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EPISODE 19 – Pete Coles

Marketing Campaigns With Big Ideas = Bigger Impact

In this episode, we delve into the world of marketing campaigns with Pete Coles, a creative copywriter whose work has won over 20 awards at agencies like WPP and Havas. We discuss the significance of adopting a single-minded big idea in marketing campaigns and how such approaches can vastly outperform minor optimisations in typical marketing strategies.

In this episode, we discuss:

  • The importance of a big idea for a campaign
  • What crucial information should be included in the brief
  • Why your campaign needs to be disruptive



Episode Transcript
Episode transcript

Nowadays in marketing, it’s possible to test and tweak every detail to optimize for an outcome. You can change a button or a headline to increase clicks. With AI, you can even test an email subject line before sending it out. Now, there’s nothing wrong with optimizing for the details, but all too often we get lost in the minutiae and forget that instead of eking out an extra percent or two, a great concept for a campaign can 10X your results, which is why I’m so pleased to be joined by Pete Coles, a creative copywriter whose work has won more than 20 awards for big agencies like Havas and WPP, where we discuss how to create campaigns with a single minded big idea that can transform your results.

Pete, great to see you again. Welcome to the podcast. Thank you very much. Lovely to be here. Pete, just to start things off, can you give us a bit of background to you, your career, and maybe pick out one or two highlights? Sure. I I guess I fell into creative copywriting a little bit. So after I left university, I spent 10 years, working as an editor for, initially academic publishing and then I worked for a series of different charities and I was doing a bit of writing as part of that.

but obviously the bulk of the job was editorial and after I’d been doing it for about 10 years, I was finding the editorial stuff pretty dry, so I wanted to do something a bit different. I had a sabbatical in 2013, I went around the world and off the back of that I didn’t want to go back to doing the same old again.

So I applied for a series of jobs in countries across Europe and I got an offer from an agency, WPP agency out in Milan, And so I went there as an editor and within a couple of months one of the creative directors saw something I’ve been writing. It was a blog I was writing actually about life in Milan and I was asked to join the creative team and everything pretty much So long story short, I spent the next decade or so working as copywriter, senior copywriter, and later ACD, associate creative director for Havas back in the UK.

And then, when pandemic or shortly after pandemic hit, I decided to go freelance. So that’s what, led me here. And in terms of highlights, some days I pinched myself that I get paid to do this for a job. one of the first things I really enjoyed, I persuaded a very straight, very traditional corporate company, to turn their annual meeting into a rock festival.

So that was, something fairly enjoyable. I also worked on a campaign, that was credited with helping save a child’s life, which was obviously really rewarding. And, next week I’ve got, just an example of something I’ve been working on recently. I’ve got a graffiti based, campaign which is going to be popping up on, on various walls in about six different countries around the world.

So it’s a job that’s very varied and yeah, got to do it. Lots of fun things. Wow, where should we be looking out for the graffiti? it is in, where is it? It’s in London. It’s in, Berlin. I want to say it’s in Spain. It’s in Texas. There’s a couple more. I I’ve I’ve stepped back now that I’ve done my bit.

So that’s in other people’s hands. But yeah, it should be, I’ve been told it’s about six countries or thereabouts. Yeah, but, the, campaign, credited with saving. That’s, that puts things in perspective, doesn’t it? When you, busying yourself often with, how many people can recall seeing our ad or what was the click through rate for this particular email campaign?

Actually, there’s stuff that really matters sometimes with marketing. There is, and I do, I’ve done quite a lot of work with pharmaceutical companies and with my kind of cynical head on, I guess we know that they’re not all altruistic, a lot of them are doing it for their own reasons, but for this particular campaign I was asked to work with a really, it’s a rare disease, it’s a horrendous disease called Spinal Muscular Atrophy that kind of, essentially kills children before they’re about two years old.

but it’s incredibly rare. So we came up with this campaign and it was it went on YouTube, it went all across various different channels, but you never really know if it’s going to have the impact that you, want it to have. But, but we heard back from the client basically that a parent of a child with the condition, saw it and was able to get in touch with the doctor in enough time to get it diagnosed and treated.

So yeah, that was, yeah, very special and puts the day to day frustrations in, perspective. Yeah, a hundred percent. thank you for that introduction. the theme for the episode is that a campaign should be single minded. Can you expand what you mean by that? Sure. I guess to state the obvious, none of us, when we leave the house in the morning set out to watch ads.

