Feel it, breathe it, be it ... then sell it

What makes a highly-paid creative executive get up on stage at a Butlin's holiday camp?
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The scene is Butlin's, June 1996. It's the first of many summertime karaoke competitions and the campers are out in force. There's Frank Sinatra sat in the corner, Tina Turner straightening her tights behind a pillar and a somewhat elderly Shirley Temple smoking a fag as though it were her last.

A bewigged Elvis lookalike climbs up on stage, and fumbles for the mike. He smooths back his quiff and adjusts his flares, as the first notes of "It's now or never" sound.

"It's now or neverrrrr, come hold me tightttttt, kiss me my darlinggggg, be mine toni ..." he snarls, throwing in well-honed pelvic thrust for good measure. He pouts, he gyrates, he croons.

But this is no ordinary Elvis impersonator. He's no father-of-four from West Hartlepool or honeymooner-Kevin from Croydon. He's Tim Hearn, joint creative director of the London advertising agency St Luke's, "researching the Butlin's brand" in preparation for a pitch for the fabled holiday camp's advertising business.

The idea is total immersion, total experience of the Butlin's ethos. You've gotta feel it. In the gut. You've gotta smell it. You've gotta breathe it and touch it and eat it. You've gotta be it, basically, because to understand Butlin's is to communicate it more honestly and to create ads that are "much truer to the brand", in the gospel according to St Luke's.

This gritty approach has been coined "method advertising" by the agency. It's all about getting into the character of the business, psyching oneself up like Robert De Niro, the De Niro who thinks nothing of putting on 50 pounds (Raging Bull), acquiring a tattoo and mohican (Taxi Driver) and developing the sort of stomach muscles you could bounce a fork-lift truck off (Cape Fear) for his film roles.

Last March the agency fought against three others for Ikea's advertising business. And while its rivals were poring over dreary Target Group Index reports, dry Nielsen data on the out-of-town retail sector and comparative qualitative research documents, St Luke's sent a representative to work in Ikea, North London. She donned the uniform blue trousers and red T- shirt and learnt how to pack brown paper bags sullenly, ignore frustrated customers' pleas for help and deny all knowledge of where the lighting department was, as only Ikea staff can do.

Work on Radio 1's advertising business, which St Luke's won in February 1995, involved similar in-depth preparatory work. The team running the account spent a month at the station, sitting in on studio shows, speaking to everyone from security guards to the finance director and station controller, attending playlist meetings, and aiding DJ phone-ins.

For Eurostar, which the agency bagged in April, its entire 60-strong workforce went by rail to Paris for the day, both by way of celebrating its victory and "genuinely experiencing the brand".

But the latest of these brand experiences was Parkworld, owner of Butlin's and Haven Holidays. Preparations by St Luke's have embraced incognito trips to Butlin's Bognor and stays at the Haven camp in Great Yarmouth - playing bingo, entering excruciating karaoke competitions and masquerading as holidaymakers rather than self-consciously announcing they were "from the advertising agency" and wanted to "do a bit of field research".

But you can't win them all. This past week, St Luke's learnt they had been beaten to the business by the more traditionalist Leo Burnett. The team has now turned to its attention to a fresh challenge, pitching for the Wrigleys gum account.

Indeed, some traditionalists argue that there is nothing new in "the method", and mutter that it is more about marketing than substance. Isn't this the kind of work any agency should be doing to get under the skin of its clients' business?

Rupert Howell, managing partner of Howell Henry Chaldecott Lury, claims it has been around for a while. "I've never heard it called method advertising before but the approach is not new. It's clever branding of a familiar technique," he says.

Robert Campbell, creative partner at the hotshop Rainey Kelly Campbell Roalfe, comments: "This is more about sucking up to the client than really trying to understand the client's business. It's not so much method advertising as grovelling advertising."

John Hegarty, chairman and creative director of Bartle Bogle Hegarty, is similarly nonplussed. "Any good advertising is about understanding the brand and thinking like the consumer, but the great skill of the advertising agency is to stand on the outside and look in, being objective rather than subjective," he says.

Andy Law, managing director of St Luke's and advertising's own Martin Scorsese, takes all criticism squarely on the chin. "Leo Burnett may well send staff on McDonald's away-days but that is different from what we do because it is a client requirement rather than an agency initiative, We coined the term 'method advertising' because we believe in intensely experiencing our clients' business."

The agency also creates dedicated project rooms within its premises for each client. Instead of the more traditional office structure, incorporating a floor of account men, a separate floor for the creative teams and general physical divides between each department, its structure is based wholly around its clients.

The Ikea room, therefore, is furnished with Ikea tables and chairs, while Radio 1's room is scruffy, full of CDs and rock mags, and is sound-proofed so people can play loud music in it. The Boots No7 project area is also kitted out like a teenage girl's bedroom, with popstar posters on the wall and a dressing table knee-deep in make-up and balls of cotton wool.

Alan Young, a creative at St Luke's and joint architect of "method advertising", says: "The moment you enter each project room you enter the world of the product. You're immersed in the right arena straight away."

The clients certainly seem to buy it. Hilary Pepler, communications manager at Ikea, says: "The fact that St Luke's came and worked at the store massively helped them to understand our strong corporate philosophy and helped them with their ideas. There is no better experience than at the hard edge where the customer is making the real-life purchase."

Sophie McLaughlin, marketing manager at Radio 1, adds: "Agencies have been doing store visits for centuries but St Luke's are far more imaginative. What they do smacks of a greater level of commitment. The good thing is that they work totally collaboratively with the client rather than just presenting an idea in a vacuum."

It's a shame that Butlin's was not convinced by the approach. The entire staff had been promised an all-singing, all-dancing vacation at Butlin's. Understandably, some of them had hoped the next account would be the Bahamas Tourist Board, rather than a prosaic brand of chewing gum.