Mark Wnek on Advertising

There are no winners when the industry betrays its birthright

"Share of pub bantering time" is one of the most vitally important indicators for measuring an advertiser's performance. "Did you see that advert for X last night?" means that an advertiser has, by constructing his or her sales message with extraordinary craft and guile, negotiated their way past a barrier in the speaker's brain known as the "24/7 anti-sales message radar" (24/7 ASMR) and genuinely entered their real life.

"Share of pub bantering time" is one of the most vitally important indicators for measuring an advertiser's performance. "Did you see that advert for X last night?" means that an advertiser has, by constructing his or her sales message with extraordinary craft and guile, negotiated their way past a barrier in the speaker's brain known as the "24/7 anti-sales message radar" (24/7 ASMR) and genuinely entered their real life.

In "the old days", adverts used to get under the radar regularly. The latest Heineken or Hamlet commercial, "Rabbit rabbit" or "Geertcha" from Courage, Arkwright from John Smith, the Benson & Hedges Gold work, "Smash" Martians, "Nice One Cyril", "Everyone's a Fruit and Nut Case", Fiat "Handbuilt by Robots", were the kind of Stealth bomber-like commercial messages no radar could pick up as they flew straight past the brain to the hearts of the Great British public. Such works of art are more or less history.

Yes, that's right, "works of art". Like it or not, great adverts are little works of art, almost entirely like any other work of art with one difference: a work of art is an end in itself, an advert is a means to an end, that end being sales.

Despite the sales angle, commercial and pure artists are far more closely related than generally may be known or accepted. The very best in each category are almost by definition scarce and unusual: what is any kind of art but seeing and depicting things unusually?

Both regularly find themselves staring at empty "canvasses" which need filling. Little surprise that many artists turn to drink or other stimulants, legal or otherwise, and are often unruly, hard to control, and unpredictable.

It's a mistake born of a certain pure artistic snobbishness to suggest that the "commercial" artist may not be every bit as "tortured" and drink or drug-crazed as his or her "pure" counterpart.

The day to day pressure on the creative people in an ad agency is extreme: unlike pure artists, their blank canvases need to be filled daily (a famous ad industry saying is "an ad a day keeps the P45 away") and are judged over the coming hours and days, rather than post-mortem.

Suits who can handle unruly artists and get them to come up with brilliant, brand-transforming stuff more or less on time, are, like their counterparts in any areas of creative production - film, theatre, whatever - gold dust, and just as rare.

They're people like recently retired Frank (now Sir Frank) Lowe, whose Lowe Group became a $2bn concern well within a decade, all on the back of nothing but the most uncompromisingly creative advertising in the world.

Such suits are far and few between because championing creativity is gruelling, skilful work. It requires genuine passion, guts and investment to champion something your experience tells you would be brilliant for a brand even when focus groups have given it the thumbs down.

Hence the shallow, anodyne fare created by a new breed of clean cut cheap young yes-men and -women, limping to our TV screens focus-grouped to near-death and unsurprisingly failing to stop millions of us jumping up to make tea during commercial breaks. Increasingly, dull uncompelling brand and product messages blunder into the nation's 24/7 ASMR. Increasingly, people interpret this drab fare as the fading celebrity of brands and products, increasingly declining to shell out for them.

Not surprisingly, the advertising industry, we are told ad nauseam in the pages of the trade press, has "lost its seat at the top table of business". Sad old suits tell "horror stories" of trade dinners where the client CEO has the ad agency boss on one side and the management consultant on the other and spends the whole evening in conversation with the latter. The knee-jerk, hair-brained, signally uncreative advertising industry solution is, "If we can be more like management consultants, clients will want to have conversations with us."

With an irony too perfect for words, clients, while nodding along with all this businesslike behaviour, can now deal with their ad agency as they can with any other easily quantifiable commodity supplier and are almost universally slashing their fees.

There are many more examples of this once great ad industry's craven betrayal of its birthright - the unquantifiable magic of creative genius - in favour of the bottom-line-led, client-mimicking desire to be a "proper" industry. As the advertising industry completes its shift from client service to client servile, everyone's a loser: agencies, clients and brands.

The man who should not be out in the cold

Among the biggest mysteries in Adland is the continued absence from the industry of Gerry Moira, the ousted chairman of Publicis in London. Moira was the main person responsible for Publicis' rise from 13th to 3rd largest agency in the UK. When the firm failed to tempt US heavyweight Lee Garfinkel, formerly of Lowe, with the post of worldwide creative director, the giant French group instead surprisingly appointed Dave Droga, creative director of Saatchi and Saatchi London. Droga is famous for his work on boutique accounts like Club 18-30 and NSPCC, but was less effective with big clients like Lloyds TSB and Sony, both of which left Saatchi. After joining Publicis, he quickly installed one of his former deputies, art director Nick Studzinski, in the company's hugely demanding UK creative director's chair. This move has so far yielded, among others, the Cadbury's "Happiness" and Asda "Julie Walters" campaigns, two of the worst messes to pollute our TV screens so far this millennium.

Meanwhile Moira, who in his early fifties is still more hip and in-touch than any creative in Adland, wiser and more client-friendly than any suit, and one of the sweetest phrase-turners in the English language, remains outside the industry. Quite honestly, I can't think of a single major UK agency that wouldn't benefit from employing Moira as a chairman, president or chief creative officer. More importantly, I can't think of a single client who wouldn't benefit from Gerry's reassuring presence in an era of chinless, wet-behind-the-ears agency management.

WNEK'S WORST IN SHOW: HARRODS

Any branding work that Harrods does - and it does hardly any - has a very simple job to do, and that is to maintain the store's high-end dominance. Especially with the brilliant new Selfridges hot on its heels. So what on earth are those cheap and nasty advertisements for the Harrods sale doing on our TV screens? Horribly filmed on video, horribly voiced (by a member of staff?), and laced with horrible type, they are more like ads for a local restaurant at a regional cinema. Some marketing person is trying to be clever and save some money, and in the meantime, the brand is bleeding.

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