Life in the Fast Lane


Advertising Feels Like Math (Sometimes)

By 6:18 PM , , , , ,

Before entering the crazy world of advertising, I honestly thought it was all fun and games. That all the creative geniuses behind the ads I loved and talked about would just play all day. That because these people were having so much fun within the ten or so hours that they worked, they could end the week on a high note: attending glamorous advertising award shows, throwing parties. That these people were just so cool: they came to work in Chuck Taylors and Bohemian drawstring pants with thick square frames for glasses.

Little did I know that there was so much more to advertising than the glitz and glamor, the hipster-esque fashion, the fun and games.

I've realized, through the years, that advertising feels like Math. And, mind you, Math has always been my waterloo. It is That One Thing that I've struggled to understand through the years. Mainly because I don't seem to have the kind of logical reasoning needed to get it.

So, here is why advertising feels like solving a Math problem. At least to my ├╝ber right-brained mind.


Sample Math Problem: A triangle has a perimeter of 50. If 2 of its sides are equal and the third side is 5 more than the equal sides, what is the length of the third side?

If we were to solve this Math problem, we'd go about it this way:

Step 1: Assign variables:

Let x = length of the equal side

Step 2: Write out the formula for perimeter of triangle:

P = sum of the three sides 

Step 3: Plug in the values from the question and from the sketch:

50 = x + x + x+ 5

Combine like terms 
50 = 3x + 5

Isolate variable 
3x = 50 – 5 
3x = 45 
x =15 

The length of third side = 15 + 5 = 20

Answer: The length of third side is 20

(Math problem taken from I've forgotten my high school geometry and therefore didn't bother solving it on my own. Thanks, Internet!) 


So we move on to advertising.

Sample Advertising Brief: We want people to download the free app and use it within 10 days to buy the special offer, a $1 family size pizza from Papa John's.

(Random creative brief nicked from again, Internet!)

Normally, this is how most advertising creatives would crack the brief.

Step 1: Think of a Big Idea. 

is a Big Idea anyway? It's that one term you'll hear during brainstorms or while presenting to clients.

In a nutshell, it's an irrefutable truth (yes, this is redundant) about your target market, your product, or the category your product competes in.

So if I were to work around a Big Idea related to that advertising brief, or "Math problem", if you will, I'd arrive at something like this. (Mind you, one can only get to this point after spewing endless mind maps. I suggest you throw everything out there — inane as it may seem — before whittling it down to what you feel is the best Big Idea.)

People panic when threatened about the future.

Step 2: Think of the Execution.

Most creative briefs will tell you how your clients want to advertise (these are called "channels"). Is it a 30-seconder TV commercial? Something viral? A brand bug on TV? Or a print ad? Or an Integrated Marketing Campaign (IMC)?

If you know what the channels are, then great! Less of a headache for you. At least your end results will be much more focused and single-minded.

But if the sky's the limit, you can also go wild and end up with a Keynote deck with 100+ slides full of executions.

For this blog entry's sake, let's say I go with a viral campaign. I decide to create a series of webisodes on YouTube where people are threatened with their fates in a matter of days. Maybe one episode will be about someone discovering his fate after reading what's written in his fortune cookie. He panics to the point wherein he can't sleep and holes up at home. He can either do that, or simply download the free Papa John's app and use it within 10 days to avail of a $1 family size pizza.

Step 3: Execute.

Assuming your Creative Director and Executive Creative Director have given you their blessings (chances are, you'll go through several — or in the case of most creatives, seemingly 
endless — rounds of revisions), you can go ahead and execute. Come up with scripts plus an eye-catching visual for your end shot, accompanied by a witty tagline. Then present to client.

If all goes swimmingly, your client will love the idea and have you go through the "production" process ASAP. In the real world, though, you're likely to go through these processes all over again until you and the client finally come to a compromise that you're both happy about.


Why does advertising sometimes feel like Math, at least to me?

Many times, you try and try and try until you crack that brief (or die). The same way you can be on your twenty-fourth attempt to prove that Triangle ABC is congruent to Triangle XYZ.

Many times, advertising doesn't always require you to think with your heart. It requires you to use your mind.

It requires you to dig deep into human insight to resonate with your target market, which means some sort of "inductive reasoning".

It requires logic, which has to be communicated in a witty, clever way.

Specific to my being a copywriter, this requires me to string words and phrases together in a way that flows nicely and makes complete sense. So much so that when I finally finish a TV script, for example, I can say, "Eureka!" with flair.

Unlike how I view Math, though, advertising is much more fun, insane, loud, unpredictable, sometimes senseless.

Unlike Math, advertising allows me to combine two of my passions: my love for visuals and my love for the written word.

And unlike Math, for the most part, I actually get advertising. I have my bad days, definitely. But on my good days, I feel fulfilled. Fulfilled enough to keep pushing myself until I can say, "Yes, Advertising, we're on the same wavelength now."

I work in a crazy, creative, chaotic, and challenging industry and I love it.

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  1. I'm a math and stats major, and I have a minor in finance; (yes, feel free to get sick your stomach haha!), after reading this entry, I can honestly say that you do have a mind for math. You approach your advertising quandaries with logic - I approach math problems the same way you enumerated your steps. Except, my step 1 is "What's the idea behind this problem?" - which leads me to think, "What's the best logical answer?" - which then leads me to something similar to your steps 2 & 3.

    There's plenty of math and data in advertising, as you well know, especially in analytics. Some ad firms commission data analytic firms to maximize ad exposure during certain times of the day for instance, or companies commissioning ad firms might do a market analysis first, then commission an ad firm based on their initial market analysis - with the hopes of an ad firm improving upon their initial market analysis.

    There's probably someone in your firm that tells clients, "We are 95% confident that if we air this commercial between the hours of 7:30pm and 9:30pm, during program XYZ, on network JKL, we'll have viewer exposure of approximately 9,500 - 10,000 households."

    Math can be fun, just give it a chance :)


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