There is no getting away from it: advertising is one of the most distinctive forms – one hesitates to say “cultural forms” – of the century. Advertising began three centuries ago with simple announcements in coffee shop broadsheets – “Ten tons of cocoa arriving from Jamaica”. Ever since, it has evolved with new media. The first advertising agents were the people in the print trade who sold space in newspapers. From there, it was a small step to actually writing the copy and then commissioning art. Radio brought new disciplines and opportunities; television, yet more. The risers on Underground steps had a media value, and so do the straphangers on the tubes. There is a company in America which offers you free phone calls, provided you listen to a ten-second ad when you pick up. And somewhere in California, an imaginative individual is trying to exploit “grey bar time” – that near-universal moment when a captive audience is enslaved by a computer’s lazy wake-up routine. From the grit of a tiny idea, advertisements accumulate layers of gloss like a pearl. “Clients don’t want ideas, they’re too dangerous. But they do want glamour; they do want sheen on their products,” says Paul Arden, the director who shot some of the most memorable British Airways ads. “And advertising agents are very good at giving them a sheen, but not very good at giving them ideas – because the clients don’t want their ideas because they are controversial. An idea is new: it’s something they haven’t seen before, so of course they’re going to be scared. By making it polished, they feel very safe.” The creative director of Britain’s biggest agency, Abbott Mead Vickers, Peter Souter, says: “I spend a lot of my day trying to persuade a person to sign a cheque for a very large amount of money. That money isn’t theirs, and they need a big, thick document that tells them that it will definitely work. And the terrible news is – and I daren’t even say this out loud – is that it’s speculative. It’s an almost entirely speculative business.” Creativity is subversive. A fundamental problem for modern business is how to reconcile whacko creativity with today’s almost scientific discipline of sound management. Maybe the tabloid stereotype of the bohemian creative who has to be dragged from a late lunch, yelping and whimpering to meet a deadline, is a primitive distortion. “Creative people would say that they don’t work to a timetable,” says MT Rainey, a partner at Rainey, Kelly, Campbell, Roalfe. “You’d sit up in the middle of the night with an idea. You eventually have to do it within a timeframe, but you cannot make people whose job it is to free-associate effectively do it on a timetable.” Peter Souter says: “I can’t get quite enough out of that sort of person. Those people are often very creative but they are also drunk after lunch and I can’t get an ad out of them. I think creative people are simply poorly wired – so the idea goes here and it should go there and make a simple connection that everybody makes. For some reason it goes somewhere else. We’re not brain surgeons, there’s nothing special about us apart from the incorrect wiring which sends ideas and makes odd connections. With all good ads somebody has made an interesting and unusual connection between the product and the reason why you should buy it.” Nick Welch of Amminati Puri Lintas says: “More and more the creative process is coming under scrutiny. People expect to be involved in it; they expect to actually understand it. They expect almost to be able to see the workings and the cogs, they want to actually be testing the stuff, looking at it, the work in progress, making comments, – the worry is that the creative process is becoming almost too involved in the day-to-day management of those thoughts.” Imagination is always fugitive and subversive and completely resistant to management’s disciplines. After all, just who was that man who thought that chimpanzees should advertise teabags? You can’t write an algorithm, a profit & loss account or a business plan to accommodate intuition. As Picasso knew, “Artists don’t borrow, they steal” – and the rules of stealing are utterly anarchic. But there is a strange classicism creeping into the advertising mentality, rather as Sir Joshua Reynolds said two centuries ago: “Rules are an inspiration to genius, not an impediment to it.” And it’s generally agreed that the more demanding the client’s brief, or the more restrictive the regulatory climate, the better the ads. As budgets have risen, clients have demanded better data to justify their own positions, and yet there is a big temptation – especially amongst so egocentric and extrovert a community – to make ads that impress their peers rather than the public. The question of how best may the success of an advertisement be judged is a vexatious one. The standard methodology used is the idea of “recall” – simply to ask consumers if they can remember such-and-such an ad. That sort of response is easy to measure. Much more intangible is whether an ad actually stimulates desire – hence the profound mystery implied in Lord Leverhulme’s famous quandary: “Half the money I spend on advertising is wasted. The problem is, I don’t know which half.” “I’m amazed that Lord Leverhulme’s board of directors didn’t dismiss him instantly, frankly,” says Rupert Howell of Howell Henry Chaldecott Lury, “because if I was sitting on a board and my chief executive or chairman said, ‘Well, I’m wasting half the company’s money’ I think I’d dismiss him.” Those people risking half of their millions aren’t doing it as a public service. They are doing it to make more millions still. But today’s consumer is more subtle and demanding than his early modern predecessors. Mere claims are no longer enough. Advertising is developing a language which is confident enough to parody itself and the popular culture it feeds off. Today, advertising is about selling only in the most generalised way. Advertising is about beliefs – or what the business likes to call “brand values”: a mixture of associations and expectations. “Papa and Nicole” now means that Renault Clio equals French, sophisticated, witty, smart, and – with the surprise arrival of Vic and Bob – streetwise and laddish, too. “It’s really part of the evolutionary process of consumerism. What we have now is a situation in which very few products are unique. If they are unique, they are not unique for very long. Products, not brands,” says MT Rainey. “Companies realise that they need to be differentiated on a basis other than products, so it’s all about brands. It’s about the intangible ways that we feel differently about brands and that advertising can help make us feel differently about brands. That’s not to say that advertising invents things: they find something about the brand that is true, and then they merchandise that and they sell that effectively. We always say, You buy products but you buy into brands.” Rupert Howell: “I subscribe to the notion that has been best put by Jeremy Bulmore of WPP, who beautifully described the notion of no-wastage. If you are advertising, say, a BMW, at least three-quarters of the people who see a BMW advert will never be able to afford a BMW – so surely that three-quarters of the media budget has been wasted. No, no, no, quite wrong: because what’s really important to the 25% of people who can afford a BMW is that the other 75% can’t – but know that you can. So there is no such thing as wastage. If you look at all the truly successful brands anywhere in the globe – Coca-Cola, you name it – they all have fame and they all understand instinctively that if you are going to be a great, grand long-standing brand, you have to talk to everybody – you have to focus within that, but that everybody matters.” A successful ad today will give the consumer an impression that he is being offered privileged access to an exclusive club, whose articles of faith offer access to higher levels of experience – or at least to more attractive ones. So what is the minimum budget you need? “The short answer is don’t do advertising unless you’ve got a lot of money because you could lose it all,” says Peter Souter. “And you’ve got to be able to afford to lose every penny. Basically, if you were a hospital or charity, I’d say don’t spend any money on advertising because you will lose it all.” This is an edited extract from BBC Radio 4’s Sale of the Century, broadcast on 21 & 22 July 1998. Reproduced by permission of the BBC. Produced by Noah Richler, BBC Home Current Affairs. The programme was written and presented by Stephen Bayley. He is a designer, writer and lecturer and is the former creative director of the Millennium Dome.
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