Laurence Green: why the business of advertising is also the business of ideas

It’s hard not to like a book with chapter headings including ‘Richard Latham’s Rug’ and ‘David Beckham’s Sarong’, even if younger readers will barely remember the latter episode, let alone the former reference.

Latham wasn’t Beckham’s predecessor at outside right but rather a bumbling spy played by Rowan Atkinson in a series of commercials for Barclaycard in the 1990s. His reincarnation a few years later as, ahem, bumbling spy Johnny English offers proof in passing of the central theme of Paul Feldwick’s ‘Why Does The Pedlar Sing?’: that the best advertising springs from and aspires to a place in popular culture, and has as much to do with showmanship as salesmanship.

Planning veteran Feldwick’s call to populist arms is part nostalgia trip, part mea culpa and part manifesto: a drive-by shooting of recent creative practice disguised as a Midsomer Murder.

Feldwick finds ‘creativity’ a problematic word and wishes we were more precise about how we codify what we do. On these we can agree. But I part company from his argument at perhaps its sharpest point. “We are not..”, he declares, “in the business of ideas.” And I think we very much are.

Feldwick is too clever to let this catnip to ‘cool creative types’ go unexplained, framing ideas somewhat mischievously as ‘abstract creativity’ to suit his polemic and guide us to the conclusion that we should be in the business of adverts instead.

But in my experience, ideas are nothing of the sort: not just ‘salvation by imagination’ (in Frank Lloyd Wright’s famous words) but the utterly practical wellspring and policeman of all that follows in an agency, whether that’s mere campaigns on the one hand or the more complete direction of client brands on the other.

Paul rails against forgettable modern advertising fare with “no discernible narrative.” I’m in violent agreement with him here also: there are too many manifestos and mood films swimming downstream. But a good idea – properly defined, and perhaps that’s the rub – is also a reliable prophylactic against much of that work reaching our screens. (Paradoxically but perhaps inevitably, the work he himself celebrates makes the point: the bumbling spy, Sugar Puffs’ Honey Monster and Coca-Cola’s ‘Chorus of the World’ are all good ideas, not just winning executions.)

I’m with Paul on advertising’s recent fame deficit and at least parts of his ‘Back to the Future’ provocation. But ideas help us to better adverts and can unlock brighter brand outcomes well beyond those increasingly narrow tramlines. (And outcomes, of course, is the business we are really in.)

In a world with too many adverts and too few ideas, it seems best not to throw the latter under a bus.

Laurence Green is executive partner at MullenLowe London.

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About Stephen Foster

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Stephen is a former editor of Marketing Week and London Evening Standard advertising columnist. He wrote City Republic for Brand Republic and is a partner in communications consultancy The Editorial Partnership.