Imagine yourself in China, 2500 years ago. It’s a hot day, and you are moving through a busy marketplace.
It’s a welter of sounds and smells – the earthy scent of heaped yams, turnips, and garlic, the sound of servants gossiping and haggling, a none-too-fresh whiff from a fishmonger, smoke from a cooking fire. Sellers shout their wares, frying food sizzles in woks, children play noisy games…
One noise rises above the hubbub: the cheery tones of a bamboo flute. The music is coming from a stall in a shady corner of the market, and this stall is getting much more attention than the rest.
The stall is selling sweets – shiny berries coated in syrup, skewered on bamboo canes. People leave the stall with sticky fingers, licking syrup from their lips and smiling. But it isn’t the happy customers that are drawing the people.
They’re drawn close by the flute music the stallholder is playing. And they buy because of the picture.
The stallholder plays a simple, cheery tune, and the picture daubed on the screen of his stall is equally simple and equally cheery: a cartoonish sketch of a man, beaming as he eats a skewerful of sweets. The man’s clothing marks him out as a noble lord. His wide smile shows his pleasure at the sweet.
The people like the music. Some of the younger children even dance in front of the stall. But it’s the picture that really seals the deal.
It speaks to their deepest dreams and desires. Simple as it is, it tells them a story.
“Look at this noble lord”, it says, “he lives in luxury. But this sweet is so delicious that even he has forgotten his dignity, and is smiling like a child at the taste! Buy a sweet and you, too can experience a taste so exquisite that it delights even noblemen!”.
Of course, the people buy.
Commerce is as old as humanity. Even animals practice simple trade exchanges. But marketing is what sets human trading apart.
We use complex images, sounds, and concepts to advertise our wares in a way that other animals don’t. And we always have.
Marketing is at the intersection of creativity and commerce. As we move into this exciting new era of AI and digital marketing, it’s important not to forget that creative content always has been (and always will be!) central to effective marketing.
A tale as old as time
Ever since the first human to make a handprint in the mud looked at what they had done and thought “that’s cool”, humans have used creativity as a form of expression, and of communication.
- 4,000 years ago, wealthy Egyptians used intricately designed cartouches to mark their wares and their tombs. These were a beautiful, highly creative form of personal branding.
- Pictures and slogans daubed on the walls of Pompei urge people to buy from this or that trader (or, more scandalously, not to buy from rivals…).
- As we’ve already seen, the ancient Chinese used music and graphics to convince market-goers to make impulse purchases.
- There are some who believe that even the most ancient cave paintings were early sort of advertising (“Ug good hunter! See Ug catch mammoth! Employ services of Ug: World’s Best Mammoth Catcher!”)
As civilisations and societies grew and changed, the methods we used to make and spread creative content evolved.
But the central concept – using creativity to connect and communicate with others – has remained the same through millennia of developments, revolutions, and alterations.
Revolutions in creative marketing
We might think that the modern ‘data boom’ is the most significant development in creative marketing since – well – ever.
Digital data gives us access to our customers’ in a way that’s never been possible before. It lets us know the preferences, habits, locations, and behaviours of hundreds of thousands of people within a millisecond.
Our Chinese stallholder with his flute could never have dreamed of this kind of thing. You could be forgiven for thinking that there has never been a revolution in marketing as huge as this one.
But there has.
Several, in fact.
Let’s start with…
Nowadays, we take it for granted that content can be copied and distributed endlessly. But this was not always the case.
Before John Gutenberg invented the printing press in the 1450s, everything was written by hand – a long, labour-intensive, and resource-heavy practice – or spread through creative oral messaging.
People would hire messengers to spread the word about their products and services. Often, this kind of creative marketing would be in the form of a catchy ‘earworm’ song, which people would then sing around their homes, ensuring that the message travelled a lot further – and faster – than a single messenger could send it.
Aside from messengers, people used painted signs to market their produce. As most people couldn’t read, these were typically in the form of pictures.
You know all those weird English pub names with their peculiar signs? E.g. “The Dog And Duck”, with a picture of a dog and a duck on the sign? They’re a hangover (almost literally!) from this time.
Another good example is the red and white stripes on barbers’ poles: everyone knew that an eye-catching red and white striped pole meant ‘barber’ (there’s a very ‘Sweeney Todd’ history behind that design…but that’s another story!).
But then along came John Gutenberg, with a printing press which made it easy to produce and reproduce words and images hundreds of times over, thousands of times faster than any human could manage. And the world went a bit mad.
Before the printing press, books and written documents had been so rare that there was no point in most people learning to read.
But, now that text could be reproduced and spread quickly and cheaply (for example, in newspapers), it was inevitable that people would soon start to learn to read for themselves. The power to interpret documents was no longer in the hands of a few trained elites.
