Story Matters

Q & A

Advertising & Humans

How delight plays a part.

Business Insider recently dubbed her one of the 30 Most Creative People in Advertising Under 30. She’s won awards from the likes of Cannes Lions, One Show, One Show Interactive, One Show Entertainment, FWA and the Webby Awards. You’re paying attention now, right?

Avery Oldfield is an art director at the San Francisco-based Venables Bell & Partners. Over the last few years, she’s rocked projects for Google and Toyota, to name a few.

We Skyped one blustery winter day this past January and talked about how humankind benefits from laughing and smiling, and that maybe, just maybe, advertising isn’t totally to blame for all of society’s ills.

What do you think makes people pay attention these days?
I had an ad professor in grad school say that you need to either tell someone something new or tell them something they already know in a different way. Documentaries are a good example of this. A lot of stories are the same—often with themes of brokenness and redemption—but the ways they are told are different and unique.

Over Christmas I watched a documentary called Crash Reel. It’s the story of Kevin Pearce, a prodigy snowboarder who crashes and suffers from a life-altering brain injury weeks before competing in the Vancouver Winter Olympics. A familiar theme, yes, but set in the world of extreme sports, the telling looks different.

So when people do pay attention, what’s at work?
Throughout any given day, there are multiple things fighting for your attention. Children, bosses, spouses, friends, and the least urgent and commanding of all: advertisements. Brands have it tough. Piquing someone’s interest in 30 seconds? It’s not easy.

Ultimately what we want as humans is to be delighted. The brands that tap into that human truth are, in my opinion, the most successful. A commercial that surprises you, makes you laugh or cry or feel understood, is satisfying. It forges a connection between you and a product to which you’d otherwise feel no connection. That delight you feel, even though it may be subconscious, is attention-grabbing.

This spot by Google that my ad agency did is a good example of delightful storytelling in 30 seconds.

OK, let’s say you’ve just gotten an assignment. Now what?
I work closely with a copywriter. We come up with ideas. He makes sure they sound good and I make sure they look good. But ultimately it comes down to figuring out the business problem.

That’s what advertising is: solving problems. Do people know about this product? What are their perceptions of it?

Strategists usually help determine issues a brand is dealing with, and it’s up to the creative team to interpret how to solve them and turn it into something worth paying attention to. That’s when my part of the process begins.

How can a brand become relevant again? Old Spice has done a good job of that. How can you take a boring brand, like car insurance, and give it personality? See Geico.

As a creative, you have to churn out ideas whether you’re feeling it or not. How do you keep up?
A certain level of hope and optimism is necessary in order to have a shot at making memorable work. With every assignment, there is a new story to tell, and that’s what I love.

How do you make information about car maintenance interesting? How do you delight people in that? You have a host explain car maintenance while participating in “interesting” activities. Ultimately, humankind can only benefit from fun and smiling, from laughing, even crying.

But being a creative also comes with insecurity. The great part is that you’re super intuitive, but you also doubt yourself a lot. I’ve been at it for four years now, and confidence comes with time and having small wins, reminding myself that my intuition and gut have served me well. And when I’ve been wrong, I’ll figure out how to do it better next time.

Sometimes advertising manipulates us into paying attention. What’s your take on those kinds of messages?
That’s an age-old question about advertising. This world has a lot of rough edges. But there are brands out there that do want to do right by their customers. At its best, advertising finds the truth about a product and tells that story in an interesting way. It’s been abused, of course, and people have been taken advantage of, but at the heart of it is storytelling and consumers making informed decisions.

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