Do grumpy old men still have something relevant to say about advertising today?

A D&AD (Design & Art Direction) member recently posted a blog about the challenges facing older people in the whacky world of advertising, in particular once 50 comes and goes. The comments have been broadly interesting, some just plain grumpy old men (no women) complaining about the state of the industry today.

It is worth pointing out before I comment that certain people remain very high profile – Lord Saatchi, Sir Frank Lowe, Sir Martin Sorrell, Sir John Hegarty, Lord Bell – and none of them will see 50 again; but there is a common theme running through the folk mentioned, no prizes for the correct answer.

The more interesting comments from the creative community harped back to their formative years, most likely the 1960s, which was quite telling. These people, and me for the record, grew up in a period of massive social change as the post WW2 period was a memory for our parents but we were looking forwards to the world changing around us.

The revolution taking place in creative pursuits was staggering as any historian of the 20th century would confirm. The Beatles kick-started a sea change in contemporary music and they were amongst a generation of like-minded people in all forms of creativity such as photography, film, theatre, design, art, etc. It became a global revolution.

The point I suspect has been forgotten is the era was without any script, it was all new and exciting. In most cases there was very little control over creative development due to the lack of empirical guidelines, research, planners, and very importantly most clients passed the advertising job firmly to the ad agency. Over to you so to speak. The early series of Mad Men were a pretty fair reflective perspective on how the adworld operated.

Just like music, the advertising scene exploded moving from BBC announcer voiceovers to rock music creeping in to advertising.

So for those around then the rear view mirror looks very rosy, mainly down to the freedom most creative people enjoyed back then.

What is forgotten is that modern advertising in the 70s and 80s was the most powerful marketing tool at the disposal of clients, with many competitive brands pushing for a better campaign than their nearest rival. I was at Cadbury in the 70s and we were constantly at war with Mars in the advertising competition. A very common remark at the time was, “the advertising is better than the programmes.” Advertising then was far more adventurous than TV programmes as the top brass in television were reluctant and slow to embrace the changes in society.

If we jump 40 years, we live in the different world and the contemporary creative innovators today hang out in Silicon Valley. The modern version of the creative revolution in the 60s is the internet. If you think about it, the revolution of the 60s probably plateaued in the 80s. Maybe we all started to go around in circles a bit, with nothing that new or fresh, just trying to fabricate a slightly better mousetrap.

Then this new-fangled invention called the internet lit the blue touch paper to, at last, another revolution. Everything got thrown up in the air and we all started scratching our heads trying to understand the implications.

Only 12 short years ago, when I was at the Ogilvy helm in the UK, we conducted research with middle England about the internet and then hosted a client and journalist day revealing the findings. The overwhelming view of the public was hesitation and concern, not comfortable with buying anything online, only trusting well known bricks and mortar brands. The changes since then are seismic. In just 12 years.

So the new kids on the block are those in the online world and client companies are obsessed with becoming a real player in this world. Added to this is that most clients now believe, often falsely, they understand advertising – but that’s another story. The commercial reality is the use of the internet is like a fast conveyor belt, always moving forwards so stepping off it you get left behind very quickly. Just look at Argos for example who got stuck with their bricks and mortar model with catalogues and got left behind. John Lewis however invested heavily in their on-line presence and are reaping the benefits of being far-sighted.

Returning to the D&AD running commentary I would suggest it is less of an age thing but more of a bias thing. If a creative has spent most of his/her career making TV commercials it is difficult to embrace a whole new way of doing things – an old dogs and new tricks kind of thing.

For the record I still believe outstanding broadcast advertising remains the most powerful tool available to advertisers and will remain so for a long time to come but even dyed-in-the-wool creative people must accept there is another world that is complimentary, important and not a threat.

Does this mean it’s time to hang up the boots?

This post first appeared on Paul Simons’ blog paul-simons.co.uk

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About Paul Simons

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Paul joined Cadbury-Schweppes in brand management and then moved to United Biscuits. He switched to advertising in his late 20s, at Cogent Elliott and then Gold Greenlees Trott. He founded Simons Palmer Denton Clemmow & Johnson in the late 80s, one of the leading creative agencies of the 90s. Simons Palmer then merged with TBWA to create a top ten agency. Paul then joined O&M as chairman & CEO of the UK group. After three years he left to create a new AIM-quoted advertising group Cagney Plc. He is now a consultant to a number of client companies. Paul also shares his thoughts on his blog. Visit Paul Simons Blog.

One comment

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    As the instigator of the post in D&AD which you disparagingly refer to as the ”grumpy old men of advertising”, I would like to respond.

