Mark Wnek on advertising

Stick the Boots into Harry Hill, but Mother still know best
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The Independent Online

Has red hot ad agency Mother waded out of its depth by winning the giant Boots account? This is the question being bounced up and down the cappuccino bars of Adland these days. It's a question ostensibly prompted by the somewhat un-Mother-like Boots Christmas TV campaign, starring Harry Hill as a kind of demented doctor cum Santa's elf.

It's true the campaign is a bit grating, but then which Christmas retail campaign isn't? M&S, I hear you shout in unison, and it's true that its agency Y&R has pulled off a charming and watchable spectacle packed with very expensive celebs and high production values.

The Boots work is messy in comparison, but to be fair there's been nowhere near the same kind of money lavished on its production. I don't like Harry Hill, so it's hard to like the commercials. But I'm over 40 and I'd be prepared to have a sizeable bet that the campaign is not aimed at anyone much over 30. While even this age group may not give the campaign an overwhelming thumbs up, I'd still be willing to bet that it appreciates the shift from Boots' usual stuffy image. Don't forget, Hill's TV show Harry Hill's TV Burp pulls in an astonishing 4.3 million viewers in ITV's Saturday 5.30pm "graveyard" slot, so while he may not be the middle-class, middle-aged intelligentsia's cup of tea, people seem to love him.

At worst, the campaign is an anarchic Boots Christmas panto. So why the frankly repulsive relish with which some big Adland players are trying to parlay a bit of seasonal housekeeping into proof that Mother should lay off the big stuff and get back into the box marked "eccentric little hot-shop"? Well, as far as the aforementioned big Adland players are concerned, they were happy as long as Mother was pootling about on small brands. But once such flagship brands as Orange and Boots started coming on board, then the heavy suits driving the big corporate ad agency machines began to glimpse their own extinction. Hence the whispering campaign over Harry Hill.

As you may have guessed, I'm a fan of Mother and its home-grown, fiercely independent championing of advertising creativity. I think its best work is better than just about anybody else's and it worst work nowhere near as bad as some agencies' best.

The company has an individual way of doing things that is based on big ideas not big networks, creativity not accountancy.

As for Boots CEO Richard Baker, a young high-flier formerly of Asda, he's no mug. Those I've talked to about him are almost exclusively positive. I like to believe the profits warning he recently posted is due to the long overdue changes he has made and is making to relaunch a new improved Boots.

And I'm sure Boots' relationship with Mother is very much part of that relaunch. Indeed my spies (who are absolutely everywhere, so watch out) tell me that the Boots campaign for which Mother was hired, a big anthemic number, kicks off in the spring. If you must judge them, judge them then.

If only for resisting the knee-jerk action of hiring someone big and instead hiring someone brilliant, I wish Richard Baker a very happy Christmas and a prosperous New Year.

And in answer to those who accuse me off talking up Mother in the hope it may offer me a job: if it wins another three or four accounts the size of Boots, it might actually be able to afford me.

Meanwhile, each new government spokesperson or 74 stone housewife I hear blaming advertising for sundry ills reminds me of the favourite closing statement of criminals and vagabonds at the Old Bailey since time immemorial: "Society's to blame!"

That's not to say that I fail to recognise the need for advertising to be legal, decent, honest and truthful. I also believe advertising has environmental responsibilities. Particularly posters, which are often as big as buildings, but not subject to anything like the same environmental restrictions. All of which is fine if the poster is beautifully crafted and enhances the environment, but not if, as is usually the case, it's a giant packshot and money off and logo and website address infested eyesore. I will be getting together with Mayor Ken as soon as I can to see what he thinks of my idea of setting up a panel with the power to vet and exclude poster advertising in Greater London on aesthetic grounds. In the meantime, my Campaign Against Communications Atrocities (Caca) is busy building its website at

Why the A-list doesn't matter

I'm touched by the huge amount of people calling me up to ask why I'm not in Campaign's annual A-List, but please can you stop snarling up my phone line - particularly those whose real motive is to indulge in a spot of schadenfreude.

The so-called A-List is a booklet out which lists the big cheeses in advertising. One rather far-fetched reason offered for my exclusion was that I had upset the outgoing editor of Campaign, Caroline Marshall, by not giving her any credit for the magazine's redesign in my article on the subject. Marshall is still hanging in at Campaign as executive editor. Well, if you were upset, Cazza, then on behalf of all those you upset during your editorship: diddums.

But seriously, what really upsets me is not being invited to the Women's Advertising Club of London (WACL) Christmas bash.

My favourite caller was the one who found it extraordinary that the fifth most famous person in advertising after Trevor Beattie, Lord Saatchi, Sir Martin Sorrell and John Hegarty should be omitted from any A-list. At the time I rather churlishly bridled at the suggestion that Little Hegsy is more famous than me in the world at large, but I now realise that the caller was being nice. The true reason why I'm not in the list is, of course, that I'm not in advertising, stupid.

But this list does miss a trick by including too many deputy chairmen, anonymous Yanks and McCann rejects. The point of an A-list is selectivity. It could have been much more contentious. Look out for this page next week for the true Adland A-list.