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What Advertising Creatives Can Learn From Columbo

How a Fictional TV Detective Can Make You a Better Advertiser


Lt. Columbo
Image courtesy of ZoliBlog

One of the greatest television detectives of our time is Lt. Columbo, played magnificently, and understatedly, by the late great Peter Falk. Although a product of the seventies, with a slight revival in later years, Columbo remains beloved and relevant to this day. And there's a reason for that. It's not just that he's imminently watchable, he's also smart and methodical. Qualities that anyone in the creative department of an advertising agency should take to heart.

Here are 10 ways the Columbo can make you a better advertising creative.

If you're a fan of his work, you'll know these points and will no doubt be nodding along. If not, read the list then watch an episode or two to see them in action. It may be fiction, but it's fabulous inspiration.

Do Your Homework.

When Columbo arrives at the scene of a crime, he takes everything in. Nothing is taken for granted. No stone is left unturned. He gets on his hands and knees to look at the evidence on the floor. He opens doors and cupboards and peeks behind curtains. He will not begin the investigation without knowing everything about the crime scene. The same is true for an advertising creative. Do your homework. Learn everything you can about the product or service. Talk to the people who made it, the people who use it, the people who hate it. You cannot do your job well unless you know it all inside-out.

Write Everything Down.

Columbo puts everything in his notebook. Everything. Sooner or later, he uses the most minor facts to build a case against the murderer. So, wherever you are, take notes by having a pen and paper ready to jot down ideas. Even the silliest, most random thoughts should go into your notepad or sketchbook. Later on, you may make connections between to seemingly random things. Or, an idea you thought was stupid may in fact become brilliant with a small tweak. You will regret it if you leave an idea out of that notebook.

Put Yourself In Someone Else's Shoes.

Columbo doesn't think like a cop. He doesn't even think like a killer. He thinks like a very specific person, and that's the one he believes committed the murder. Sometimes it's an old lady, sometimes a young businessman, and it helps him come at the crime from a new angle. If you're advertising diapers, become a new parent or a baby. If you're working on a new sneaker, become the teen it's aimed at. Don't just think in generalities either. You know that teen who lives across the street, with the sneaker fetish and the iPhone that's always playing techno? Get into her mindset. You can only change a consumer's behaviorif you really know them.

Question Everything.

Columbo takes nothing for granted. Why was the door open at a specific time? Why did the murderer constantly look at his watch? Why was suicide the instant decision? In the same way, you should question everything, starting with the creative brief. Why is the USP written in that way? Is the product really as good as the client says? Is the target audience correct? Is the media placement being asked for really what the agency should be exploring, or is there a better way? Who, why, what, how and when are a creative's best friends at the beginning of every brief. And after that, question your own work along the way. Is it on strategy? Is it eye-catching? Is it smart? Is it too smart? Is it on budget? Can we get more money if it isn't? Do we even need this much money, or would it be more effective if we spent less? Question everything, over and over again.

Be Meticulous, and Explore Every Possible Avenue.

Columbo is finicky to the point of being OCD. He will look at every single avenue, often multiple times. He will even go over and over something that is considered a dead end. The same is true of art directors and copywriters who work in teams. One will write something down, then scribble it out. The other will say "hey, what do you have there?" After much cajoling, someone will give in and talk about the "silly" idea that actually produces something much better after a heated discussion. There are no stupid ideas when it comes to brainstorming or ideating. They are simply seeds to be thrown into fertile soil. Some will take hold and germinate, others will die. But you cannot get a bumper crop without spreading a lot of those seeds.

Make Unusual Connections.

Edward De Bono, the king of lateral thinking, would be proud of Columbo. In every episode, you will see the disheveled detective putting things together that have no business being linked. Creatives can do the same thing and achieve amazing results. Think about pairing words or objects that don't usually belong together, like hairy egg, cold fire, sharp pillows, concrete underwear or spotless dirt. Hey, there are a few ideas in there already. Maybe a vacuum cleaner so powerful, it even leaves the dirt it collects looking spotless. Well, you get the idea.

Never Lose Your Cool.

Columbo, 99.5% of the time, is the perfect gentleman. On very, very rare occasions, he has been known to raise his voice, but at that point the killer is already facing a life sentence and Columbo is bringing down the hammer of the law. But usually, Columbo won't let anything shake him, and won't be drawn into pointless arguments. As a creative, you have to curb your temper, especially in presentations. This is hard, because creatives are very passionate about the work. But it's fair to say that no client ever bought a great ad because they were bullied into it. No account manager presented a campaign because they're been shouted at by the creative team. This is a professional business, there is no time to throw the toys out of the crib.

Give It The Overnight Test.

Columbo is a master of sleeping on a problem. If he can't solve it one day, he comes at it fresh the next. If he cannot make a connection, he lets his subconscious work on it, and you'll see the flash of genius come over him at the most unexpected time. This is perhaps one of the most important processes in the creation of an advertising campaign or design idea. Once you have collected all of the information, and you have written down a whole bunch of ideas, it's time to let your subconscious mind go to work. Think about something else. Watch a movie. Take a walk, or a bath. Your mind will begin to work on the problem. And later, when you've written down your ideas, take another break. It's amazing how some of your best ideas will look weaker in the morning, while others that you thought had little merit suddenly rise to the surface, with just a few tweaks.

Work On Instinct.

In almost every episode, Columbo knows who is guilty within a few minutes of meeting them, or seeing the crime scene. From that point on, it's a case of proving it. The same is true on the hunt for creative solutions. You will have a gut reaction that the idea should be based around a certain aspect of the product or service. You'll know instantly what it should feel like, or the tone it should take. Then, the hard work comes. But if you know where you are aiming at, and trust your gut, the ideas will follow.

Do Not Quit Until You Have The Solution.

For Columbo, there is no such thing as unsolved case. He digs and digs and digs, and when evidence is lacking, he'll find ways to make the murderer confess (watch Negative Reaction with Dick Van Dyke for a brilliant example of a gotcha ending). As a creative, you cannot shrink from the task. There is no use in saying "that'll do" or "well, it's not great but we have bigger fish to fry." Your solutions should always be the best you can possibly do. Otherwise, you're cheating yourself and your client. Never give in, never surrender, and you will become one of the advertising greats.

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