And, from the perspective of people as consumers, all of us are getting bombarded with commercial, messages every single day. So there’s research that estimates we see 3, 000 or more commercial messages every day, which sounds like a lot. crazy, but obviously you think about, there’s billboards, there’s, you, open your phone, there’s ads on there.

We, we’re in the street, we see lorries passing by with, with ads on them. We see brand logos on people’s clothing and so on. And What happens is that all of us get really adept, naturally, at tuning out and switching off from the vast majority of those messages. So if we as marketeers want our messages to cut through, first of all, we need to make them really engaging so that people will, will pay attention and care about them.

But also they need to be really crisp and really clear so that people, will remember them. So just support that for an example, for example, Kantar have a thing called the link database and they test the effectiveness of ads. And what they found is that the more messages that an ad tries to get across, the lower the likelihood is that any single message, will land from that ad.

So effectively what I would always try and advise any client is to Have one clear message, stick to it, and bring it to life, because that’s the way that you’re going to be most successful. And of course, if you succeed in driving people to your website or whatever it is, there can be more information there.

But for that initial ad, you need to be really clear and crisp and single minded. And when you’re working with a client, I would imagine a lot of the time they don’t just come to you with one single idea that they were trying to communicate. Often it’s going to be multiple ideas that they’re trying to communicate and try and shoot probably during that process.

Other people will start chipping in and trying to shoehorn additional messages into a particular campaign. How do you work with them to narrow that down so it does end up being refined to a single message? Sure. So I guess by the time I get to it, ideally that’s, already been done. So for me or anyone, it could be a copywriter, it could be an art director, it could be anyone in the creative team.

Really the absolute core thing for us is the brief. And that’s typically, it’s typically put together by strategy accounts. It’s seen by clients, reviewed by them. What, I would love to get across to, anyone who’s putting one together is that a good brief can make all the difference. It can streamline things, it can make them more efficient, it can make the work comes out at the end, much more effective because when they’re thought through, it’s everything just flows out of that.

Let’s say, you’re a client, you want to sell more trainers, for example. That’s great. But. you can’t just give that to the creative team on its own. if you start thinking through, okay, where are my consumers? What do they care about? Why should they buy these trainers more than any other trainers?

What channels are they on? What channel are we not utilizing? All those kinds of questions. once that’s thought through that can really set the direction for a campaign and just everything flows more naturally out of that. And the information that’s helpful for you to receive in a brief, is it universal regardless of the product or service that you’re trying to create a campaign for, or is it specific to each?

it’s, I would say, it’s pretty universal the kind of things that you need to know. So you need a bit of context, you need a bit of background, what are the key things that I, should know about the product and about the market it’s in, I need some practical information, so who’s the audience, what are the channels, what timelines are we working towards.

what countries are there, things like that. I’d need to know what the key reasons to believe, in the product are. And ultimately, the most important part of the brief, for me is various, different agencies call it different things, but a promise or a single minded proposition. And essentially what that is, is what do you want a campaign to do or to communicate written in a single sentence.

Sentence so the promise or the single mind proposition doesn’t have to be creatively written I can add the creativity at the next stage, but it has to be clear and as brilliantly thought through as it can be Brilliant and to help people understand When it really works well, have you got an example?

It doesn’t have to be one of your own, it could be, something else that you’ve seen, just a campaign produced by somebody else, but an example of where it’s worked really well. Sure. So I suppose, one of my personal favourite examples of a single minded campaign that I think most people in the UK will be familiar with is, the Cadbury’s Gorilla.

So this was created by an agency called Phalon and it’s been voted Britain’s favourite TV ad ever. And for anyone who hasn’t seen it, it’s a gorilla playing drums to a Phil Collins song. So on the surface you might look at that and think, hell’s that got to do with selling chocolate. but the background to it is that the campaign came out at a time when there’d been a Salmonella scare, that had led to the recall of I think about a million or so, Cadbury’s chocolate bars.

So there was a lot of uncertainty around the brand. And the promise in the brief, was incredibly simple. from what, I understand, the promise that the creation team were asked would work towards was just get back the love. So The team, who are working on it thought about, okay, what do Cadburys do?

Yes, they make chocolate, but what’s the kind of payoff when people eat good chocolate? and essentially, Sounds obvious, but people, are happy. They feel joy. and so what they decided to do was position Cadburys as a producer of joy rather than a producer of chocolate specifically. So they did away with all the kind of stuff about product benefits.

this percentage of cocoa, that percentage of cocoa, what have you, and just sold with the emotional benefit of the chocolate. And that was massively successful. I think it was, about 10 percent increase in sales, 20%, increase in brand perceptions immediately. And it created something that people still remember today.

