Claire Beale on Advertising

Naked's reward for surprising and challenging us? A kicking
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The Independent Online

A dvertising is a people business. It's an ego business. So the majority of ad agencies are named after their founders. Not much fun if you're the receptionist at that infamous US agency Messner Vetere Berger McNamee Schmetterer/Euro RSCG. But the name thing is a real indicator of what makes this business tick.

Thankfully, we've been a little bit more creative and a little bit less lengthy with our agency names here in the UK lately. Like Naked. Stop snickering. Naked is one of the cooler adland brands and an agency that has done quite a bit to shape what adland is about today. And there's no doubt that the name played a part in the fact that the Naked team made £16.5m last week by selling to the Australian firm Photon (bad name).

If Naked's founders had chosen to put their names above the door I'd now be writing about (John) Harlow (Jon) Wilkins (Will) Collin. Though perhaps I wouldn't. Because I'm not sure Naked would have been worth writing about now if it had actually been called Harlow Wilkins Collin. The strange name suits the strange agency and has helped it build a brand currency beyond that of its competitors.

What Naked did that's worth £16.5m (and possibly quite a bit more a year or two ago when the three founders were fighting on full barrels) was to help change the definition of advertising away from a linear media model to one where ideas could flourish well beyond traditional spots and space. They came up with surprising and challenging marketing ideas. So without Naked we might not have had the 118 118 moustachio-ed runners, or the sofa games work for Reebok a few years ago, or the sexual diseases postcards for The Department of Health, or the Warholiser digital campaign for Tate Modern.

Their peers called them "stunts", but in their day this sort of work was pretty groundbreaking. And, yes, perhaps there are other agencies who might equally claim provenance of some of these ideas, but there's no doubt that Naked was a catalyst.

The funny thing is that, though this innovative approach to solving marketing problems should have been applauded by the ad industry, instead the agency's positioning got a sound industry kicking. Wasn't media supposed to be about buying? Buying by men in cheap suits?

And here were three guys with a media tag talking about ideas, wearing jeans and T-shirts, from an office on a boat on the Thames and then in trendy Clerkenwell.

No, adland to its shame has never welcomed change and closed ranks against any threat to the status quo. But you only have to look at a bunch of credentials from a whole range of agencies now to see how influential the Naked proposition has been. The rest of the industry may have been their harshest critics and fought the tide, but most have now nicked their thinking because Naked's style of communication planning has become a must-have.

At least after last week's deal Harlow Wilkins and Collin have made some proper money out of their industry-shaping challenge.

If you work in advertising, you probably (hopefully) live to create great ads: those sort of era-defining commercials whose imagery or jingly catchphrases pass into our social fabric.

A Levi's "Laundrette" or a Budweiser "Wassup" or a "You've been Tango-ed". Great ads, though, are hard to find. Bland mediocrity is the norm. So when you manage a great one: feel proud, collect the awards, bank the bonus, but don't bet on your next ad being as good. Your adland peers certainly won't. They'll be sharpening their blogging fingers ready to knife your next piece of work for failing miserably to match the ground-breaking standards of its predecessor.

Unfair, but remember what Gore Vidal said: "Whenever a friend succeeds, a little something in me dies." If he worked in adland, he'd probably have added "so I'll slag off every ad they do from here on, so they know they're past their best."

Spare a thought then for Weiden & Kennedy, the agency responsible for one of the greatest ads of recent years: the Honda "Cog" commercial. That's the one with all the car parts assembled in an amazing chain reaction that eventually starts a Honda car.

Naturally, every Honda ad from W&K ever since has sparked passionate debate about whether it's as good as Cog and generally the conclusion is "no". Which is fair enough.

Few ads from any advertiser are as good as Cog. Just a shame that W&K's greatest triumph should put every successive Honda ad it does in the firing line.

So now there's a new Honda ad and a new debate. The ad goes something like this: problem solving is fun. It's set in a Problem Playground, because Honda's engineers love solving problems, from the Rubik's Cube to building a jigsaw of a hydrogen-powered zero emission car.

It's a great ad, lovingly directed by Antoine Bardou-Jacquet and it's got Garrison Keillor's wonderful treacly voice-over again. There are two problems for adwatchers. First, it ain't as good as Cog.

Well, you don't say. So what? The second problem is that the ad is a little too familiar.

The bit at the end, where they make the jigsaw car, makes you think of the Skoda "Baking of Fabia" ad, where they bake a Skoda car cake.

And it's true. If you think about ads a lot, then you can't watch the new Honda commercial without Skoda nudging you in the ribs and reminding you that, in fact, cake was the better commercial.

Mind you, W&K is not above taking inspiration from its own Honda oeuvre in this ad, too. There's a lovely bit in the middle that nods to Cog, with the engineers making a little chain reaction with sugar lumps and coffee cups. Sweet.

The point is this is a good ad, despite not being as good as cog, despite being a bit like – and not as good as – Skoda's cake. Have you seen the new Ford ad?

It's a bit like Honda, a bit like Skoda. Or what about last year's Guinness commercial with the domino-ing books? Or what about the original chain reaction film made by Swiss artists Peter Fischli and David Weiss that might or might not have inspired Cog?

Or, or, or.

Advertising references popular culture, always has done. Advertising contributes to popular culture, always has done.

So no surprise when ads pick similar theses and imagery. Lazy? Sometimes.

Catching the moment? Sometimes. As always, it all depends on how good the ad in question is, and for my money the new Honda work is definitely good enough.

Claire Beale is the editor of Campaign magazine