Inside Story: Tim Delaney's masterclass in writing great ads
British advertising maestro Tim Delaney is to be inducted into the Hall of Fame by New York's One Club. He describes the creative process behind his best work
Monday 29 October 2007
It is rare to write a high street ad that is also a campaign for simple justice. In this case, it was for the introduction by Nationwide Building Society of a current account that paid interest on the balance in the account and didn't levy "unexplained" charges.
This was an entirely new concept. The banks had always kept the interest, denying millions of ordinary people with current accounts what was rightfully theirs. Remember, this was in the days before the web, so advertising was the only way we could make our point. So we set about the banks. We attacked them as a collective. We never mentioned names. They were all as "guilty" as one another, anyway.
This ad is one of my favourites. It came from a real letter. We asked all our friends and people in the agency to bring them in from their banks. We did TV, radio and print. Somehow, the print seemed harder-edged, boldly haranguing the banks. They didn't utter a word in response.
We had been working on Harvey Nichols when Mohammed al Fayed bought Harrods. And our entire HN team ended up down the road. We had quit working on Harvey Nicks and one day we got a call asking whether we would pitch for Harrods. We did and didn't hear a thing. Then another call: Could we help them out with the sale campaign? Just a project. Meg Gilmore of House of Fraser, a great client, knew what she wanted and so did Mohammed: something that didn't make Harrods look like it was flogging, like all the other department stores did. We believed we could do something that would announce a sale yet enhance the brand, not denigrate it. Our campaign ran almost untouched for 11 years. And they still use the line to this day. Daniel Journeau was the extraordinary photographer who made ordinary 'sale' objects look so spectacularly desirable.
The agency produced what is called a "look" for all Harrods advertising and leaflets. It was an immaculate conception : classical, like the store, but adaptable to look classy no matter what it had to do. For ads that ran as whole pages in the national press, like this one, we would first write the headline thought. Then I would go down to the store to pick among the objects that might feature in the store for their St Valentine's Day push.
Mostly, I was allowed to recommend what would make good copy. I often picked the most extravagant and the most inexpensive, always trying to push the width and depth of the store's amazing range of merchandise. The copy was full of retail detail, but hopefully with an intelligence that respected people with money enough to shop at Harrods. We must have written 50 or so of this style of ad. And I can't remember Mohammed turning one of them down.
I have always been a huge fan of the BBC. Why do we keep discussing its right to exist? Can you imagine this country without it? No. So let's all pay to let it continue to be a world leader, and concentrate on the health service. So anyway, when we heard the Beeb wanted a corporate film (just one, mind – can't misspend the licence fee on things like communications) we jumped at it. We created a strategy based on a concept that is as appropriate today as then: you only get the BBC's unique programming because of the unique way it is paid for.
"Perfect Day" was the summit of our agency's achievement for the BBC. It was four minutes long, had huge stars, and they all sang along to the same song in order to tell us that the BBC can cater for all our tastes because of how it's funded. But the message was more profound. It was that the BBC was finally prepared to come out of its shell, to slug it out in the message department, to be proud, to be emotional about itself, for God's sake. And to win.
"Perfect Day" went straight to No 1. The film was lauded all over the world. The writer, art director and film director were feted. They say the best ads do not merely reflect popular culture, they create it. This one did both.
Everyone in advertising wants to work on sports brands: you get to write about things you talk about with your mates; you meet heroes.
Adidas, however, was the poisoned chalice of sports brands when we met them in 1992. They were on the verge of bankruptcy, had had four CEOs in six months, and everyone's fat uncle wore one of those red three-stripe shell suits that are so irredeemably naff they're now worth a fortune.
But hard times humble a soul, and Adidas was ready to listen to strong opinions about almost everything. It was the most exhilarating ride of my life. One of my favourite spots was for a new cross-trainer. We were intrigued by the actual trainers, the people behind the great sportsmen and -women. We knew Muhammad Ali had worn Adidas. So I bought one of his biographies, and didn't have to read more than a few pages to find the ad: Ali's younger brother used to throw stones at him to make him duck and dive.
I didn't go on the shoot, but apparently the crew cried when he appeared: at the majesty of the man and at the terrible effects of Parkinson's disease.
If you know anything about watches, you no doubt join the congregation of worshippers at the altar of Patek Philippe. The brand is rare in today's world of luxury watches: it's independent, does not mass produce, and finishes most parts by hand. Yet, 10 years ago, only the cognoscenti knew about it.
We were approached, along with other agencies, to present ideas for a new campaign. One thing was sure: we would not be following the watch ad rules – namely, sign up a celeb, show a really huge watch, and slap a logo in the right hand corner.
We knew instinctively that men were emotional about their watches. In the end, the blinding idea came from San Francisco; one of the smartest things I have ever done is grab the research as I ran from our office there. "Why", asked American potential luxury watch owners, "can you watch-makers only talk about famous owners in the past? Why don't you talk about us, the new owners?" Good point.
Out of that comment came the "Begin Your Own Tradition" campaign, with the father and son shots and the line, "You never actually own a Patek Philippe. You merely look after it for the next generation." Justification enough for grown men to cry as they hand over the black Amex and finally get their hands on what is now one of the most sought-after watches in the world.
This campaign has a great story. The brand had a history of doing great stuff in the US. We wanted it, chased it. And eventually the two ski bums who had bought the European franchise agreed to meet in their flat in Notting Hill. It was effectively their warehouse, with boot and shoeboxes piled everywhere.
We enlisted John Claridge to take the product shots, and off we went. We never ran an ad more than once – a heresy in adland. Every ad was a story about the mythology of boots and their role in the development of America. I wore my fingers to the bone writing copy, usually at home on Sundays. This headline for this ad first emerged in a piece of copy. We lifted it and it became the campaign's most famous and provocative piece. We even had Americans calling the office to say how offended they were. The Indians got my vote.
"Does my bum look big in this?" This phrase, uttered by Anthony Hopkins in the "Big" campaign for Barclays, seems to have entered the national lexicon. It pops up in sitcoms and in other ads. Strange – because the ad itself, a tour de force of writing and directing, was pulled after one half of Barclays forgot to tell the other half that it was going to close around 170 branches in the week that the campaign broke. Pity.
The thought behind the campaign was that Barclays, rather than joining the other high street banks in vying to be the customer's best friend, should come out and state their actual strengths: that they were big, and powerful, and that this could enable customers to improve their lot a damned sight faster than if the bank snuggled up to them. In the ensuing politics at Barclays, the agency was fired, despite the fact that every piece of consumer research was overwhelmingly in favour of the campaign. Barclays' TV ads now have a spotty intern with an exploding laptop. Have you ever known a laptop to explode?
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