So that’s, one of my favorites personally. Yeah. And it’s amazing. I don’t think there’s a call to action in the ad at all. It’s just about. communicating that, that message, that emotion. Yes, absolutely. I think the line that appears underneath it, God, I’m, it should be, should be top of mind, but it’s a glass and a half full productions, I think, which is about the milk content that goes into the, that goes into the chocolate.

But yeah, it’s essentially, the reason the ad was so successful was it’s just, And as a little bit of an aside on that, apparently the research team, when they were looking into it, found that when we as consumers are a vending machine or we’re in a shop buying chocolate, we don’t have time. We’re so overwhelmed by choice.

We don’t have time to process. Oh, I could choose this bar for that reason, that bar for another reason and so on. So what we do is that we effectively buy on emotion. so that was. really sat well with selling, Cadbury’s as being this producer of joy. Yeah, it helps that they’ve got a really distinctive colour associated with their brand that they just effectively own on the shelf.

it really stands out, doesn’t it? Absolutely, yeah. All, that kind of stuff together. And there’s all sorts of other considerations. The gorilla itself, I can imagine when you come up with that idea, you’re thinking, okay, how do we execute that gorilla? Should it, how realistic should the gorilla suit be?

Some people might be saying we should animate this, et cetera, et cetera. But I think they got all the little details just spot on. And even the kind of, Ironic choice of Phil Collins. it just, it’s not Phil Collins . I’m not the biggest fan myself, but, but yeah, it all just worked beautifully, together.

How do you decide on those little details? so it’s, I guess there’s no science to it, but I think you, as a, as someone who’s working on it, will have a real sense of, okay, if we do this in animation. it’s just not gonna, it’s just not gonna have that same impact. So I think it’s quite an instinctive, emotional Maybe emotional is the wrong word, but it’s quite an instinctive decision, but you will typically have people saying, Oh, should we do this?

Should we do that? So it’s something you would discuss more and more along the way. And you’ll have to continue thinking your position through arguing your position through it. And sometimes it does change along the way because sometimes what’s great is the idea and actually the initial suggestion of how that idea should be executed.

That’s it. isn’t perfect and that can be fine tuned along the way. I suppose that’s where the magic and the, art comes in. Yes, absolutely. So my favorite ad of all time is, I don’t know if this is the first one, but it’s the first one that kind of registers in my consciousness for John Lewis around Christmas.

Oh yeah. Quite a few years back, where I think it was produced by an agency called Adam and Eve. And it was of a kid going through this sort of typical pre Christmas rituals of school shows and, hanging out stockings and playing outside in the snow and all of that sort of stuff. And the way that they’re building it up is this kid cannot wait for Christmas because who doesn’t like Christmas as a kid?

but the payoff is, and the twist is that the reason he can’t wait for Christmas is because he’s got a nice present for mum and dad. And when that was broadcast, I had, I’d just become a dad. And Emotions were running high, but the first time I watched that I blubbed So it really did strike a chord with me and I just thought that was absolutely fantastic.

I loved it Yeah, I think the power of a good ads is, it can be, it should make us feel something, whether that’s laughter or tears. We all, we all see a lot of bad advertising. and when we see something that connects with us in that way or in, could be through humor, it could be through a ton of other things, but yeah, it really stands out.

And the fact that you still remember that all these years later is a testament to how powerful they can be. You said a second ago about we all know, we’ve all seen some bad advertising. Have you got any examples in mind of a campaign that has got a big idea, but it’s not the right idea? And it just hasn’t worked?

So, I hate slagging other people’s work off. So what I’ll do if I may is I’ll slightly twist the question. when a few years ago I was asked to work on an insulin, an insulin drug and the, this goes back to that kind of conversation we were having about the promise or the single minded proposition.

and When we had the brief, what we were, what we were asked to work to in terms of a single minded proposition was it said, this product, I won’t say who the agency was, I won’t say what the brand was, but this product is the little black dress of insulins. And that was, in my opinion a really poor promise or single minded proposition to work towards.

So why was it really poor? it was really poor because it was very vague and it could be interpreted in a bunch of different ways. So what do we mean by the little black dress of insulins? do we mean this is a classic? If so, in what way? How? is it, How can insulin be sexy? And so on. And so the, promise behind the brief created a real vagueness that everyone working on it was trying to figure out, okay, what does it mean?

