TV ads need big ideas, not big budgets

Outdoor advertising
Outdoor advertising

Regular readers will now that Kenya recently revived its Advertising Awards after a gap of 12 years. It gave one a pretty good idea of the state of the advertising nation. Radio ads were terrible and print has gone flat. But when it came to TV, positive progress had been made. More than 40 TV ads made it to finalist, representing real competence in the discipline that’s hardest to get right.

The fact that 25 per cent of them were for one advertiser, Safaricom, may have reinforced the incorrect perception that TV ads need big budgets. They don't, they need big ideas. Safaricom clearly isn’t short of money, and credit to them for deciding TV is a powerful space they can own. And they have decided to own it through quantity. They follow the traditional brand building approach established in 1950’s in America. Most Kenyans would say they see more TV ads for Safaricom than any other brand. They spend money on production too. All their commercials are well cast, well lit, well directed and well filmed. They use orginal music composition instead of licenced tracks.

It’s very competent stuff. But perhaps if they went for sharper creative ideas they wouldn’t have to spend so much money making them. And they would certainly win higher awards: in the 2012 APA competition Safaricom only netted one Silver and three Bronzes.

Some of Safaricom’s TV ads represent a global trend in communication called ‘higher order’ messaging. Big companies use it to persuade audiences that they have a moral compass to showcase youth initiatives and community projects. Some of it is worthy; some of it is whitewash. In East Africa, however, Safaricom is the only corporate brand investing in higher order campaigns.

It was good to see proper beer advertising after a long absence. After years of wandering like a blind mendicant since KBL abandoned ‘My Country, My Beer’, Tusker is now firmly in control of the national beer brand slot with its ‘Team Kenya’ campaign. It didn’t win an award because it’s not ground breaking, but it is brimming with emotion and it looks and sounds great.

There were impactful TV campaigns for insurance, newspapers, and mosquito nets; and dated work for paint, power and bread. Property developer Cytonn made a direct appeal to greed that may reflect the Kenyan Zeitgeist. My personal favourite was a TV ad from Airtel to promote WhatsApp. Screened on Madaraka Day, it told the story of Kenya’s struggle for freedom in a series of WhatsApp messages between ‘Jomo Kenyatta’ and groups like the ‘Kapenguria Six’ and ‘White Settlers’. Wittily written and simply produced it retold history to engage the digital generation. No wonder it won the Grand Prix.

Chris Harrison leads the Brand Inside