Peter York On Advertising How the weight of the world killed British creativity

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The Independent Online

In every dream office, a heartache. A secret sadness attends the job of running what people now call "creative" advertising agencies (to distinguish them from media ones). It's the feeling that the golden age of British creative advertising really is over. Brilliant campaigns will be created, new creatively driven agencies will be formed, international prizes will be won. But there used to be more to it than this.

Throughout the 1980s, and even into the 1990s, the big idea of British Creative Advertising was practically a pillar of nationhood. Advertising defined our 1980s style, but the most dispiriting things now - for creative giants with memories - are clients.

Clients were always difficult, of course. They came from grim offices in Milton Keynes or Leeds. They had the wrong shoes. They often didn't get it, not having a South Ken or Shoreditch frame of reference, so to speak. But at least they were physically there, most of the time. And when you won the pitch, got to the top decision-maker and really won him round (it was always him in those days) and then marked off the chippy assistant brand managers with clever main-marking, you could expect a long relationship where you'd get backed to do good work. Work that people didn't like at first. And keep following the same strategy for years.

The biggest change, according to John Hegarty, creative king of BBH, is globalisation. There always were global clients - P & G and Unilever, General this and that - but they often acted locally. They owned national or regional brands, lots of them, and they employed Brit blokes in Milton Keynes, too - UK general managers and marketing directors.

But now, says Hegarty: "Eighty per cent of the briefs that come my way are global. As soon as you get more than a small group involved in deciding on a creative idea, you're in danger of reverting to a lowest common denominator approach. Things get e-mailed and faxed around the world and there'll be someone in Taiwan who doesn't like it. And that means there's a lot more reliance on technique than on ideas and narratives - CGI effects. It gets harder to introduce those insights into human behaviour. It's like the Hollywood approvals committee. "

The global corporations have- restructured their brand portfolios, focussing on the 20 per cent that have global potential and aiming for the economies and efficiencies that follow global, or at least pan-European, campaigns.

Instead of Mike in Milton Keynes, it's Inge (the humourless Swedish MBA lady who spent her formative business years in Seattle and speaks fluent American) who's the ultimate advertising decision-taker. And she's based in Brussels. "The irony," says Hegarty, "is that the market actually wants more interesting things. It's ready for them. But the system stops us from doing that."

Isabel Bird, a marketing and media headhunter, says: "The rise of the corporate procurement department is the key." It's brought its fair share of sadness, too. If the old, nerdy, office-park assistant brand managers, so keen on BOGOFs and trade marketing, were hard going, that's nothing compared to the procurement Nazis who do the global deals on lorries and lav paper. They can get you cheaper.

Bird believes it's all tied to the failure of marketing to get its seat in the boardroom and learn City-speak. "Brand people speak French, The City speaks German. They're on different planets."

WHEN I was young - 14 I think - I wanted to be an advertising person. It was the dividing line between art and commerce. You would do poncey stuff and be terribly well paid. But in the event I never was one - I worked instead in the grimier, greyer world of research and strategy. But I remained a BritAd groupie.

What I especially liked was the glorious up-ness of it all, the "with one bound Superman was free" world-view. The idea that you could magic away every structural nastiness in a business with a clever idea and a British joke.

It seemed so brave and amazingly, particularly in the 1980s, it often seemed to work. But now golden age creative types, having learnt to parrot horrible Germanic phrases like "total shareholder return", can't see so much to laugh about.

WHAT IS IT with admen and The Ivy? According to Isabel Bird "the long lunch is long dead", but The Ivy, below, is the exception. Admen of greatness - eponymous agency names - must be its most loyal supporters, after telly faces. One legendary fellow has a perpetual table there.

This week, lunching with two ad names to talk about an IPA conference later this year, I realised that three tables along there was a positive adworld supergroup - four lifetime presidents of different agencies. Three men and one woman who'd shaped the industry in which they served.

The Ivy remains the most reliable mainstream celebrity index in London. Forget newer inventions in SW something. If you're in the world of The Player you want to be there - quickly spotting a soap star, a blonde presenter and Dale Winton, that beats any combination of billionaire bankers and Chelsea girls in my book. So long as admen keep in there, all isn't completely lost.

I adore the new Country Life commercial, but for all the wrong reasons. For one thing, it seems like an early Disney cartoon with the cute anthropomorphic animals re-worked in live action. For another, it's using an old BBC radio tune - something hardwired into the 45-and-over brain pan. In a green Fifties kitchen, Dad and the kids leave Mum in chaos. But when she sits down to her toast a robin pops up and summons his friends - ducks, squirrels, rabbits, hedgehogs and a lamb - to clear up. It shows how blasé we've got about computer effects that this magic - done for a modest UK fmcg brand - passes unremarked. "Enjoy the taste of Country Life" they say unimaginatively at the end. It avoids the topical argument for butter - no wicked trans-fats - for a bit of branding. But so beautifully done. Any chance they're targeting a more mature consumer?

Stefano Hatfield is away