Claire Beale on Advertising

A little creative monkey business shows the industry a way forward
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The Independent Online

'What the world needed was a hero. What the world got was a monkey." Or rather Monkey, star of a new mocu-mentary cinema film, star of a trailer for the new mocu-mentary cinema film, star of "out-take" clips from the new mocu-mentary cinema film.

It's Monkey from the PG Tips ads, and he's written and directed a Michael Palin-style doc called A Tale Of Two Continents. It opens in grand cinematic style with the quote above, it's about the history of tea and it's produced by Put The Kettle On Productions.

OK, OK. Monkey hasn't actually written and directed it. He's a knitted puppet. And you'll find (literally) the hand of ad agency Mother in and all over this film. But bear with me.

The film begins in China in 2737 BC, when the Emperor (looking suspiciously Monkey-ish) invents tea. Monkey then goes on a trail to discover more about our national drink. You can see the trailer for the film at pgtips.co.uk and the film itself is in cinemas from next week. The "out-takes" are already on YouTube. Monkey is being milked good and proper.

This is all interesting because Monkey is a rare thing: a brand created by an ad agency. Even better, he's a brand created by an ad agency to sell one brand (ITV Digital) and now he sells another. ITV Digital died. Monkey didn't. So Monkey now sells PG Tips instead. But Monkey's bigger than that. Monkey is content. Monkey is Intellectual Property. Monkey has a career. If he got fired by PG Tips tomorrow, he'd still get work. Monkey is a brand.

As the agency behind Monkey, Mother has shown how seamlessly it can move beyond functional advertising into rich content creation. It's something you hear a lot of agencies talking about: creating content. Yet few have the structure and talent to drive it home.

The other thing you hear a lot of agencies talking about is creating their own brands, not a client in sight. But few have anything beyond the beer-mat drawing board. Yet as ad agencies debate their future, the twin opportunities of brand and content creation are lifebuoys.

In principle, agencies have the depth of creative excellence to generate content that has a commercial value – even without an upfront commercial sponsor. And in principle agencies have the big idea-mechanism and marketing nous to generate their own brands. But most agencies are structured along hierarchical lines that don't allow the experimentation and risk-taking necessary to create anything outside the advertising box; the bread-and-butter stuff takes precedence because it puts the bread and butter on the table.

So there's a new agency on the scene with a new structural model designed with enough elasticity to stretch into content and brand creation. It's called AnalogFolk and it brings together talent from some of the hottest quarters of adland such as digital creativity and media strategy. Their business cards explain, "We make communications products". Their idea is to devise standalone brands for their clients that consumers will want to interact with. The experts call it "value exchange".

Think Nike+. The Apple/Nike tie-up brings the iPod and the running shoe together to create a new product that allows users to monitor their fitness progress, set goals and listen to motivational material as they train. It's a service that adds to the stock of Nike and Apple and enhances consumers' appreciation of those brands. It's about content, it's about a new brand but, at its core, it's about selling more running shoes and more iPods. Clever.

Mind you, if you're looking for evidence that most ad agencies are pretty bad at making content, check out the fate of US TV channel Firebrand. Firebrand launched at the end of last year and all it showed was ads. Even if you love advertising, you probably wont be surprised to learn that less than five months later the channel's on its uppers.

Its investors, like NBC Universal and Microsoft, have pulled out as the realisation has dawned that most ads are too bad to attract an audience. Come on, how many ads can you think of that you'd choose to watch instead of a movie or a decent comedy? Hmmm. Even (or, perhaps, especially) if you work in advertising, I reckon you'd struggle to think of 10 minutes' worth, let alone a whole channel's worth.

Most ads aren't content, most ads aren't entertainment and most advertisers don't want them to be. Maybe there's a link here to adland's latest shock exit. Ogilvy Advertising, one of London's biggest agencies and one of the world's premier agency networks, has just parted company with its creative leader, Malcolm Poynton. It seems to be that some ad agencies don't want to be creative. At least not seriously, expensively, expansively creative.

Ogilvy reckons it doesn't need a creative leader because, well, creativity is just one part of what a tanker like Ogilvy delivers for its clients. Client service, creative distribution, local consumer insight, and disciplines like public relations and direct marketing are all vital components of the big agency game.

Fair enough. But creativity is what makes agencies special, creativity is what transforms brands, creativity is what makes advertising such a fine profession to work in. Scrap your creative leadership and the danger is that a bit of your soul and a bit of your spark burns out. Will it make Ogilvy a less successful agency? Perhaps not. Will it make it a less attractive place for a hungry and passionate creative to work? My money's on "yes".

If you'd thought about it, it was pretty inevitable. David Muir is an adman. He's Scottish. He's from the same advertising family (WPP) as Labour's new chief of strategy, Stephen Carter. And he's a passionate Labour man. So little wonder that he's now been sucked out of adland and into politics.

Last week the deceptively boyish but dangerously intelligent Scot was appointed Labour's director of political strategy. He takes with him to Gordon Brown's right-hand side an invaluable understanding of the new communications span and a nous for consumer insight. At Downing Street he'll get first- hand experience of political strategy at the highest level, and will play a key role in shaping the Government's next general election campaign.

His former colleagues with a bluer hue are already rubbing their hands at the prospect of Muir bringing all that new learning back into adland, on the assumption that Labour will be out of power by 2010. But with people like Muir behind him, I'd say Brown's prospects for success are looking a little healthier.

Claire Beale is the editor of 'Campaign' magazine

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