Giles Keeble: contrarians, digital, the many roles of advertising and ungrateful agencies

I came late to Bob Hoffman, the Ad Contrarian. He writes very well in a no-bullshit New York accent, though I believe he now lives in California. His dismantling of the digital hype is not the railing of an old fart – he deals with that possible criticism – but based on factual analysis. It probably helps that he was a maths teacher (I think) before he became a copywriter.

We have to be very careful about ‘digital’ as it covers a multitude of sins as well as good and exciting work. One thing Bob writes about essentially amounts to fraud: the misleading data that media companies have attributed to digital and the clients who have been, and still are being, hoodwinked. When I first started running workshops for Unilever around the world, thanks to Jan Gooding and Kathy Aldridge, 360 degree thinking was all the rage. For many, it meant that you had to use every available channel, rather than choosing which, of all the available channels, was right for the job at hand.

I remember trying to introduce discussions about how consumers might ‘use’ different channels, and as they were still relatively new, why they felt their brands needed a website. I was referred to their head of digital and I had a couple of questions. One website I looked at was for Persil, another was for Dove at the height of the Real Beauty campaign. The Dove website just had products on it, but if you really looked hard there was a link to a self-esteem page, which was what the campaign was about.

I asked why people would go to the Dove or Persil websites? The response was that they were not encouraging people to ask that question – the sites were for data collection. My view was, and remains, that digital in whatever form broadens the possibilities, but other, perhaps more traditional channels, should not be overlooked. Martin Sorrell recently noted that a lot of client ad spend is going to Facebook and Google. Let’s see what they do with it.

It may be harder for TVCs to get the size of audience they once did, but that does not mean film is dead as a medium. Some of the hit TV series are not on networks but streamed. What will happen to print is another story. But ideas for advertising that is relevant, fresh and human are still vital, necessary – and possible – in any medium. I think you should treat any ad as a viral: the test is, what would make anyone pass it on?

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All this reminded me that many clients didn’t understand or appreciate that advertising can have different roles (no, seriously – I once had a client who didn’t appreciate the difference between frequency and penetration!), and that agreeing what these are is pretty useful for producing good and relevant work. I have mentioned

Stephen King’s Scale of Immediacy before, and I recommend anyone who hasn’t seen it to look it up. Direct Response is the most immediate, and the kind of positive reminder advertising FMCG brands use is the least immediate but extremely important for the long-term health and profitability of brands. (See also Les Binet and Peter Field’s IPA ‘The Long and Short of it’ on this subject.)

The ultimate role of advertising is to sell, no question. But the means of getting there can be as different as justifying the price, or changing image, or introducing a new ingredient. The head of a major company’s research department once told me every ad should be simply judged on whether or not it sold the product and didn’t accept or understand that there may be different ways of getting the desired result.

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The Contrarian also makes the point that genius is exceptional in this business, and that those who have an intuitive sense of what is needed and what works are rare. I think that good work should be relatively easy given a good team, a good brief (yes, well..) and a good relationship with the client. However, great work is altogether different and infrequent. And, if and when you get it, it is very easy to kill it. Steve Henry once gave a presentation that featured great and effective ads, then demonstrated how easy it was to kill them.

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Recently, I read an article somewhere about how music could now be written by AI. Not all composers are dismayed by this, apparently – some see it as another tool they can use. I think I’d feel threatened because you have to be truly original to rise above the music AI might produce – a point touched on above. But it made me think that a lot of advertising could be generated by AI; and much of it might be better than the tosh people are exposed to.

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The media have recently highlighted what is felt to be delayed recognition that many people portrayed in advertising are not representative of real or ordinary people. I think I have made this point before: it is to be welcomed, but better casting and more realistic writing and direction does not necessarily a great ad make. On the point of ‘real people,’ when I was talking to Tony Kaye about the possibility of him directing ‘A Day in the Life’ for McDonald’s (below), I said I wasn’t sure whether to use real people or actors. Tony said: “Actors are r.r.r real p.p.people, G.G.Giles.” Fair point. Another McDonald’s ad that I asked Ken Loach to do used both actors and non-actors – a commercial he has since publicly regretted enormously, though I really enjoyed working with him.

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On a parting note, agencies have always found it hard to write ads for themselves – they often come across as vacuous and cliched. And not all agencies are run very well as businesses. ’Physician heal thyself’. I was thinking about this as, some months ago, I was asked by a fairly successful and interesting agency to come in and talk to their senior people, find out about the place and make some recommendations. I did, and then heard absolutely nothing (though I did get paid when asked). I still don’t know whether my recommendations were unpalatable, too difficult to implement, not understood, or I charged too much. I have never experienced quite that level of discourtesy, and didn’t expect it, even in this business.

Then a senior advertising figure who had been invited to make recommendations by a growing and successful agency told me the same had happened to him. Ah well! But if you’d like me to come into your agency, make a report, pay me and then ignore it all, please contact me. At least I can’t be held responsible.

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About Giles Keeble

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.

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