Giles Keeble: art for ads’ sake, why we need a charity comparison site, uneasy about algorithms

I have recently read two books on art. In one, William Gompertz suggests that all education should adopt the approach of art schools, which is to learn how to question, not simply to learn to regurgitate for exams. Learning to think should be an important part of education. (In passing, I have often wondered whether curiosity- vital for creativity- can be taught?) Gompertz also talks about artists being entrepreneurs. Art movements have always challenged what has gone before and I wonder if this is, or can be, true of advertising.

Creative directors will say that a piece of work presented to them is good but has been done before. But isn’t there limited scope for the advertising of one generation to be radically different from a previous one, except through new technologies and media? We can hope that digital, and all it includes, will produce work that is human and involving, and more than a message delivered up by an algorithm. There have been exceptions, such as the DDB ‘revolution’ in approach in the 50s and 60s, and the surreal B&H Gold work done by Alan Waldie.

The other book, by Susie Hodge, is based on the idea that a five year old could have done the work (often seen in tabloids disparaging abstract art). It is an interesting overview of modern art, but I was struck by the section on Damien Hirst: he said the idea is more important than the actual piece. The example given is a spin painting, which is an idea about chance: ‘to compound the idea of chance, most of Hirst’s spin paintings were produced by assistants.’ What seems to have happened is that art has become more like advertising, not the other way round. We have an idea which is then interpreted or produced by someone else- a director or photographer, for example. But someone still needs to have the craft.


On the subject of work being done before, I was interested to see Mike Everett’s piece on the Diabetes Clinic posters (below) which seemed to acknowledge the days of good headlines and well written copy, which these ads exemplify. I think such examples are so rare these days that work which is good but not great stands out. Although these posters are for a private clinic, they made me think about charity ads, given all the recent controversy. Agencies want to do charity advertising, sometimes pro bono, and sometimes as much for the chance of doing great work as from the kindness of their hearts. Media companies have been persuaded to contribute, but the sites given often seemed to be underneath railway bridges or other out of the way places. (I remember once being shown an anti-landmine campaign for the Red Cross and the team saying that the TV ads could not be run for political reasons. I said that was great – think of the subsequent PR they could get, and the ads shown anyway. But, they said, that wasn’t the point- they couldn’t enter them for awards.)

I also remember talking to someone involved with the ads for a Telethon: they brutally culled any ads that the public did not immediately respond to. This seemed to include most of what we might have thought were ‘creative’ ads, not the long sentimental stuff that actually seemed to work. It’s hard to do effective charity advertising I think, not just because the competition for your money is so fierce but also because of the committee nature of charity approval, and lack of big budgets. I support Alzheimers and at a recent talk we were told that the amount raised by the society from legacies was not much more than the amount raised by the Cat Protection Society. Which of course is up against the RSPB – estimates indicate that cats catch 55 million birds a year. It’s tough out there. And if you do wish to give, who should you give to? Which charities actually ensure the money we donate goes to the cause we are supporting? I think there should be a Charity Comparison site where we can see the facts: what does the CEO get paid, what percentage of the money raised gets used to save children, or go to research?


I have written before about what and how we measure effectiveness. We need to agree what needs to be measured not just what can be. I was reminded of this last week when I went to the Royal Academy exhibition of Charles I’s collection. It was so packed, I couldn’t really see or enjoy the art. From the RA’s perspective, the numbers must count as a huge success. But if the point is to see and enjoy the work, it’s a failure. There’s a parallel here with some internet advertising, surely?


Finally, what should we think about the issues raised by Google/Facebook/Cambridge Analytica? Creative briefs include a section on the target audience. The better we know and understand who we are talking to, the more effective the ads are likely to be. And yet, with the power of algorithms, some people feel uneasy about being quite so well ‘understood.’ As someone said recently, ‘we are the product’. I’m not sure we can have it both ways, but there are weaknesses. One is the kind of advertising that is being created, a new form of direct response.

If you look at the best of the old pre-TV print ads (for example in Watkins ‘100 Greatest Ads’) there are examples of great insight and writing, so it is not impossible to do, there just doesn’t seem to be much of it yet. A related point is how a digital campaign builds or sustains a brand. I realise that with ‘traditional’ ads one of the strategies is to remind and reinforce, but I find it ironic that as soon as I have bought a product on or through the internet, I then get served up endless ads for what I have just purchased. Is it because – as yet – AI doesn’t ‘think’? Back to art school.

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