Laurence Green: why Burberry’s in-house triumph has a stark lesson for agencies

Back when the interweb first knocked meaningfully on advertising’s doors, some of adland’s more optimistic commentators hoped this might herald a new golden age of creativity.

If advertising could now be shared (participated in, even) there was surely a new creative dividend available to bold advertisers whose ideas might now flow through free (‘earned’) media as well as paid-for.

Sadly, it turns out we had over-estimated either our audiences’ interest in advertising, or our ability to create irresistible commercial content, or both. For every John Lewis Christmas commercial powered by social, there’s been a tidal wave of work stubbornly refusing to ‘go viral.’

So while the digital revolution has spawned myriad creative possibilities of its own, its overall impact on the time-honoured commercials business has in fact been malign, not benign: dragging budgets towards short-term activation and hardening consumer attitudes towards advertising along the way.

And so, as one of those early optimists, I found myself sharing the new Burberry commercial last week with a mix of delight and relief: it’s only the second time I’ve hit ‘send’ this year.

After winning Christmas 2020 with mesmerising choreography and an ice storm, Burberry this year lays claim to autumn and the magic (literally) of the great outdoors. This time the ballet plays out in the country rather than town, with wind stepping in as this season’s featured artist.

It is, like all great work, an advert for advertising. There’s just one problem; for the agency business, if not the advertising business. Created for Burberry by Megaforce, no creative agency was involved, just as no agency was involved in this year’s high watermark: Channel 4’s ‘Super. Human.’

Does it matter that two of this year’s best commercials come from outside the traditional agency sector? Perhaps not: these brands are creative outliers, after all. But then again..

While figures are elusive, the agency business has lost share to the tech giants over the last decade, even if the overall advertising market has grown.

Within the agency business, meanwhile, margin has migrated from creative to media: from the poets to the plumbers, if you like.

And now, anxious already about the threat of client in-housing, creative agencies potentially have a new tank parking up on their lawn: the clients, media owners and production companies confident enough to go direct.

A brand like Burberry, of course, doesn’t need much strategy, or at least not the kind that agencies write, so can hurry on through to execution. (Clients and agencies often spend far too much time determining ‘the message’, in defiance of the inconvenient truth that the messenger – or creative idea – matters more.)

Fashion brands are unapologetically impressionistic, and it’s enough for Megaforce to give contemporary expression to their client’s founding belief that “inherent in every Burberry garment is freedom.”

And there aren’t many brand-owners, either, who boast a chief creative officer on their side of the fence, let alone one whose passion for melancholy, romanticism and sensuality is on the record. (When was the last time your client declared a hand like that?)

In a world of disintermediation, however, and with creative agencies on the back foot, I predict more of this, and a further unwinding of the long-standing client/agency/production company protocol. Another wind is blowing in that direction.

Laurence Green was co-founder of Fallon London and 101. He is now an independent adviser to creative businesses.

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