When John St. released its Pink Ponies case study in early 2011, it chronicled how the Toronto-based agency pulled off the most successful birthday party. Ever. Not only was the target audience blown away by the big idea of pairing "pink" with "ponies," the birthday party of 8-year-old Chelsea Bedano blew the metrics of the category out of the water with exponential growth, innovative guerrilla tactics, and game-changing viral buzz that didn’t just help promote a party. It created a movement. Pink Ponies was also a farce.
Hilarious in its completely bogus statistics and comedic overstatements that put a far more calculating spin that you’d expect on your average backyard party, Pink Ponies cuts right to the quick when it comes to demonstrating how those in the ad world feel about these mini-films that seem to make every idea epic. Created as a response to the rapid growth—and overblown bluster—of the case study films now used to show off complex, integrated creative advertising ideas to awards show juries, the parody typifies every last tired and predictable cliché that has become the industry-wide norm.
As the Cannes Festival of Creativity gets underway, we thought it an apt time to examine the whys and hows of the almighty case study. Are the video overviews the paragon of over-inflated self-importance or a necessary and useful illustrative tool for articulating multifaceted ideas? Are they the new standard for the modern marketing age, or are they a form of crafty smoke and mirrors that can use specious statistics to prop up a mediocre idea? The answer is: yes.
Susan Credle, Leo Burnett’s USA chief creative officer is blunt in her assessment: "I think case studies have become a distraction in our industry that average work hides behind and brilliant work shouldn’t need. It concerns me when the case studies are better than the work." Credle recalls the early days of case studies, when websites were being entered into awards shows and juries were left struggling to evaluate the work. "We would pull them up on the web and it would take 45 minutes. We were like, you know what, we need something that we can quickly see what’s special about this and how it worked." Her concern is when the case study shines more than the creative: "When we’re having more trouble separating awarding creativity of the work and the creativity of the case study creative, that makes me nervous. It’s like apples and oranges."
Others are more enthusiastic champions of case studies—done right, of course. Tom Eslinger, worldwide digital creative director at Saatchi & Saatchi says that with digital and integrated work that has so many moving parts, context is needed to show how the idea was unique. "We share so many cases because of the nature of so many of us working together that we need a succinct, smart entertaining way to put across an idea." Eslinger, who is the jury president for the newly formed Mobile awards at Cannes says he pushed to have case films as a part of every Mobile entry. "It would be nearly impossible to judge hundreds of pieces of work in pre-judging, as well as in the room on potentially several devices. In some instances, case films are the trailers for great campaigns and ideas at award shows and they quickly get the point across when you are having to judge 600 ideas in three days!"
The reality is case studies are not going anywhere. "Loathe it or hate it, the case study appears to be a necessary response to the complexity of modern advertising. Whether you call it integrated or 360 advertising, there is a very real challenge to tell a complex story as quickly and effectively as possible to judges, juries, and stakeholders client side. Right now, the case study is the worst-best way of doing this," offers Chris Baylis, ECD Tribal DDB Amsterdam.
Anything described as worst-best clearly has room for improvement, so herewith are some collective ideas for making case studies work better for all involved.
For the sake of the sanity of anyone who’s ever been in a jury room, make case studies shorter. As Baylis says, "judging awards these days requires more endurance than an iron-man triathlon" and with new categories continually being added to the shows, the burden and complexity of understanding what the heck went into a campaign is only going to grow. To help the situation, Baylis suggests "elevator case" films for first-round judging. "It’s like the elevator pitch, no more than 30 seconds of film, where you have to present your case clearly and succinctly. If you get through to the next round, you get to show the two-minute case film."
Elsinger echoes the need for brevity. "I’ve been on juries where case films have been shut off after a minute or so if the majority of the judges on the jury have seen it several times or are just plain bored and offended by the poor quality of presentation of the idea in the case film. At that moment, I always think about the amount of time and money that has been flushed down the drain."
As part of the Pink Ponies team at John St., Partner/Co-Creative Director Stephen Jurisic also considers length an issue but adds that a great idea is paramount. "If the idea is killer, it’ll always sing," he says, citing the Tap Project case from Droga5 in 2007. "Within the first 30 seconds of that video you have it figured out and you’re like, amazing. And then you get to the results and it’s like, good, I’m glad the results were good, but I would have awarded you before I saw that."
The problem with case studies, according to many, is that they become pieces of creative in themselves, which poses a problem when it comes to evaluating an idea. In discussing this, Credle recounts a story from her college years. In one class, she says she used to pre-sell her creative idea to her professor before showing the work and would get A’s every time. Then, she says, her prof got wise to her cunning ways and insisted she just show the work. "My grade dropped drastically," says Credle. "I think that’s what happens with case studies. They’re great for showing the thinking behind the work, but to have something live on its own and be provocative is really hard. Propping it up with wonderful storytelling about thinking, I think makes it difficult to understand the power of a piece of creative we’re looking at."
