Return of the stunt

When an advertising agency really wants an account in these tough times, no device is out of the question. By Belinda Archer

Two weeks ago a mysterious fax was "leaked" to the newsdesks of the nation's top tabloids. "Liam and Patsy are getting married on Monday and want to hold a post-wedding party at a London club," it read. It revealed that the happy pair would be at the Astoria nightclub on Charing Cross Road the following morning to check the venue out.

The next day, a picture-hungry pack of photographers from The Sun, The Mirror, and the Evening Standard assembled outside the club in readiness for the Oasis frontman and his fiancee. Only, as with their supposed wedding a few days later, the pair didn't show.

That, dear reader, is the tale of one advertising agency's pitch for a piece of business. The business was for the music magazine, Q, and the agency, called Dolphin, had dreamt up the idea of hiring the suitably rock-and-roll Astoria for its pitch venue and issuing the hoax fax to impress Q with their ability to secure media interest. They even hired a Liam lookalike to greet the Q team on arrival.

Such elaborate pitch tactics used to be commonplace in adland. The tale most fondly recounted is of the now-defunct Allen Brady & Marsh's pitch for British Rail's advertising business in the late Seventies. This involved a top BR delegation being kept waiting for more than half an hour in the agency's reception area, surrounded by cups of congealing coffee and over- spilling ashtrays, only to be greeted by an executive with the line: "That, gentlemen, is what confronts your customers every day. Let me now show you how you can rectify your image." The agency, incidentally, won the business. Another presentation featured Saatchi and Saatchi, the self- styled kings of pitch stunts, famously removing the plate-glass windows from the front of their Charlotte Street offices to install a red Toyota MR2 in the reception area in preparation for a pitch to the car giant. It cost pounds 80,000 to install but it paid off: they netted the account.

Similarly bold or extravagant pitches were used in the flamboyant world that was advertising in the Eighties. Agency creativity flourished and afforded delicious opportunities for hijacking client attention, with costs regularly topping pounds 30,000.

Then the recession bit and a spirit of relative humourlessness plagued the industry. Theatrics were dramatically cut back, and agencies became preoccupied with impressing clients with their earnestness and dislike of costly frills. Pitches became overwhelmingly sober, strategic affairs, often costing agencies as little as pounds 5,000.

But now it seems a bit of fun could be creeping back. Besides the Dolphin scam, there are other more recent examples of presentational fun and games. DMB&B, for instance, converted its reception into a beach, complete with sand and deck-chairs, to pitch for Club 18-30's business, while J Walter Thompson dressed its workers up in ground-staff uniforms to impress British Airways during the airline's highly publicised account review.

Mark Robinson, marketing director of J Walter Thompson, questions whether the quintessentially Eighties Big Stunt could really be making a full comeback. "People are still doing them and they are still worth it, but it is much more about relating them more to the business you are pitching for now, and enhancing your presentation delivery, rather than just gratuitous fun," he says. Adam Crozier, joint managing director of Saatchi and Saatchi, is more bullish. "Stunts never really went away," he says. "Every now and then they were there, but as confidence returns to the advertising industry we could be seeing them more and more."

Undoubtedly, more care is being taken now, however, as an air of post- recessionary caution hangs over the industry. One new business director says: "If you spend too much on pitches these days, clients think you are more into theatre than strategy and good thinking. They feel it is too Eighties and an incredible waste of money." Another insists: "Agencies are paranoid about ostentation. The conspicuous spending and pitch gimmicks have gone."

There is also, as always, the risk that the client just won't find your particular approach appealing. One agency chairman, for example, dressed as a chicken to lead his pitch-team for the KFC account. Perhaps predictably, the gag did not work. "It's a bit like telling a long joke," warns Moray MacLennan, joint chief executive of M&C Saatchi. "If it's short, it doesn't matter if it's not funny, but if it's long, you've got to have a great punch line. The same with big pitch ideas."

But John Hooper, director general of the client companies' trade body, the Incorporated Society of British Advertisers, says the risks are worth it and bemoans the industry's current caution, throwing down the gauntlet to Nineties ad folk.

"For God's sake let's get some showbiz back into the business," he says. "In the end, what you are buying from an agency, apart from its quality of thinking and service, is flair, creative spark, imagination and excitement. Clients want a serious business partnership with agencies, but that doesn't mean they don't want the fun too."

Fun, of course, costs, and agencies are not exactly awash with surplus cash these days. But in a world where a company with a budget of only pounds 200,000 was recently approached by more than 100 hungry agencies, perhaps reinvesting in a little "showbiz" could make all the difference between winning and losing

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