At a stroke, this would make the balance of power a lot more equal. If you think that the digital revolution has had a huge impact, wait until you hear that the printing press:
- Kickstarted the Renaissance. The printing press allowed for the distribution of ancient texts, which inspired artists of the Renaissance from Michaelangelo to da Vinci.
- Was integral to the rise of science over superstition in the Western world.
- Gave a platform to never-before-heard fringe voices (like women, the poor, and POC).
- Was nearly banned on several occasions by the Catholic church, and was banned outright by the Ottoman empire.
Of course, all of this new printed creative material had to be distributed. Which leads us to our next revolution in creative marketing…
The postal service
There was nothing new about basic mail services. Messengers had been trading for centuries. But it wasn’t until the printing press got up and running that the kind of thing we’d recognise today as a postal service came along.
Marketers were quick to capitalise on the potential of postal services. During the Industrial Revolution, English entrepreneur Josiah Wedgwood pioneered the art of direct mailing.
He employed highly creative artists to draw up graphics and copy for advertising flyers and ‘trade cards’, which could be delivered to middle class households around the country.
You can see how successful this was by the enduring popularity of Wedgwood pottery nearly three centuries later.
Other brands were quick to follow Wedgwood’s example, and the art of direct marketing mail was born.
As printers got used to printing marketing materials, the form got a lot more advanced. Catalogue, newspaper and magazine ads, billboard posters and the like swiftly got both sophisticated and inventive.
Here are some examples:
An 18th century advert for chairs, printed on a ‘trade card’ which would have been slipped through letterboxes.
Posters plastered on advertising ‘hoardings’ in London, 1835.
Advertising beer to infants. It was a different time…
Brands like Pears Soap were quick to capitalise on the growth of colour printing technology.
The development of photography began to influence marketing early on. People quickly got the idea that ‘The camera doesn’t lie’ – which marketers used to demonstrate the great results their brands could give. Check out this fashion brand ad from 1905.
While for a long time it was prohibitively expensive to produce photographic adverts (even huge, pioneer brands like Vogue still mostly used hand-drawn graphics until at least the 1930s), marketers made the very best of their budgets with beautifully produced artistic portraits. So much so that advertising is thought to have made a huge contribution to the development of photography as an art.
The next stop on from still images and text was, of course…
Photography and broadcasting developed side by side, in what was an exciting time for creative advertisers.
From radio jingles (harking back to those early ditties sung by messengers – creative forms never die, they just evolve!) to storied television campaigns, broadcasting changed the face of marketing forever.
As with previous revolutionary innovations, broadcasting empowered creatives by allowing them to play around with new media, enabling them to push creative boundaries like never before.
The first radio advert was broadcast in 1922 in the USA (due to the BBC’s ‘no commercial’ policy, radio advertising did not take off in the UK until private stations began appearing in the 1970s). Creative songwriters and soundsmiths developed innovative ways of capitalising upon radio’s potential.
Meanwhile, through the early years of the 20th century, graphic artists leaped upon the potential of animation to promote their brands. Some of the earliest animated shorts still surviving are advertising material – proving that once again marketers were leading the way in creative innovation.
The first television advert to air in the UK was broadcast in 1955, and was for toothpaste. Even today, you can see that these early television marketers did their best to combine both sound and images to create a ‘fresh, healthy’ vibe.
Broadcast media and the audio/visual technologies it brought with it have both inspired and been inspired by marketing creatives. Just as with printing and mailing, this advance in technology led to an outpouring of creativity, including the creation of brand new, never-before-seen jobs in the creative industries, and a plethora of new media in which to create.
The Digital Revolution
It’s important to note that none of what we’ve talked about here was uncontroversial.
At each point in this journey, a contingent of people thought that these new technologies would stifle rather than empower creativity.
The printing press, they said, would destroy the arts of storytelling and painting (at that time, the hand-scribing of books was closely connected to the painting/illustrating trade).
Which was perfectly true, because of course nobody has told a story or lifted a paintbrush since 1433. (In fact, the printing press enabled things like the art of novel-writing, and – as we mentioned – inspired artists like Michaelangelo by making classical works more widely known).
They said that photography would kill off the creativity inherent in painting and graphic design. In fact – as the ingenious combination of animation and photography in modern gifs and memes shows – it empowered both.
We are still told that radio and television are deadly for ‘static’ creative forms (novels, paintings and so on). The likes of Walt Disney, JK Rowling, and Banksy beg to differ.
And, now, there are many who believe that digital data is sucking the creativity out of modern marketing.
If these examples from history show nothing else, they show that combining new technology and creativity in the right way allows both to flourish. And to flourish in ways that change the world.
There is nothing new under the sun. In terms of concept, we haven’t come far at all from our Chinese stallholder with his flute and his picture.
But technology has allowed us to execute our creativity in ways that our stallholder could never have dreamed of.
Now, Creative Data gives us the potential to make the next big leap in creative marketing.