Rémi Babinet, founder and executive creative director, BETC, says that when it comes to the creativity of a case study "it’s a creative production, subject to the same rules: to stand out, you have to get the idea across quickly, be attractive, original, clear, and don’t be boring." He cautions, however against overdoing it. "The principal danger is that production values can outweigh the idea and the results. A weak campaign can be ‘sexed up’ via a great production and, inversely, a great idea can be killed by a weak production."
"That’s the tricky part," says Jurisic. "If the idea doesn’t get you in the first 30 seconds, the person’s already said no and you might have screwed yourself by overproducing your video and clouding the idea. That can work against you because you used a case video for something that maybe didn’t need a case video. Why make a good idea bigger than it is? If you can’t explain it in a sentence or two, you gotta wonder."
Adds Tribal DDB’s Baylis: "The work should always be about the best business solutions for clients, not about winning awards. If the work has nailed the brief, it should win awards regardless of how polished or compelling the case film is.
A good case film will carry the judges through the idea effortlessly and clearly, avoiding clichés and exaggeration. No one wants to see the old format of problem, solution, results—what people want to see is an original story told well.
"You should never ever boast in a case study. Stay away from that and just stick to the story," offers Credle when it comes to the fine line between calling attention to success and tooting your own horn. "Don’t make a judgment on whether you were brilliant or not."
When it comes to crowing over one’s accomplishments, Crispin Porter + Bogusky’s Worldwide Chief Creative Officer Rob Reilly, and this year’s president of the Titanium & Integrated jury, is a little more forgiving, calling it the nature of the beast. "I don’t think people intend to oversell the idea, but it’s impossible. That’s what we do. As agencies we oversell our ideas. We want to believe our ideas are the greatest; we want to believe they’ll do tremendous things for our clients. I think people go in with best intentions because they believe in that genius idea. I’m not going to write a video less elegant or less effective because I think I’m overselling an idea." That said, he does say integrity is vital. "Be as honest as you can. We never use ‘we’ in the videos, we say our clients. You really have to be careful about overselling the idea in the language you use. And stop talking about how great something is. If the judges like it, they like it; if they don’t, they don’t."
As a way to showcase an agency’s creative and strategic chops to clients, case studies can take whatever shape is needed for the situation. As an awards show, submission, however, more clearly defined standards are called for from those who’ve endured hours of endless case studies in a jury room.
"I think there should be formats for awards show so that submissions are all equal and informative, but you’re not spending so much time competing on how you creatively told your story," says Credle. "It’s really fun to look at well-told case studies but the question is, are we spending more time on the case studies than the creative work that the world actually sees? If we’re awarding thinking, that’s a different story than awarding a piece of creativity and I see the craft becoming less important than the thinking."
CPB’s Reilly agrees that more rigidity when it comes to submission films would help curtail the slippery slope towards hackneyed or ill-conceived case study films. "I’ve suggested multiple times that there be a universal template of how these kinds of ideas get presented so that it’s very equal," he says. "I think agencies spend so much time and resources romancing an idea, and it’s still to a degree somewhat unfair because some people are better than others at making videos. If we can standardize how they’re submitted maybe that can be a great evolution."
Everyone we spoke with agrees that case studies have a purpose—particularly beyond the awards circuit and in the context of winning new business or articulating an agency’s thinking to a client. And as advertising ideas continue to defy categorization, reliance on them as a storytelling tool is not going anywhere. But therein lies the opportunity to move case studies away from their reliance on results and metrics, and back to storytelling and the creative idea.
"It’s incredible that title cards like 'the brief’ and 'the solution’ happen so often, and vague statistics and zooming logos fly at the screen to show the reach of the idea," laments Eslinger. "Unoriginal approaches to presenting your idea for a major award show really says something about you and your work: if you can’t be bothered to capture my imagination in the first 30 seconds of your case film, how the hell did you capture the attention of your client’s customers?"
Beyond dropping clichés and high production values, Credle calls for a return to craft and art when it comes to creating the vehicles to represent a creative idea. "I can remember a time when a piece of advertising wouldn’t be awarded because the kerning wasn’t right on a print ad. Now we barely see the work in the case studies," she says. "Tell me a story. If we’re going to do these case studies, let’s write a beautiful story that starts with where the idea came from, what we saw in the world that was happening, why we decided to do this, and what was the outcome, but told in an emotional, human way."