    We weren’t whingeing on about doing TV (even Tony Kaye didn’t) and the good old days.

    The nub of the argument was as follows:

    The composition of agencies should reflect the composition of society.

    Why? Because a fat old guy in his 50s is unlikely to be able to communicate/sell to a reader of Just 17 without sounding like the audio version of Disco Dad.

    Conversely, a twenty-something is unlikely to be able to use the right language to communicate to someone over 50 without sounding like Jejune Johnny.

    Most agencies (where the average is now 30) may be adept at communicating with 18 to 35 year olds. But can they speak the language of the over-50s?

    That’s why agencies should have a good spread of ages.

    It’s even more important when you look at demographics.

    Take 6-24 year olds, who have been the major drivers of fashion-spending, entertainment and technology. They’’ will be shrinking in numbers and so will their disposable income. Particularly, if they take up further education – they’ll be landed with future debt.

    OK, how about the next age group, 25 -50s (and the 35-44 year olds in particular)? The family shopper has been the main target for most clients because they spend across so many categories. Familiesare going to be on a very tight budgets over the next few years, which will make selling to them even harder.

    Which brings us to the over 50s. In the US, there are 90million people aged 50+ with full wallets and low-balance credit cards. They control 75% of the wealth, earn $2.3 trillion annually compared to $1 trillion for the 18-34 group, and they stand to inherit between $14 and $20 trillion over the next 20 years.

    In the UK, over 50s represent 35% of the population and have 80% of the wealth in the UK and spend over £300 billion a year.

    Nearly 60 % of all car purchases are made by over-50s. They buy 25 % of all toys and take over a third more holidays than younger age groups.

    They may account for 40% of consumer spending, yet less than 5% of the total British marketing spend pro-actively targets them.

    And, according to research by Reuters, advertisers are still failing to reach older consumers effectively. Over-50s feel that that the vast majority of ads are not aimed at them, but rather at younger age groups.

    According to Age Concern, most advertising ignores or patronises them.

    That’s the argument.

    We’re not frightened of the bloody internet. Actually it can be good fun creatively. I’m over 60 and I’ve written for digital since 2004, in addition to TV, radio, press, DM, and outdoor. I’ve done websites, banners, microsites, pop-ups, rich media, you name it.

    To paraphrase Andy Law, “it’s just another medium.” So is social media and mobile. So what?

    They still need words, pictures and sounds created by copywriters art directors/designers that are aimed at human beings, not fucking martians. You can call those words, “content” instead of copy and act as if storytelling was invented by some geek in a twendy East end digital agency.

    But it comes down to talking to people in their language. I, and a lot of people like me can do that particularly well to people of our generation – babyboomes. That’s where the money is.

    Clients and their agencies can ignore the over 50s at their peril.

    Having got that off my chest, there’s just one more thing I’d like to mention. Your comments on Argos are somewhat mystifying, because their sales actually rose for he first time in 5 years. Like-for-likes at Argos increased 2.1% while total sales were up 1.5% to £3.93bn. Benchmark operating profit increased 6% to £100m in the year to 2nd March 2013.

    The reason Duddy waived his bonus is because at Homebase, which is a sister company of Argos and part of the Home Retail Group, like-for-like sales declined 4.9% while benchmark operating profit slumped 52% to £11m.

    By coincidence, a few weeks ago I walked into an Argos store and said to a friend, that with modifications, their business model could be the way forward for retailers in the future.

    They are a true multiple-channel retailer. You can buy in-store. You can buy by mail-order and online. Apparently, over 40% of their sales are now online.

    However, unlike John Lewis, Argos’s live sales-footage area is miniscule. Typically, their “front-of-house” is only about 2,500 to 5,000 sq. feet (sod metric), whereas most retailers offering a similar range have to invest in stores 10 tor 20 times larger.

    M&S have halted all new building projects and many others are rapidly divesting themselves of expensive premises.

    They’ve invested in a new series of hubs and are solving the biggest problem facing online retailers: delivery.

    Retailers will need to consider the lifestyle and needs of the older consumer and target them correspondingly. While their needs may be different to younger consumers they are just as likely to be using technology in similar ways, particularly as it becomes more user-friendly.

    As smartphones, tablets and other gizmos make shopping easier many will move from e-commerce to m-commerce in time.

    Click & collect and home delivery will be more important to older shoppers who are less mobile, as will local shopping, which will boost neighbourhood and satellite stores.

    I’d put my money on them AND the over 50s. Time will tell.