And different people had different opinions. So then when it would have, if we hadn’t pushed back when it would have come to the stage of evaluating how good is the creative teams work, it’s incredibly hard to evaluate that when everyone’s looking at this brief through a kind of different understanding of it.

Also bear in mind this insulin was in a category where there’s virtually no product differentiation, it wasn’t more efficacious, it wasn’t faster acting, and so on. So even if you interpret the little black dress of insulins as meaning it was the best, there’s nothing really to back that up. So That was an example of a kind of brief that we had to push back on and ask for a clearer, better thought through promise.

I know that doesn’t exactly answer your original question, but it speaks to the importance of coming up with a crisp and clear, clear promise and a clear brief so that you can then create good work off the back of that. I suppose in that example as well, if the client’s including that this is the little black dress of insulin.

in the brief, what they’ve actually tried to do is your job of coming up with the creative element of it, rather than thinking about really what we’re trying to communicate. And let’s not worry about how we do it. That’s your job. Yes. And I would totally agree with you. And I know Some people’s opinion on briefs differ, from mine, but I really just want a plain English sentence of, what you want to do.

And that’s all I need. Because again, like you say, it throws a creative, or attempts to throw a creative spin on it, that then it gets preconceptions in people’s heads, and again, it just muddies the waters from a creative point of view. Do you think that every campaign needs a big idea? so I would say broadly, yes, but I guess it depends what we mean by, campaign. So I know when we were chatting before, before we recorded this podcast, we talked about the example of an email campaign for a B2B company.

So let’s say, that. You, for example, have a B2B company and you’re attending a trade show next week and you want to drive interest in that, in your presence, in your congress stand at that trade show. are you going to get a big idea within that time that’s going to work and going to be great?

Possibly, possibly not. in that circumstance, you might say, Okay, the best thing I can do is send out a pre, during and post email to try and drive traffic to the event. And that sounds reasonable, but if we look at a similar scenario, okay, you’re doing the same again next year, but this time you want to plan, how can we take things to the next level?

How can we make things better? I guess we’d start off with what product or service are you promoting for the event? on your congress booth and how can we create a great ad campaign for that product or service. So then we’d go through the process of trying to do that. And then after we’d done that, we’d be saying, okay, so now you’ve got a good campaign.

Now you’ve got your Congress stand. How do we bring that campaign to life on your Congress stand? So I don’t know. Let’s just say your main ad campaign features outer space going to the moon, for example, In the kind of visuals. So could we design you a Congress booth that is based around a space rocket or is based around like made to look like the moon or something like that?

So and then once you’ve done those things, once you gets the emails that it, Promote your presence at next year’s congress. you can then echo the language the look and feel of your wider campaign So that every step you’re reinforcing the core idea you’re trying to get across and making it more and more memorable and embedded in the minds of your customers So that would be what I would encourage any client to work towards.

But of course if you need something tomorrow then there’s compromises from time to time. Yeah. I suppose the thing I’ll take away from that is not to get too hung up on, or not to get led by the medium you’re going to be using. And actually the medium should be in support of a message that you are trying to convey.

Yes, absolutely, yep. When we spoke before, you mentioned about the need for big ideas to be somewhat disruptive. and you recognise that’s not always the case. Disruption is a term that gets banded around a lot. In your context, what do you mean by it? Sure, so it’s something, people use in a lot of different ways, and I know, I said last time we chatted that I find it, especially when I came into the industry, I found it really wanky, ad land word that you associate with people doing too much coke and telling you how much, what a disruptive campaign they’re going to make for you, but essentially what I would use it to mean is it’s a to make your campaign in some way different to what other people are doing.

So to make it stand out and it’s often used, people often interpret it as meaning doing something provocative, but it doesn’t have to be that at all. So for example, Dove’s Real Beauty campaign, I would say is a great example of a disruptive campaign. So It’s been around for about 20 years, but at the time it came out, most skin care advertising was very homogenized.

It was full of airbrushed perfect models with these kind of unrealistic, unattainable versions of beauty. And In a way, Dove’s response was incredibly simple. So they started using real women in their ads with real curves, real, wrinkles, that’s hard to say, and so on. And off the back of that, they were incredibly successful.

