Skip to main content

This photo released by CBS shows, from left, Robin Williams as Simon Roberts, Sarah Michelle Gellar as Sydney Roberts, James Wolk as Zach Cropper and Hamish Linklater as Andrew Keaneally, in a scene from season 1 of “The Crazy Ones.”Richard Cartwright/The Associated Press

Most of us have a love-hate relationship with advertising.

It's creative, and it's manipulative. It provides information we seek as consumers, but it also drums into us the sense that we're not good enough. Even luminaries can't settle on whether it's good or evil. Marshall McLuhan called it "the greatest art form." Ask H.G. Wells, and he'd tell you advertising is little more than "legalized lying."

For a skeptical public, it would seem Wells had it right; that attitude is borne out in polls that show people respect advertising executives less than lawyers and politicians. But they clearly also find the ad world entertaining. The retro cool of AMC's Mad Men made the industry sexy. Now, Robin Williams is bringing zany charm in his role as an ad man on The Crazy Ones. It is CBS's most popular new comedy, seen on CityTV in Canada, and was recently picked up for a full season.

The series is named after a famous Apple ad, which saluted "the crazy ones" whose creative thinking changed the world – such as Gandhi, Einstein, Martin Luther King Jr., and a host of others. The comic antics of The Crazy Ones are not meant to be entirely realistic, of course. But pop culture representations of agency life give viewers a peek into an industry that influences us more deeply than we may realize. Does this look behind the curtain give us a better sense of how those messages are crafted?

The Globe asked Canadian advertising executives whether there is any truth in advertising as it is seen on TV – and some of the questions about the real-life industry that the story lines raise.

1.Do you have to be crazy to make good advertising?

Robin Williams' character is kooky – an eccentric agency head whose "creative process" involves going back to work at the diner where he used to be a line cook and hanging out with Buddhist monks. This speaks to a trope in most fiction that creative success is rooted in instability, and even an element of insanity.

Randy Stein, Founding partner Grip Ltd.

"It comes from hard work, as opposed to this notion of inspiration, this nebulous creativity. For sure, I've worked with a few people who are probably more artist than advertiser, but that's really rare to be honest. … Discipline is at the core of what we do."

Adrian Capobianco Managing director, digital Cundari

"It is changing. Over the last five to 10 years, as digital has grown … there's the more cerebral side too. Half of the ad spend in digital marketing goes to search ads. There's a lot of science behind that. There is this art and science. Great creative, and great creative ideas, don't become big and great without the science and the strategy thinking behind them."

Star power

2.What is the risk of aligning a brand with a celebrity?

In one episode, the agency plans to revamp an old McDonald's jingle with a big new modern voice: Kelly Clarkson. We've seen plenty of campaigns that employ celebrity voices, both spoken (Bradley Cooper for Nike, Jeff Bridges for Hyundai,) and sung (Pepsi has had just about everyone sing in its ads.) Do voices matter? And what are the risks of aligning your brand with a celebrity?

Jason Theodor, creative director, Publicis Modem

"When you hear a voice you know really well, you feel more accepting of the message. It will trigger certain responses in the consumer. … Even if you don't know who the actor is, when you hear the voice that you've heard so many times before, the recognition will make you more receptive to the message."

Capobianco: "Celebrity endorsement is actually, with younger demographics, resonating less and less. It's more about what's the DNA of the brand, how it's tied to social causes, and things like that."

Stein: "It's a double-edged sword. You're not just getting what they're famous for. Especially nowadays when even an off-colour tweet can get you in trouble. … If a celebrity does something bad, you're in trouble."

Stunted growth

3.Why is the use of stunts in advertising campaigns such a big trend at the moment?

In one episode, the agency pitches a client on a stunt campaign to bring attention to the brand. Incorporating stunts into ads is nothing new, but it has certainly been on the increase recently.

Peter Ignazi, Senior vice-president and Executive creative director BBDO Toronto

"People think it has a genuineness because [people featured in the ads that come out of these stunts] are not actors, they're real consumers. … That is kind of appealing from a message standpoint. I'm kind of worried we've jumped the shark on that one. We've become Candid Camera."

Stein: "'Viral' is a term that has now been more or less outlawed at most agencies. There's a lot of misguided energy put into that. … Everything is changing so fast. It's all a symptom of everyone trying to figure out what we do instead of the TV commercial, or in addition to the TV commercial. Because no one is watching TV commercials. They're fast-forwarding through them. … Everyone's trying to figure out how do we get people to pay attention to us?Ten years ago, it was 'Here's the TV brief.' Now, it's 'Here's how much money we have, figure it out.' Which is really exciting. "

Theodor: "By doing a stunt they're hoping that they're going to get enough attention to get more eyeballs for the dollar. We're being distracted by all these things: My thermostat at home e-mails me, I get messages from my Nike Fuelband. All these things are talking to me. In this massively fragmented digital universe, stunts are becoming more and more prevalent and more and more digital. … Everyone's trying to figure out a way to break through."

Bottom line

4.How can clients measure a campaign's success?

The Crazy Ones creatives are shown in a pitch meeting where clients are asking for a bold and splashy campaign, and the agency person is reminding them to focus on sales results. It's a laughable scenario, since clients are arguably more cautious than ever and holding on tighter to their marketing budgets. When it comes to proving the return on investment for those budgets, how is the standard of measurement changing? How are advertisers and their agencies actually proving whether ads are effective?

Capobianco: "Nobody has really cracked the nut on cross-media measurement in an industry-accepted standard. … The ultimate result for most brands, ultimately, it's sales. The question is, are we working at a level that we're able to impact sales, versus a promotion or a one-off? … There's so much that happens in between – the product, the pricing, the competition – that's out of the control of a lot of marketing clients, especially in Canada. … The ultimate measure has got to be sales. Just the ability to track to that can be a challenge."

Theodor: "You can measure everything, it's just how much knowledge and insight you can pull out of the data. What most agencies do now is, they ask the client what they want to get out of it. Sometimes the client will have a very specific target – x number of leads, a certain number of email addresses, or simply impressions because they want it to be about brand awareness … that's not hard. The difficult thing is, are we just jumping on the bandwagon here, or are we doing it because it's going to move the business forward? Is the business going to get more out of it than just following the crowd? Trying to figure out that insight, and matching it to an event or a specific type of digital advertising, or any kind of advertising, is hard."

Ignazi: "Media has changed. … It is much more easy to tell how many people are affected by [a campaign] and are talking about it, and how many media outlets have picked it up that never would have before because a media outlet in New Zealand never would have been exposed to it. … We're working less in a black box of 'just trust us.'"