Stop Thinking “Outside The Box”: How Creative Restriction Drives Business Results

Posted on October 13, 2020

Updated on March 13, 2023

7 min read time

Looking back at the first ad campaign I ever created makes me want to throw up. It was nearly 10 years ago. And the campaign’s focus was to communicate the power of a new antiperspirant (AP) deodorant stick in the US. It featured British adventure TV celebrity, Bear Grylls, proving the power of an AP stick by putting three men in meat ponchos – yes, suits made of raw meat – then asking them to run around in circles whilst being chased by a pack of hungry wolves.



This was, of course, before Lady Gaga took the world by storm by wearing a dress made of raw flank steak to the 2010 VMT Video Music Awards.

The way things worked back then meant that the ad which was first created, was then transformed into digital media communications, point of sale display units, print, outdoor…the works. Meat was literally everywhere. You name the channel, and there they were – the meat ponchos.

In those days – funny to call it that, but a lot has changed in the last 10 years – we used phrases like “360 campaign” or “fully integrated media” to describe a multi-channel campaign with a single-minded communication idea which would be the one and only thing blasted out across every single piece of media, no matter the placement, all for consistency purposes.

The idea of creating a single-minded point to communicate and then adapting that across all different mediums seemed to work for the time – but so much has changed in the world since then, including the way we consume media, which has turned that style of marketing on its head.

That style depended on marketers allowing Creative Agencies to think completely outside the box; to think of a wild idea that would capture people’s attention, infiltrate popular culture and make people notice, lean in and listen.

Well, in this blog, I’m going to flip that approach on its head and explain how, in today’s world, it’s more effective for marketers to brief advertising agencies by helping them think “inside the box”, rather than outside of it.

I’m going to explore the major shifts which contributed towards this restriction of creative thought, in exchange for purposeful, driven messaging aimed at achieving commercial business results.

What is Creative Thinking Inside the Box?

Thinking inside-the-box is just as it sounds. It’s the development of a creative idea which works within the bounds of what a brand is hoping to achieve with its messaging.

Think about it objectively for a second. As a marketer, you’ll create an ad because:

  1. You want your brand to grow – you want to sell more of something.
  2. You want to make people feel and think a certain way about your brand.
  3. You want your brand to be memorable, and to stay top of mind amongst your target audience and/or the public.

This is, of course, why you advertise in the first place and why it’s so important to approach any creative brief with defining the creative boundaries. I’ve found in my time as a marketer that when doing that, you actually elicit more creative ideas because there are more challenges which teams need to think through in solving for the business.

Creative restriction drives business results

So, when briefing any creative agency on a new campaign, there are three things you must define for the team tasked with thinking up any idea. And what you must hold them accountable towards delivering upon before you go ahead and put any media spend behind your campaign.

proquo ai brand strategy laptop overhead


The first is your brand’s commercial objective.

How is it that your brand wants to grow? Do you want to expand your distribution and get into more stores? Do you want to grow your penetration and get into new households? Do you want to grow your brand’sunprompted awareness and become more top of mind?

Knowing how the campaign is intended to drive your sales will contribute a huge amount towards the messaging a creative agency should employ to deliver against your brand’s commercial objectives.

The second is your brand’s marketing objectives.

Defining first how you want to grow your brand is important, but outlining how you want the communication to make people feel and think about your brand is equally important.

Is your goal to grow penetration (your commercial objective) by communicating how empathetic and aspirational your brand is? Or might you be trying to communicate the more rational benefits of your brand, showcasing its Value for Money and Relevance to people in today’s times?

Think of your commercial objective as the ‘what’ it is you’re trying to achieve with your brand’s growth. Then, think of your marketing objective as the ‘how’ behind it all.

The third and final boundary line which is important to define for creative agencies before they get started is the boundary of media.

As I explained at the start, about 10 years ago it was completely normal to think of one communication message first, and then blast that out across all different mediums, second.

Today, most marketers’ approach would be the opposite. First,they decide on the media channel mix for their campaign, and then they brief for consistent messages which work together inside of each medium.

The easiest example to articulate this point is the difference between made-for-TV and made-for-digital video advertising. A lot of times, TV ads will hold off on showing viewers which brand the ad is for until a ‘big reveal’ towards the middle, or even at the end. But we all know that anything placed in YouTube TrueView environments today get a big-old “skip” after the first 5 seconds.

