Thursday 18 July 2013

Where it all began Part 3

... and the final installment of my words of wisdom about advertising, aged 14. Part 2 is here.

"Advertising has changed greatly in the last hundred yeras. In the 19th C and at the beginning of this century, advertisements were very drab and had no impact, but crammed in a lot of small writing with a small or no picture. Adverts today say more in less space and seem to have more effect on the population.

But has advertising progressed too far? No doubt it has a great effect on the public. It is frightening to see how people can be taken in by things like this. Hitler realised this and used this to his own advantage by churning out reels of pro-Nazi and anti-Jewish propaganda. The adverts of today are of little importance, but if anyone uses this in a more sinister aspect, which they could, there could be disasterous consequences.

Do people really believe in these unrealistic adverts? Do they really think that if they buy certain products they can have a happy family all dressed in shining white, or, in the case of men, beautiful mysterious women fainting all around them?

Advertising is not evil to the more intelligent people who can distinguish between reality and fantasy, but to more easily-led people, it can definitely have harmful effects.

But although advertising can be misleading, it also has a need. Advertising is useful because it tells people of the variety of products, what products exist, what they are and how much they cost."

So there you are. A dilemma of conscience even back then.

Monday 15 July 2013


We tend to think of business as a force for good as a 21st century concept, with global ambitions to raise women's self-esteem, or save rain forests, or clean the world's water, while selling a few packs of this or that.

But business has a history of doing well and doing good. Just think of those 19th century philanthropist industrialists who built whole towns and villages for their workers. And in the mid 20th century, the ambitions were slightly closer to home but centred very much on culture and education. One of my prized possessions is the Shell Nature Book, which must date from the 50s, full of beautiful artwork of the flora and fauna of this sceptred isle.

Another wonderful example is the Lyons Teashop Lithographs, currently on show in Eastbourne. This was one of many mid-20th century initiatives aimed at democratising art. Interestingly enough, the need arose from a practicality: after the war, J Lyons' Teashops were looking in a rather shabby state of repair and the lithographs were actually commissioned to cover over worn decor.

The work of 40 artists was represented from 1946 to 1955, including famous names such as Edward Bawden (see The Dolls at Home, above), Edward Ardizzone (whose book illustrations I remember fondly from my childhood) and David Gentleman (who I always think of as the stamp man.)

The lithographs, with their palette of faded brick, austerity grey and Air Force blue, are a wonderful and quirky evocation of a vanished but very British way of life.

The branding was subtle, by association, but there can be no doubt that perceptions of the J Lyons brand were enriched by this initiative, even if Millward Brown weren't around to prove it with a Link Test!

Thursday 11 July 2013

Summertime Sadness

The creativity bar has been raised somewhere to the heavens for UK retailers in the last few years, so no doubt Leo Burnett relished the challenge to develop a Summer Food ad for the Co-Op.

Unfortunately, it seems that the "search and re-apply" tactics applied have turned this particular summer spot into a real turkey.

You can imagine the client brief:

'Let's borrow some of the success factors of the John Lewis campaign - you know, they always build an emotional connection with music, and their Christmas ads are always fab!'

So the creatives scuttle away and pull an old idea out of the drawer - and cut to fit for the Co-Op. It's clever and ironic and the trick is that your ears think it's Christmas, but your eyes tell you it's summer! (And your clever, clever brain picks up little Christmas rituals-restaged-in-summer...)

Sorry, but this is not the way to engage the emotions. In psychobabble it's cognitive dissonance, and it makes people annoyed.

If you don't like psychobabble, you can go for common sense and experience, as the many customers and Co-op staff who complained about the ad did. When do you not want to be reminded of Christmas? In summer, and especially not by a supermarket. Is there anything more depressing than seeing Christmas puddings and mince pies in the shops before the schools have even gone back?

To quote from one of the staff:

'Get rid of the bloody christmas song its driving us demented and sick of customers moaning about it.'

Happy holidays!

Monday 8 July 2013

The data tsunami

One of the commonest complaints that I hear from marketers these days is that they simply have too much information and data. This over-abundance is sometimes described as a mountain or an overload, but more often than not, metaphors from the destructive world of water are used.

There's a data deluge, or data tsunami. People feel that they are swamped with information or drowning in data.

And lately, I have also heard the term "infobesity", with the analogy to fast food. Too high a quantity of too low a quality, making our brands distinctly unhealthy.

My approach to data has always been to take a deep breath first. Then to see what I've got and start to skim through it, with the following in mind:

1. Just because it exists and someone has paid for it, doesn't mean you have to use it
2. Hone your instinct for what is useful. If you read case histories, they generally don't use much information or data, but the stuff that's there is crucial. Ditto, most presentations, even if they are 100 page ppts, will only have two or three killer slides.
3. It's all about making choices and making hypotheses early - then using the data or information selectively to back these up. Remember, in this job, there's seldom one right answer, but the right answer is the one you decide on and stick with.
4. I like to organise data and information around a few key themes - these will start to occur to you as you skim through what you have.

And, finally, don't feel bad about ignoring information that doesn't feel right, or is simply inaccessible. The next time someone circulates a 200 page pdf with the comment "useful/interesting report," ask them which bits, exactly. The chances are that they won't have read it, either.

Tuesday 2 July 2013

Why advertising may be the last refuge for creativity

It's well known that these days, the entertainment industries - particularly music and film - use algorithms to assess hit potential, based on past performance. 'Creative Risk Management' company Epagogix proclaims loudly on their website:

"Data-based decision-making is on the rise all around us!"


"The art of quantitative prediction is reshaping business and government."

Now, it is debatable whether "quantitative prediction" should be classified as an art, especially when you observe the results of this omnipresent rise. The last time I checked what was on at the local cinema, I was offered Fast & Furious 6, Scary Movie 23, Hangover 99 or Alvin and the Chipmunks 666.

It used to be that if you weren't good enough to be a Hollywood producer, you might be able to scrape a living in the grubby world of advertising. And these days, that may even be a preferable existence. You see, much as Epagogix and their like may rub their hands together in glee when they see the advertising budgets of the big global brands, it's hellishly difficult to predict advertising success based on the past, despite what certain market research agencies may tell you.

For all our shift to "conversations instead of disruption", advertising is still, for the most part, uninvited. The fast-forward button on the video, the channel change on the remote control have been joined by the AdBlock app. You won't often see a queue of people like the one above eagerly awaiting your next TV ad, unless you're John Lewis.

All of this means that the element of surprise, newness, chance is still vital in creating good brand communications. Creativity, in other words.

Finally, I would always question a claim for "prediction". Prediction of what, exactly? In most cases, the talk is of box-office success - bucks and billions. And, fair enough, money still makes the world go round.

But can anyone "quantitatively predict" which films will change the world, which will be hailed as classics in a hundred years? I doubt it.