Creating Ads That Sell: Market Philosophies & the System1 Playbook

Markets grow saturated, competition intensifies, and customers are flooded with choice; in this day and age, the power of truly effective, brilliantly creative marketing cannot be overstated. As Paul Dyson put it, at the recent Thinkbox Cracking creativity event, “it’s clear that creativity is, by some way, the biggest lever at a marketer’s disposal.”

Whether you’re aiming to drive new sales, boost your brand awareness, or seed an impactful narrative idea; powerful and creative advertising is central to success. 

Generic, abstract, stereotypical advertising isn’t enough. An off-the-shelf ad may achieve some traction, true – but what makes advertising truly powerful is the element of creativity. This is the secret ingredient that enables ads to generate maximum sales and drive long-term brand growth.

Today, we’ll go deep into the core precepts that underpin the success of the world’s most successful ads and marketing campaigns. We’ll walk through the teachings of writers Les Binet, Peter Field, Byron Sharp – along with our very own Orlando Wood – to unearth the fundamentals of genuinely effective advertising.


The Creative Caveat

Science can guide marketers, yes; but as with any artistic project, there is a need for that special creative something – that je ne sais quoi – that gilds the result with magic and vitality. 

In other words: if you want to create ads that sell, ensure you give your creative minds room to express and explore.

With that said, let’s get into it.   


Unlock the Science Behind Creative, Effective Advertising

So, what takes a creative advertisement from ‘good’ to ‘powerful’ – what we at System1 would call a 4.0 or 5.0+ star rated ad?   

The answer is simple: emotion. 

We know that when people feel more, they buy more. Studies show that it is emotion, above all else, that drives buying psychology and consumer behaviour (Psychology Today). Consider the following statistics:

  • Emotional advertising is twice as efficient as rational, and delivers twice the profit (The Long and Short of It – Binet & Field)
  • When ads elicit an above-average emotional response, they lead to a 23% increase in sales (Forbes).
  • Emotionally-connected customers are 52% more valuable, on average, than those who are just highly satisfied (Harvard Business Review).

It sounds like ‘marketing magic’, but it isn’t: within the field of advertising, emotion can be quantified.


Left or Right Brain?

The first stop on our exploration of creating ads that sell is Lemon, by our Chief Innovation Officer Orlando Wood. 

In the groundbreaking book, Wood demonstrates a sharp decline in the effectiveness of advertising, which has dropped markedly since 2008. But what lies behind this drop-off? The rise of digital, a business focus on short-term results, various industry forces… or something deeper? 

Leaning into the work of Iain McGilchrist (author of The Master And His Emissary), Wood proposes that psychology, and the science of perception, can explain the dwindling effectiveness of advertising. 


Left Brain = Less Effective for Advertising

A key point here is that the left and right hemispheres of the brain don’t exactly do different things. It’s more that they do things in different ways. 

While the right brain (associated with context, connections, and ‘the whole’) is wired to perceive things like perspective, detail, relationships, and ‘betweenness’, the left brain (more attuned to cause, effect, and ‘parts’) sees unilateral elements, flatness, symbols, and schema.

Left Brain Right Brain




Cause / effect



Signs / symbols






Connections / relationships



Space / depth


In Lemon, Wood shows the tendency of human expression to fluctuate between left and right (or whole) brain appeal: “a pendulum swinging, again and again, between culture that reflects a balanced-brain view of the world and culture that reflects a more left-brained way of approaching things.”


The 21st Century Cultural Mentality

Abstracted body parts (eg., hands or mouth) over characters with agency, testimonial over dialogue, rhythm over melody, flatness over place; contemporary advertising abounds with examples showing that, currently, we favour an appeal to the left-brain. 

What matters to marketers, though, is whether this left-brain tendency is effective in terms of generating business results. 

And the answer is a resounding ‘no.’ 

Our ad testing platform Test Your Ad, can reveal the star rating of an ad; or, in other words, its level of effectiveness. From here, we can analyse how many left vs right brain elements the ad contains. 

Time and again, results show that while star rating increases in relation to prevalence of right-brain features such as depth and humanity, more left-brain elements (eg., flatness and abstraction) predicate a decline in effectiveness. 

The takeaway from Lemon, then, is this: if you want to create ads that sell, don’t neglect the brain’s right hemisphere.  


