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The relative success of McDonald’s versus Burger King reignites debate over value of creativity.

As someone who cut his teeth as an advertising agency copywriter/creative director, I remember well the Benton & Bowles mantra “It’s not creative unless it sells.” That was back in the 1980s and at the time, my personal rebuttal was “yeah, but it’s not selling unless it’s creative.”

The debate over the impact of creativity in marketing communications has been with us since the dawn of the profession, but it recently returned to the headlines thanks to comparisons of the relative sales successes of McDonalds and Burger King.

Burger King’s advertising is done by the Crispin Porter + Bogusky. This agency has been generally viewed as the “creative hot shop” for most of the last decade. They gave us the Cooper Mini and the Geek Squad campaigns. They put Jerry Seinfeld in the commercial with Bill Gates for Microsoft. And their work on the Burger King account has provided defining moments in integrated marketing communications including the iconic Subservient Chicken.

While the national advertising for McDonald’s has been consistently solid, it has never been garnered the kind of buzz that Burger King regularly gets for edgy creative campaigns or breakthrough viral marketing strategies. Yet, McDonald’s sales and market share have grown dramatically in the last five years while Burger King has lost market share and its sales growth is less than half of Mickey Ds.

All of this points to the classic problem of using sales as the measure of one’s marketing success. The reality is that there are hundreds of variables which can come into play, of which creativity and marketing communications strategies are just a part. McDonald’s has benefitted immensely from its product mix and its pricing strategies in recent years. From Premium Chicken to McCafe, McDonald’s has been consistently introducing the right products at the right time. And its commitment to the Dollar Menu was paying big dividends even before the recession hit and Americans became increasingly value conscious.

I’ve often compared marketing executives (and agencies) to being the head coach of a major sports franchise. As the most visible member of the team, the head coach gets an inappropriate share of the glory when things go well and a disproportionate level of blame when the team starts to lose. Often overlooked are the contributions of individual team members as well as uncontrollable circumstances over which the coach usually has little, if any control.

The communications side of marketing is a left brain/right brain discipline. At its core, it requires smart and sound strategic thinking. Based on that foundation, the creative side of the process comes into play. The art is presenting the marketing message in a way that is memorable and makes a connection with the target audience. In other words, it’s not creative unless it sells, but its likelihood of selling successfully is greatly enhanced by its creativity.

(In the interest of full disclosure, McDonald’s is a client of Villing & Company’s public relations department.)

Filed Under: advertising

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