Giles Keeble: why Australia reminds you of the tyranny of distance in modern day marketing

Some years ago, I was creative director of BMW Australia – from the UK. It was the first step in the WCRS plan for global expansion that resulted in the take-over of (or merger with) The Ball Partnership. On that first trip, I was in the air longer than I was in Australia. The advertising issue was that on top of already high import duties, the Government was about to penalise performance cars. The script, as far as I can remember, was fairly simple. A BMW driven on a salt plain, a chequered flag at half mast, while the Last Post was being played on a bugle. I returned to find a location and as I was leaving to return to the UK, the marketing director, with whom I got on well, gave me a present: ‘The Tyranny of Distance’ by Geoffrey Blainey. I told Robin Wight that this relationship was not going to last, and a few weeks later, it didn’t.

(I was reminded of this when I was recently having a drink at the Royal Service Legion in Bondi. Australia seems to take the sacrifice of their soldiers in the wars they fought for the Empire far more seriously than we do. There is an RSL in almost every town. While they are social clubs, every evening at 6 pm there is a minute’s silence, the Last Post is played as well as the lines ending ‘We will remember them.’ It made me think that if the BMW ad had been made, it might have offended.)

Inevitably, while in Oz recently, I kept an eye out for the ads. Force of habit. Given the past glories of agencies like Campaign Palace and George Patterson, perhaps I was expecting work that in Ron Mather’s words was ‘simple, cheeky, powerful and clever’. I didn’t really see any, but then I wasn’t there for long and only really in Sydney for any length of time. I saw nothing of note on TV, and when I went to the the Open Air cinema in Sydney (if you’re there at this time of year it’s a must) a reel of all the sponsors’ ads was shown before the film: high production values, a lack of ideas.

Looking back at Australian award winners that I can remember, Dumb Ways to Die was six years ago (and while memorable and very creative, questionably effective); Carlton’s ‘The Big Ad’ was in 2005; Boag’s Pure Water more recent. Last year’s Mumbrella TV awards went to an insurance ad for NMRA (a nicely done adam&eve type story but not anything special) and the tourism campaign for Australia: ‘Dundee, Son of a legend’ which is quite funny and uses some Oz stars and which I think also won at Cannes. The Palau Pledge (below) won a Direct Grand Prix and perhaps is an indication of how the best Australian agencies are adapting to the new challenges by looking beyond traditional media to create opportunities and solve problems.

I’m sure Australia has the talent. At least on the coasts (where most of the population lives) it feels like a cross between California and the UK in style, and very cosmopolitan, in the cities at least. It is not a creative backwater. The weather has a big influence. But Australia is a relatively small country by population: just over a third the size of the UK, smaller than Canada. This is likely to have a scale effect, especially with multinational clients and their multinational agencies. It must be increasingly hard to do ’national’ ads, rather than adaptations of ads created elsewhere. I don’t know if this is actually a problem, or for the moment agencies have lost their mojo. But economies of scale do not always result in increased creativity and effectiveness (there is often a link.) I remember some Unilever Brazilians once telling me about a regional directive about soups, which insisted that the same Knorr campaign be run throughout Brazil even though the north and the south of that large country used it in very different ways.

Nick Souter, one of my CDs at Leo Burnett in London (who subsequently went to be the CD Australia) once told me about a phone call from the US he answered as a kid one Saturday morning. It was a business call for his father, who was in the middle of a deal. When Nick said his father was sadly not available as he was playing golf, the voice from America said: ‘What?! In this weather’?!

The tyranny of distance.

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