Creating Effective Advertising in the Digital Age

Following Lemon, Wood wrote Look Out: acting both as a warning – that in the digital age, human attention has narrowed to the extent that we are overly focused on looking inward – and a call for us to shift our attentional focus upward and outward toward the life that surrounds us.

Doing so allows marketers to create effective advertising that secures great business results, generates sales, and grows brands. 


How To Build a Brand

As the 21st century ploughs on, more of our lives take place in digital arenas. This tempts marketers to prioritise effective digital marketing exclusively, and ‘direct activation’ in campaigns, such as clicks and conversions. 

But this in isolation will not drive business success. The true engine that powers growth is availability – specifically, two distinct kinds of availability:

  • Physical availability
  • Mental availability 

People buy from brands that come easily to mind. With so much happening online these days, physical availability (such as a strongly-branded storefront) is increasingly hard to come by. And marketers must prioritise the enlargement of mental availability. 

This means really leaning into, owning, and maximising your distinctive assets: characters, colours, music, and so on.  


Capturing the Broad Beam

Following earlier teachings around left and right-brain, Wood divides attention into two essential types: narrow-beam attention (which is served by the left-brain), focused more on specific tasks or manipulating the environment, and broad-beam attention (served by the right-brain), which notices the connections between entities and analyses the environment for novelty. 

And – in accordance with right (or, at least, whole-brain) advertising proving more effective – it makes sense that marketers should aim to capture broad-beam attention.

Look Out examines some of the ways we can achieve this. Below, we summarise five key ways you can create ads that sell.

  1. Showcase Life: Broad-beam attention is naturally interested in things that are alive, whether human or animal. Our Ad of the Week feature is littered with campaigns that include living, relatable characters, such as Lay’s World Cup ad, Whiskas’ ‘fussy cat’ ad, or Philadelphia’s ‘friendship’ ad, which all lean into life, togetherness, and betweenness.
  2. Character, Incident, Place: If characters capture the audience’s broad-beam attention, action is what keeps it. This comes down to three components: the characters that are involved, what actually happens, and the location it all takes place. Maximise each of these elements to construct the skeleton of a compelling, impactful ad.
  3. Instantly-Recognisable Activity: The audience must understand immediately and intuitively what your characters are all about: think of Compare the Market’s meerkats, Ribena’s berries, or Willie Nelson, Samuel L. Jackson et. al. in this Capital One ad. Ad characters have to ‘do their thing’ immediately and unmistakably, to establish mood and brand.
  4. Try For Some Laughs: Nothing grabs broad-beam attention quite like humour. Elements of comedy leverage surprise, keeping things novel, unexpected, and flexible. The way you deploy humour can vary; it may be a play on words, good old-fashioned slapstick, repetition, or juxtaposition. However you do it, though, audiences will respond to it: just look at Shaken Udders’ TV ad debut, which sees a judge presiding over a courtroom rave. Sounds interesting? Exactly.
  5. Musicality and Colour: Music and colour are amplifiers for your ad – they make the audience feel more deeply. Winning broad-beam attention with music relies on melody, and catchy jingles can be amazingly effective. Similarly, colouration (including gradation, grain, and diffusion) that highlights warmth, as opposed to coolness, proves to be more effective at keeping attention. 


Long-Term Brand-Building vs Short-Term Sales 

In The Long and the Short of It, Les Binet and Peter Field explore the tension and interplay between long-term brand-building and short-term sales-generation. 

Of course, marketers should concern themselves with creating the conditions for increased sales. That goes without saying. But what The Long and the Short of It reveals is that falling into a state of tunnel-vision when it comes to short-term business metrics – and using them as a means of quantifying long-term wins – is a dangerous game to play.  


Invest in Your Brand, Not Just Sales

In fact, what Binet and Field demonstrate is that businesses which invest in long-term marketing typically enjoy twice the profit of those that utilise a short-term, sales-focused strategy. 

Furthermore, The Long and Short of It shows that companies targeting the whole market (rather than a hyper-focused segment or demographic) see three times as many ‘large business effects.’

The conclusions here are clear: creating the most effective ads means increasing your brand reach and familiarity – not just among a perceived primary audience, but with the entire market. 