In the past, marketers used to just repurpose their TV ads for online, but in today’s world that just cannot and should not happen. If you know you’re going to be buying digital video media, you had better work on a creative idea that fits inside-the-box of that creative’s boundaries – which means delivering the brand name and communication messaging in the first 5 seconds – pre-skip.

The changing marketing landscape

Over the last 10 years, there were several contributing factors which accelerated the change from a single minded communication point and the idea of thinking ‘outside the box’ to more directed commercial, marketing and media driven ‘inside the box’ approach.

The first was the abundance of new brands out there. Year on year there are more and more brands which people are creating – each competing for attention to purchase. It has never been easier to create a brand. When before there were barriers like getting into a retail store, or finding a supply chain network – today, anyone and everyone is a brand and anyone and everyone can create one.

With so many more brands out there, consumers only are able toconsider a finite sub-segment of these brands to purchase. This of course stimulates the competition amongst brands and the increased competition has in turn led to two things:

  1. More advertising through more mediums from brands
  2. More advertising avoidance through more mediums from consumers

The effects of the two above shifts has been counteracted by marketers and media agencies through the move towards programmatic digital media buying and the ability to target and retarget based off a consumer’s searches and web-traffic. Fine for now, but stay tuned.

Checkpoints to ensure you’re thinking Inside the Box:

If you’re an emerging, disruptive brand with little to no marketing spend (like the rest of us!) to waste, then it’s important that you use checkpoints along the way to make sure the creative you’re developing is ‘inside the box’ of your commercial & marketing objectives as well as fit for purpose with your media plan.

So, as you’re going around the creative development racetrack, take these three pit-stops along the way to make sure you’re always meeting your creative’s original objectives:

Screenshot 2020-10-13 at 17.08.38

Checkpoint 1: Idea pre-Production

Before you go off to actually pay a production house to produce your creative idea, make sure the idea itself is delivering against your commercial objectives and your marketing objectives. You can check this by showing people a concept version of your finished piece; either an animated version of it, or even a hand-drawn set of still frame sketches with an explanatory voice over.

Making sure that people understand what you’re trying to communicate, are drawn to it, and that the idea makes people feel and think the way you want them to is crucial before investing a big chunk of cash into producing the asset.

Checkpoint 2: Finished Idea, pre-purchase of media

The second important checkpoint is after you’ve produced the asset. One idea can be explained well on paper, but when it’s brought into the medium in which it will go live with all the constraints of the media itself – like time length for video – things can change.

A lot of the time, the production of an asset will only account for 20% of the entire campaign value, so before you go and spend 80% more on media, it’s vital to prove that the finished form of the creative idea is meeting your commercial and marketing objectives.


Checkpoint 3: Live in Market

Far too often have I seen brands go live with campaign assets and then not know whether or not they made a difference in market. While you can test communication before it goes live, nothing is real until it is placed in market.

Competitive responses, changes in the category, and unexpected events can make any campaign take a different turn. Ensuring that you have the ability to keep your finger on the pulse of your campaign’s performance is probably the most important thing when it comes to brand management, and a marketer’s ability to manage their own marketing media spend.

For those who are new to our Brand Management Platform, ProQuo AI, we give brands the ability to check their campaign assets – any idea really – in our Creative Lab. Marketers are then able to see the instant impact of their ads live in market through ProQuo’s always-on monitoring.

Lord Leverhulme famously said, “I know 50% of my marketing budget is wasted, I just don’t know which 50%”. At ProQuo AI we abolish that by allowing brand managers to look at any idea before it is produced, after it is produced or while it is live in market to see the impact it is having on their brand.

Thinking Inside The Box

A lot has changed in marketing and advertising in the last 10 years. It’s incredible to think that a decade ago we were briefing ad agencies to think outside-the-box; to think of one big idea which we would then blast out across a bunch of different media without any regard for channel itself. That just wouldn’t fly in today’s world.

With so many brands out there competing for attention, and so much more avoidance of meaningless advertising, never has it been more important for marketers and creative agencies to think inside-the-box.

To first think what the communication is meant to achieve for the brand’s growth, then to think what the communication is meant to make people feel, and finally to think of the creative idea knowing the boundaries of the medium that idea will take shape in.

It’s the checking in and learning along the development process. It’s the always making sure the idea you have is delivering back commercially before it’s produced, and media spend is purchased. And it’s the optimisation of the media live in market as it’s out there in the open.

It’s the modern way of marketing, and while it might be absent of meat ponchos, hungry packs of wolves and extraordinary hyperbole – it is a true reflection of the world we live in.

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