Giles Keeble: why agency house styles, names and keeping the best of the old with the new all matter

I’d like to end my musings for 2015 with three separate thoughts.

1. In his piece on Agency of the Year, Stephen Foster wrote that one way of reversing agencies’ fortunes, and the short-termism of shareholders and its effect on strong brand ideas, is to get clients to say: “I want some of that.” It raises the question of what that is.

Overall, it is a recognition of the transformative power of strong ideas. But as I have written about before, agreeing what constitutes a ‘big idea’ is often not easy. And when (if) clients do say “I want some of that”, do they mean a copy of what has already been done for another brand that has proved successful? There is a danger here that even good agencies don’t always avoid: to become known for a style.

It is not always a bad thing. For the agency, if it gets new business; for the client, as long as the advertising also reflects the brand as well as the agency. The style of any advertising should not be an agency imposition but come from the brand. It is one thing to be able to spot, say, a Honda TVC in the great campaign of ten years ago (below) or a Nike ad; but to be able to spot the agency is another.

Over the years, some successful agencies probably did have a style: Allen Brady and Marsh, GGT, AMV at one time, WCRS perhaps. Perhaps in a competitive market a style – or at least an approach – is necessary. So if a client approaches adam&eve, for example, and wants ‘some of that’ he may get a powerful, emotional, beautifully observed and shot TVC. All well and good if the brand signals are strong enough, which they are at the moment. John Lewis couldn’t really be for anyone else, and Lloyds is helped by its horse/s (below). It comes back to the idea – is the execution based on one, or is it a pop promo? (Incidentally, if you are going to use a song, isn’t it worth knowing what the words mean, or does it not matter? Somebody is using ‘Fairytale of New York’ – no doubt because it is one of the best Xmas-time songs – at least they don’t get to the ‘slut on junk’, ‘arse’ and ‘faggot’ bits. It’s not an ‘I’m dreaming of a White Christmas’ sort of song.)

2. The Agency of the Year article led me to think about names, and what if anything is in one. A Schumpeter piece in The Economist a while ago looked at the effort spent on coming up with new names. An original name is hard to find, but it can make a good or interesting first impression. In the agency shortlist, there were Lucky Generals (nice historic reference that) and Brother and Sisters. In the old days, agencies were named after their partners, and the only argument would be about the order. (Andrew Rutherford would get understandably upset when he heard people shorten WCRS to ‘Wight Collins.’) But there are now so many companies trying to register names without prior use, or offending in another language or finding the domain name has been taken, that we are seeing some really odd or desperate ones.

Maybe there will be a return to the names of the founders. Great companies, and great agencies, “can survive boring names, but even the best can’t save dismal companies.” (Which reminds me that great advertising is the fastest way to kill a bad product, though it doesn’t seem to work for utilities, even on the odd occasion when the work is good.)

3. Old Farts. No doubt I have to accept that I may qualify, but while I may be unable to write the code for a new website, I try to remain open to and excited by new ideas. A couple of days ago I read an article about ‘the cleverest boy in the world?‘ His energy and ideas and you-can-do- what-you-want attitude are fantastic. The writer of the interview wrote that he suddenly realised that ‘the people who run the world don’t know how it works.’ Is that true of our business?

I don’t know what percentage of the business is now traditional advertising – TV, press, posters and radio. In money terms I think it is less than 50 per cent. If digital is where the money is, is it where the ideas are? Digital of course covers a number of different channels and solutions. TV commercials may wither, but film (of some sort) won’t, though how it is made and how it is delivered has and will change.

The clever kids have come up with new ways of connecting. Connection leads to communication (or not). The ways in which we talk to each other change but what about the content? Whether it is gaming or shared interest sites and apps, will we not still want and need stories? And if we need and want stories, we need storytellers. And if we do still have advertising to build and sustain brands, then we need the artists and writers to tell the best stories, however they may be transmitted.

We need to understand how different channels work, and how new ones will work, but not lose sight of what the intention is. I don’t know if mobile will ever be able to tell stories as well as TV, but if it does, it will have found a way to execute an idea that is more than a direct marketing or direct response message.The Old Farts of today were the Young Farts of yesterday, and so it goes. But there will always be Good Farts, I hope, who think about what they are doing and why.

I wish you Festive Flatulence, a Merry Christmas and (I hope) an interesting New Year.

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About Giles Keeble

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Giles Keeble started as a rep (account man) at JWT before moving to BMP. There Stanley Pollitt told him that JWT’s Stephen King had wanted him to become a planner. John Webster encouraged him to become a writer but after a number of years Giles moved to French Gold Abbott and, for a while, did become a planner of sorts. Returning to writing he went to David Abbott’s new agency AMV followed by WCRS and was then ECD of Leo Burnett for six years. He then returned to AMV before moving to Publicis and then Lowe in Hong Kong at the inception of the ‘World’s Local Bank’ campaign for HSBC. He now works as a writer and strategist as well as running advertising courses for senior clients.

2 comments

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    Giles refers to old farts as a truth about the world of advertising, a familiar remark I have heard many times. Also like Giles I must qualify based on the assumed criteria of being over the age 40 career hurdle. It reminded me of a conversation with a judge and his son I was paired up with on a golf course. He was staggered to hear that for most in advertising the 40’ish age group was a danger zone. Unlike advertising the law elevates their practitioners as time goes by, reflecting their knowledge and experience.
    It is the same in other professions.
    I believe the core reason is the ‘buyers’ on the client side are different. Legal issues get pushed up the ladder to senior management, people who are close to the CEO, and are treated as important, grown up matters. Whereas the advertising issues are not viewed in the same way, plus the clients are mostly around 30 plus or minus a few years.
    So a person regarded as an old fart in advertising would be regarded as a top player in the legal world.

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    Here’s what I posted on AdScam a few weeks ago… Just the other day I had one of my little rants about daft agency names… I thought GiantSpoon, the “Agency of Everything,” was fucking dumb, then AdScamer Kevin pointed me in the direction of SharpEnd, the “Agency of Things.” Now there’s news that a wanky jewelry account has given its biz to an agency sporting the name… Gluttony. Yes, it’s “The Agency that digs deep before a single stroke on the keyboard.” ‘Cos they have “Passion.” They also have the world’s dumbest name! Obviously, the post was on a Friday, it was accompanied by a picture of a semi-naked Kate Moss.
    Cheers/George