Forget creative judgement, try creative reaction

By Simon Derungs, 21 September 2023 | 5 mins read

Were we ever really in any doubt about the power of creativity? It’s what the advertising business is built on, and is the ultimate value-add that us agencies bring to businesses and brands.

Back in 2014, Paul Dyson of consultancy Data2Decisions identified that creative execution was by far the single most important element of advertising under a marketer’s direct control when it comes to delivering return on investment (after size of the brand). This year, Thinkbox commissioned Paul Dyson to revisit his analysis, and again, creative quality stands out.

Most well-trained advertising professionals already knew this – it’s a simple universally recognised truth that outstanding creativity can significantly accelerate the success of a brand.

Yet it’s easy to lose sight of this in a world of fast-changing media and compressed timelines, a world where 40% (£14 billion) of ad revenue now goes to online search.

So creativity is king, and always has been. Much has been written about the creative process, brilliantly summed up in this chart:

But here’s a question that’s rarely asked – how should the agency team (the account handlers and planners) ‘judge’ work when the creative team first share their ideas?

As Robert Senior once said, “All ideas are born tiny, brittle and easy to crush with a flick of a pen or the contemptuous rolling of the eyes”.

So long before anything goes to the client, that first creative review can be a critical moment, where an incredibly innovative game-changing idea might live or die.

There’s obviously lots written on this topic, and many tools. The ‘Hand’ is an example. All very sensible, and often helpful.

But here’s another way, based on my 35 years reviewing creative ideas.

In short, it’s about REACTION rather than JUDGEMENT. It’s about focusing on your System 1 thinking first and foremost – capturing your immediate reaction to seeing the work, as this is perhaps your truest assessment, before your rational (System 2) brain kicks in and gets all serious and practical. Not familiar with those concepts? Have a read of Kahneman’s 2011 book, Thinking, Fast and Slow, if you want to learn more about this.

Creative Reaction involves just two simple questions you should ask yourself:

  1. Will it be easy or difficult?
  2. Does it feel comfortable or scary?

I’m sure you can see where I’m going with this.

Will it be easy or difficult?

It isn’t always the case that an idea has to be difficult to be good, but I suspect many great ideas fail at this first hurdle because the team fear the difficulty in making them happen. If it’s something that hasn’t been done before, it’ll be hard to sell to the client, and hard to deliver. It’ll require absolute belief, a huge amount of energy, persuasive skills and resilience (and maybe money). Frankly, it can be a nightmare for the poor suit, who was hoping for a nice TV script that would be easily sold in and then passed to the TV department.

I’m sure the Grey account team weren’t expecting they’d be creating a new reflective spray for cyclists when they went to review the Volvo creative, but the resulting LifePaint launch won big at Cannes and made a huge impact on the ever-powerful Volvo campaign for greater road safety. I bet it was really really difficult to make this happen, but absolutely worth it.


Hand on heart, I’ve sat in many a creative’s office and felt my heart skip a beat, not because the ideas aren’t strong, but because the better they’ve done their job, the harder mine will be.

Does it feel comfortable or scary?

In my experience, the more comfortable it feels when you see the work, the less unexpected, distinctive and break-through it’s likely to be. I suspect this is why so many ads, eg. for cars and banks, are predictable and ‘samey’, “no-one ever got fired…” and all that. My old boss Mike Greenlees would often ask “does it scare me?” Clearly, scary means edgy, untried and untested, different. It could be a disaster or spectacularly effective, but you can be sure it won’t be invisible or boring.

Surely this is what agencies are here to do – push the boundaries, make the account team feel seriously uncomfortable when they see the concepts, maybe even a little scared. Ideas like Apple ‘1984’, Cadbury’s ‘Gorilla’, Metro Trains ‘Dumb ways to die’.

I’m not suggesting for a minute that the work shouldn’t be on brief and on brand, but I guarantee that if you ask yourself these two simple questions when you first review the creative, you might help create something amazing.

Put another way, if you walk out of the review feeling calm and relaxed, you may want to turn around and take another look.