Paul Simons: three big new campaigns that lack a key ingredient – a convincing proposition

There seems to be an unwritten code in adland not to offer up public criticism on creative work. It is odd really because in other creative arenas reviews are quite the norm – in theatre, music, art, TV, film, etc. Critiques can be genuinely helpful as they can be instructive, in particular to younger people starting out their career in the wacky world of advertising.

So, gulp, here we go in the interests of learning. But first a bit of pseudo-science. There are, of course, several critically important aspects that can elevate advertising ideas into the hall of fame category and in every case they have managed to magically create a fusion of elusive properties. One of those properties is ‘proposition,’ the pitch to the target audience, a bit like a doorstep sell. I don’t hear the term too often but, irrespective of trends and fashions, ‘proposition’ is essential to any communication.

First practical example is Virgin Trains who recently launched a new advertising campaign which is all about “being bound for glory.” This is hot on the heels of last year’s campaign which was all about “arrive awesome.” Clearly the client dumped last year’s work and replaced it with this new work, which in my opinion, is pretty dire.

The assertion in this year’s campaign is “when it matters big time…Virgin Trains…be bound for glory.” There are numerous ways to demolish this long-winded bit of rubbish philosophy, one aspect of it being the obvious attempt at trying to be young and cool, via language.

The 2014 campaign high-jacked the Americanism of being ‘awesome’ and the new campaign is also attempting to address a young audience, again, via language. Then there’s the awful story that unravels on screen. I won’t even go there.

There isn’t a proposition in this advertising, it is ‘puffery,’ shallow thinking by the agency team, almost coming across as naive. The missing element is quite how Virgin Trains can claim it’s ‘bound for glory.’ It’s missing because this was made up in a cool meeting room in the East End. A real proposition would show travellers why they should choose Virgin Trains, one that in a perfect world leverages truths such as comfort, speed, cost, and so on. This is, to repeat, an assertion without a single shred of evidence and I would bet the current TV work will consigned to the bin in due course. (1/10)

Next is Trebor mints, which seems to be on air all the time. It’s the one with young man/son with dad sitting in front of his fire in a high-backed chair. We viewers can’t see the dad at this point. The boy stands in the doorway and confesses he likes Trebor soft mints rather than extra strong. The dad breaks a glass he is holding, turns to face the son and shouts “Noooooooooo.”

That’s bad enough but, to add to it, dad’s head is shaped like an extra strong mint.

What on earth is this all about? It’s a toe-curling blot on the creative reputation of the UK. (-3/10)

This is an important lesson for clients who believe that dramatising product variants is a good idea. It never is as it simply confuses the communication. If you sit in a room with people at the top of their game in advertising they will agree on a big challenge and keep the brief down to one claim. Clients, though, are usually keen to have a list of benefits and agency teams can cave in when they can’t get the client to agree on a single claim.

A convincing proposition will be diluted the instant more than one claim/benefit is added.

Example three is the newish campaign for the Lottery. I’m very surprised this has managed to escape from AMV/BBDO – and apologies to my friends in this fine agency.
The idea itself is rather contorted. We have Piers Morgan behaving like a megalomaniac – in character maybe – but why should we rush out and buy lottery tickets so Piers doesn’t win? What?

I don’t understand the intention here. Are the celebrities featured supposed to be people we, the great unwashed, don’t like? If so it’s a questionable assumption.

But I think there’s another huge flaw in this new campaign. Surely the lure of the lottery is all about personal gain, chucking in the boring job and buggering off around the world for six months. it has nothing to do with celebrities who, we might believe, are minted.

Further I don’t understand why the original launch campaign – ‘It could be you’ – was ever dropped. We have to believe this to buy a ticket. I checked out their website and it is far more ‘on brand,’ all about the benefit of winning – boats, glamour, villas and so on – and done well.

For me there are two core lessons here. First don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater just because a new team is involved. Second, make sure the communication is totally joined up. In the Lottery’s case it isn’t so I sense a client who’s not convinced the new TV work will be a long distance runner. So why spend squillions changing the website.

I feel AMV’s in danger of creating confusion about the brand and losing sight of what is the most motivating proposition. (1/10)

The core proposition is one of several core ingredients that are essential to developing outstanding creative work. All too often clients and agencies place this in the ‘too difficult’ pile. It isn’t easy and in mature, crowded markets it can be really mind-bending work. Just look at the grocery market today: what is the core proposition of Tesco going to be and how does that sit against the competition? Although I have to say the BBH ‘Spookermarket’ Halloween film made me laugh out loud, a really interesting reaction.

Which reminds me. A proposition doesn’t need to be expressed as a line, it can be inherent within the communication but needs to be written down somewhere. Nike, for example, has the thought ‘irreverence justified.’ Not something the public will ever see, but it lies at the heart of the brand and therefore all communications. the public expression of this – the proposition – is ‘Just Do It,’ as we all know.

Maybe the next piece should be another crucial ingredient: brand positioning.

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About Paul Simons

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.


  1. I could not agree more. I particularly like the comment about ideas being hatched in ‘cool’ east end offices. Do any of the originators of this stuff actually work in advertising? Or is this ‘content’? John Salmon never stopped reminding us – especially when we started drifting off to groovier shores for the sake of being ‘hip’ – that we had one task and one alone. To sell the client’s product. Should we fail, we’d be fired. I cannot see a sales proposition in any of these spots. As for Tesco, lovely prodcuction, but I can’t wait for the first heart attack insurance claims from elderly shoppers as kids up and down the land copycat this and jump out at them from behind the discount bog-roll stack !

  2. Apologies – I forgot to exclude the Lottery campaign from my criticism of the list of rather vague propositions Paul reviews. This (Lottery) is actually well written and filmed and COULD go on to become a proper campaign. However it still doesn’t have the clear promise and cuthrough of “it could be you” with the big finger!