Is it true that ads ain’t wot they used to be? Actually no, most of them have always been rubbish

Advertising isn’t as good as it used to be? Discuss.

I’ve read a fair amount of comment in recent weeks about the lack of creative flourish in a lot of work being transmitted to the world. The argument seems to point to the mega groups being accused of dumbing down creative output, making the wider world of advertising less imaginative than it has been in the past.

First off I do think this is a bit of rear view rose-tinted specs merged with a bit of truth. I for one identify with a period in the past where my recollection is the work was overall much better than today.

The reality is the difference between good independent agencies and the global networks; they are different animals serving different needs. This quality debate goes around in circles constantly and every decade we see a new breed of start-ups that fly the flag for distinctive creative work, earn a reputation and eventually sell to a global group. After that the origins of the sexy start-up begin to fade.

The critical point to understand at the outset is the agenda of both client and agency. A global advertiser may well be pushed towards the lowest common denominator whereas a domestic advertiser may well lean towards highest common factor. The drivers are the circumstances of their geographic audiences.

For example, British character doesn’t sit comfortably with the characters of other nations. My old place had a joint venture with Armando Testa of Italian fame and the differences in character were pretty far apart. Italians are into style and the look of things so most of the creative work was art directed within an inch of its life even if the product was a tumble dryer.

Americans, as we all know, don’t get irony, shout a lot and are basically insincere. Presenting creative work that is perhaps a bit subtle and self effacing is greeted with blank looks. Dealing with chinks in the armour of a client’s product is likely to cause an outburst of anger.

A few of us were in Portland taking Nike and W&K through some genuinely helpful, constructive and insightful observations about the market across Europe when Dan Wieden had a fit, accusing us of trying to undermine their hold on the Nike business. As three mildly-mannered English chaps we were taken aback and beginning to regret out 15-hour flights, each way.

I presented to the board of a Japanese agency in Tokyo, including our showreel from the UK. The board were quite shocked whereas, when I repeated the presentation, to the creative department they all jumped up and down applauding. Afterwards several of them said they would never be allowed to present work to clients in any way similar to our reel.

Mind you I may have been mistaken to include a cinema spot for The Terrence Higgins Trust that featured a wind-up hopping willy trying to enter a tunnel of love unsuccessfully until it returned wearing a condom; cut to fireworks.

I think the challenge with creative work is how far are you prepared to push? A remark by a senior chap at Chiat Day years ago was: “find out what the client wants, then find out what they need, then get them to want what they need”. To pull this off the agency needs to be both rigorous in its research and thinking and combine that with a determined approach.

The spot ‘Park Life’ for Nike almost didn’t get made due to the then client being scared about the treatment, which was different from previous spots using stars. Determination with a lot of intelligent support eventually won the day.

In the end it comes down to the level of risk a client is prepared to buy into. Prior to the launch of MORE TH>N for RSA we presented to the UK board with three possible launch campaign ideas, the first two were more conventional. One of the board members had been the MD of Virgin Atlantic when we were working for them and he said “you are being too safe, what’s the last suggestion?”

The last one was a campaign idea based on pet insurance that revolved around a lost dog called Lucky. It turned in to a national search for Lucky the dog within weeks and was a huge success for the launch of the new brand. It just needed that one client to recognise that taking a bit of a risk was worthwhile for their major investment in a new company.

Risk isn’t likely to win the day with a big international client. Apart from their own internal opinions on advertising resulting from both wisdoms and evaluation techniques, it is very challenging for any such senior client to knowingly be party to taking a risk. Just like the cliché of “you can’t be fired for buying IBM” it’s the same with creative work. If the work passes all the tests and still bombs you just blame the tests rather than personal judgement/trust.

I was invited by the very large marketing department at Procter & Gamble to outline work for some of our clients at the time. At the Q&A session I was asked what research we did for Nike, as in advertising testing, and truthfully I replied ‘none’. After a short silence in the room the same person then asked me how we could develop work without testing. My response was again the truth, which was that a combination of good market understanding, good quality planning and creative resource, plus a big dose of experienced judgement, would suffice.

I have always held the view that most advertising is average to poor from a creative perspective with the really good stuff accounting for no more than five to six per cent or so of the total output. Give or take a few percentage points I would suggest it is as true today as it was in the past. So if I see 20 commercials on the box one evening I might see one that I judge as being up there with the best, if I’m lucky.

This percentage broadly reflects the output of most of the network agencies given they produce the lion’s share of what’s on our screens; whereas a good indie agency might be lucky enough for the percentages to be the other way round. As Esther Rantzen used to say. “That’s Life”.

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