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My favourite ad campaign of all time: The ‘Got Milk?’ work from 1993

From the initial Aaron Burr TV spot, the long-running campaign went on to engage A-list celebrities in order to start a nationwide conversation on milk – writes Haruna McWilliams, APAC strategy director at media agency Essence

When I stumbled into the world of advertising more than 16 years ago, I really had no idea what strategic planning was. I didn’t even know what an insight was.

One thing I did know, however, was that I wanted to learn everything I could about what it was and why it was considered to be important.

So when my boss introduced me to the book Truths, Lies and Advertising: The Art of Account Planning by Jon Steel, I thought I could find the answers to all of my questions.

The text taught me a lot: How planners conduct research to find insights; how they write briefs to inspire and give direction to creatives; and sometimes even co-create ads with them.

All this got me excited about the potential of my job. It was in that book that I found my favourite ad campaign of all time. It is, of course, the California Milk Association’s ‘Got Milk?’ campaign by San-Francisco-based agency Goodby Silverstein & Partners.

What is so great about the campaign for me as a strategist is that it shows the power of insight. When you find a real, yet simple, human truth (milk is a vital part of life for most people, but we take it for granted) it creates a rich basis for creative exploration.

This gives a campaign longevity, more than two decades in this case. And it’s easier said than done.

Too often, we confuse insight for observation. Too often, we make insights too complex, without leaving many roles for the brand/product to play. The insight that drove the ‘Got Milk?’ campaign did not come out of any database, nor client data. It came from deep human observation.

It taught me the importance of listening to consumers and then doing the reverse if that approach doesn’t give you something juicy to work with. There’s a Japanese saying: ‘If it doesn’t work when you push, pull.’

From the initial Aaron Burr television spot (directed by Michael Bay no less), the campaign went on to engage A-list celebrities, real and virtual – for example, The Simpsons – to start a nationwide conversation on milk, something that most people took for granted and didn’t talk about. What if we ran out of milk? Don’t you need milk?

To me, this campaign is the best example of a timeless piece of work that reminds me why I do what I do. And from it, I developed the belief that insight can only get better if the ways in which we find it is both diverse and real-time.

Haruna McWilliams is Asia-Pacific vice-president of strategy at Essence, a GroupM media agency, and is based in Singapore

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