Other findings from The Long and Short of It include:

  • Emotion is 2x as effective as rationality in advertising
  • Although a long-term marketing strategy (that is, 3+ years) doubles the profit of a short-term approach (1 year), investing in both represents the greatest return
  • TV marketing remains top of the ad medium pyramid, generating the largest business effects
  • With that said, investment in both long and short-term advertising across multiple formats (including digital) is the ‘sweet spot’ for building a brand and generating sales


The Secrets to Exponential Growth

Sticking with the theme of brand-building as a way of stimulating the greatest business effects, Byron Sharp’s How Brands Grow explores the methods you can employ to win new customers, rather than simply keeping an existing segment satisfied. 

In brief, Sharp attests that brands grow for three core reasons:

Brands Grow Because: 

  • They constantly win new customers
  • They enlarge physical / mental availability
  • They tap into patterns of behavioural loyalty

Traditional theories of consumer behaviour hold that buyers respond best to brand positioning; that buyers perceive brands emotionally; that marketers succeed via precise targeting and USP-centric messaging. 

How Brands Grow proposes an alternative model, where buyers are self-serving satisfiers, seeking familiarity and acting primarily out of loyalty-based habits


Brands Grow Because They Win New Customers

Sharp holds, and experience tells us, that the old maxim purporting that high-level, ultra-precise audience targeting and segmentation maximises sales, is actually little more than myth.

In fact, the most successful brands focus on constantly expanding their customer base. They continuously chase light buyers and non-consumers; in many ways, it’s a never-ending mission to increase the number of consumers who have not (yet) heard of you.

These are the companies that grow most quickly and generate revenue most sustainably.

Sharp also challenges the value of loyalty schemes or reward programmes. He attests that, although not exactly, wasteful, they are far from an optimal use of resources. Unless there are wider strategic forces in play, it’s of far greater benefit to invest in getting new customers.


Brands Grow Because They Are Available

Here we revisit the two sides of the availability coin: namely, physical and mental availability

Those brands that are present in both a physical sense – through locations, OOH advertising, product distribution, etc. – and a mental sense – via brand salience, recognition, distinctive assets, and so on – are the ones that grow. 

As we saw earlier, physical availability is a less-influential factor in our digitalised world, and marketers should therefore prioritise mental availability. This means consistency and constancy of advertising, rather than short bursts, and prioritising efforts to keep your brand front-of-mind with the largest pool of potential buyers. 

Cultivating mental availability also relies on distinctiveness. In the words of David Ogilvy (author of How to Create Advertising That Sells): “It takes a big idea to jolt the consumer out of his indifference — to make him notice your advertising, remember it and take action.” 

It’s important for your brand to cut through the noise. Likeability, relatability, intelligence are all secondary to the element of being recognisable. 

Consider Cadbury’s You Already Know You’re Going to Love It ad, for instance. That distinctive purple branding, the look and feel, the trademark swirl, the font; it’s all so unmistakably Cadbury’s.


Brands Grow Because of Behaviourally-Loyal Buyers

Another point Sharp emphasises is not to overdo the emotional appeal. Emotion and creativity in ads are a good thing, yes – but don’t over-commit resources attempting to bond with your audience. 

Ultimately, ‘brand loyalty’ is not as powerful as many marketers would have you believe, and consumers opt for the products or services that are easy to buy. 

It’s a matter of low barrier, low friction, high return. Make your brand easy for consumers to self-serve, and they’ll form the habit.


The System1 Philosophy

“The power of creativity for growth could be considered our industry’s most fundamental reason for being. Creativity is a superpower.”
Marc Pritchard, P&G Chief Brand Officer 

As we’ve seen, when it comes to creating ads that sell, creativity itself is the game-changer; the difference-maker. That runs at odds with many of the commonly-held ‘truths’ of the industry, that rely heavily on empiricism and short-term, metric-based quantification. 

There is value in the science, yes – but creativity is the make-or-break factor of effective advertising. That means, in order to generate advertising campaigns that really sell, you have to give your creators the freedom to play with ideas, experiment, tell stories, try things, break the mould. 

Don’t box them into formulas, and don’t try to be overly systematic with your marketing campaigns; the results will simply come out stale.

But that doesn’t mean creating ad campaigns is a hit-and-hope. Quite the opposite. 

By measuring emotion and the tangible impact of creativity, the System1 platform yields the most reliable predictiveness of ad effectiveness. With our brand tracking platform, Test Your Brand, for instance, you can test your brand’s strength and predict its growth; or our ad concept testing tool: Test Your Idea, is here to identify and unlock the profit in your ideas. 

So if you’re interested in maximising the potential of your ads or ideas, or you’d like to learn more about what we can do, don’t hesitate to contact us today.