relationships between those ads and sales figures for the products. The study measured multiple dimensions of creativity: originality, flexibility, elaboration, synthesis, and artistic value. They also measured combinations of dimensions.

Their findings were extraordinary and a bit surprising. 

Overall, more creative campaigns were more effective. Considerably. 

In the end, the study revealed that a euro invested in a highly creative campaign had nearly double the impact on sales than a euro spent on non-creative campaigns. 

Let’s say that again: Creative ads had double the impact on sales. 

The various dimensions of creativity had differing impacts on sales, and combinations of dimensions proved to create the biggest results. The trouble is that too many companies focus on the wrong dimensions in their work. 

Product categories matter too—significantly.

We also looked at whether investing in additional creativity pays off and found that it depends entirely on the category. As the exhibit “Is More Creativity Better?” shows, in traditionally low-creativity categories, adding creativity can pay off; according to our study, a one-point increase in creativity scores for shampoo and detergent ad campaigns boosted sales impact by 4%. 

If you are the CEO of a manufacturing company, creative advertising might well be your biggest unpulled lever for producing results. 

It’s fair to ask questions though. Advertising in 2013 looked a fair distance different than advertising in 2023. The study focused on broadcast TV. Are the results different in the digital realm, where inherent limitations might seem to hamstring creativity? (Emphasis on seems; maybe clients and the creative community simply don’t want to do the work to create truly interesting work in 150-pixel boxes, at least judging from my feeds every day.)

It’s a fascinating study, and the best creative teams will welcome this kind of insight into our work. Are Reinartz and Saffert’s findings still relevant today? I would love to see additional studies.

The challenges we face just to get someone to pay attention at all are significant. As Steve Jobs said when he returned to Apple in the late ’90s, “The world is a busy, noisy place. Apple is one of the top brands in the world and yet no one is going to listen to us talk about how great our computers are.”

Creativity matters. Jobs knew this. And so do the best marketing leaders and creative teams. That’s in the numbers and not just the instincts of an old copywriter. 

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