I think The campaign was PR Week’s, greatest campaign of the past 20 years, increased sales about 20%. and it’s obviously incredibly campaignable as well because there’s a never ending supply of, real women, that you can celebrate and feature in your campaign, different body types, and so on.

And, to your earlier point, if we’re exposed to 3,000 advertising or marketing messages on a typical day, You’ve got to do something that stands out. It doesn’t mean that you have to be really brash and in someone’s face, but it just needs to be different so that it gets noticed. If your ads aren’t getting noticed, it can’t possibly make any difference to somebody’s perception.

Yes. I totally agree. And there’s, I guess depending on the category you’re in, there’s, a million different ways to get noticed. it could be Dove’s one example, but if you think back, one of the most famous campaigns of all time is Volkswagen back in the fifties when cars were advertised in a very sort of cliched way, all about how big and powerful their engines were and that sort of thing.

And, Volkswagen’s, Volkswagen’s classic ad had the headline, Think Small, basically put it. positioning them as something different, that was, all the benefits of small cars, cheaper to run, fit in tight space, all that kind of stuff, but that’s an example of being disruptive, or it could be, Nike’s ad I suppose it was about 4, 5 years ago now, but with Colin Kapanick with, believe in something even if it means sacrificing anything, that was Obviously tying into a social justice issue, and it was, it was obviously very polarizing, but it was actually incredibly commercially successful.

So depending on what you and your brand stand for and what makes you special and what makes your product and the way you communicate special, there’ll always be something that you can find that’s different to what everyone else is doing. Yeah. And the example you gave of, campaign that’s been running for 20, 20 plus years.

When you come up with a big idea like that, can you tell, have you got a sense that it’s something that can run and run Or is it something that it works. And so you continue running with it once it’s worked. I would say that you can typically, you typically have a pretty strong idea of how something, how campaignable something is.

when most of the agencies I’ve worked, the kind of first round of ideas that you will go back to the client with is, what’s called a scamp. So it’s essentially, it’s a sketch of, it’s a sketch of a core visual and it’s a headline and maybe, it may be a subhead or a line or two of body copy. That’s a really simple deliverable, but as you’re well, it’s not always simple to create but that’s another story But as you’re going through the process of creating that what you will do is you will chat through Okay that’s what that looks like as essentially a print ad. How would it work in video?

How would it work in, as a banner ad if it’s squashed into a thin strip on the bottom of people’s screens? All these kind of different scenarios and you’ll get a good sense of, how, much legs it has. So that’s that dove example, essentially because the idea was real women. You, I would think if you’re working on that, you can tell pretty instinctively, this can be adapted in all sorts of different ways, tell all sorts of different stories.

Great. look, Pete, thank you so much. I’ve really enjoyed this conversation is I could talk about this for ages before I let you go. I am asking everyone for a book recommendation. We’d love to hear yours. Yes, absolutely. So sorry, I was just taking a drink of water. so my book recommendation is a book called Hey Whipple Squeeze This by Luke Sullivan.

please don’t be put off by the title. it’s, just a brilliant book that describes in a very accessible and engaging way what makes a good ad and everything from like how copy and visuals work together to what makes an idea campaignable. There’s all sorts of different stuff in it but it is just, it’s the best, it’s the best book I’ve ever read that kind of tells people how to make an ad effectively.

It’s, a really enjoyable read and, the name Hey Whipple, I think that relates to a toilet roll brand in the US. Yes, I, he’s, he mentions it in the introduction, I think it was an ad that he saw a lot when he was a kid. But yeah, the, someone recommended it to me when I first, first started in advertising and I heard the title and went.

Didn’t really know what to make of it. But yeah, as soon as I picked up the book I was hooked because it’s yeah brilliant book Yeah, that’s great recommendation. Thank you for that. Pete. You’ve been a wonderful guest. I’ve really enjoyed our conversation Thank you so much for your time. How can people connect with you after the show?

Thank you so much for having me by the way, it’s been great to be here. I’m on LinkedIn, my, so my URL, is handily, after you’ve typed in all the LinkedIn.com gubbins, you just put in Pete Coles, so P E T E C O L E S, and my website is PeteColes.co.uk, so I have done quite a lot of work that’s in restricted areas, so it’s password protected.

A lot of that work’s not supposed to be shown to the public, but if you’re, interested in working with me, just drop me a message on LinkedIn and I’ll, be happy to share the password. Amazing. I’ll include links in the show notes. Thank you so much, Pete. Thanks everyone. Thank you. Cheers.

Thanks for having me.