Making advertising was once a man’s job.
Then along came Kate Stanners, the godmother of advertising creativity behind such memorable ads as Cadbury Flake’s “girl in the bath”. Remember Labour’s “Not Flash, just Gordon”? Hers. T-Mobile’s “royal wedding”, her 2011 ad comprising Royal Family lookalikes bursting down the aisle for Will and Kate’s wedding to the sound of East 17’s “House of Love” was the most viewed ad that year. It warmed the hearts of the staunchest republicans and almost threatened to overshadow the royal wedding itself.
That ad, in many ways, defines her. The Saatchi & Saatchi board director is a creative maverick who finds comfort in chaos. Her “in-the-moment” attitude to the world is in stark contrast to many of her female contemporaries, including Nicola Mendelsohn, the former ad executive and mother-of-four poached by Facebook, or America’s Sheryl Sandberg, whose best-selling book, Lean In, instructs women on how to square their career with family life.
The Stanners self-help book reads differently. She insists that her contemporaries are always “immaculately turned out” while comparing herself to the Peanuts character Pigpen. “My husband is constantly saying, ‘I don’t know why you’re so chaotic, Kate, look at all these women running companies. Four children. Look at them!’ I’ve got one child and just can’t get my shit together.” When it comes to life, she insists she’s “better in the moment than in the prep”. And forget the army of babysitters. It’s clear who is doing the child-raising in her household: “From an early age, Otto, my 11-year-old son, learned to stand at the door and say to me: ‘Oyster card, keys, credit card, phone’ – knowing I’ll be back later.”
Despite this claim to ditziness, as a global creative director of Saatchi & Saatchi, the world’s most famous advertising agency, she is the only woman on an 11-member worldwide creative board, propelling herself to the top of a notoriously male-dominated and brutal industry. As one of the few female senior creative directors in the UK, she commands instant respect.
As a Liverpool Arts College student, she originally planned to become a graphic designer. “When I first did work placements at Abbott Mead Vickers, it was a boys’ club. You’d walk down these hushed corridors and there were no women at all,” she recalls, describing creative staff as “generally juvenile” and “full of sharp banter ... I’d be terrified to make a cup of coffee because you’d feel so out of place.”
Things, she says, are changing. Advertising has become more “fragmented” and digital media poses new challenges. “Everyone’s becoming a hybrid now; and, in many ways, that will benefit a wonderful mix of people and hopefully attract more women.”
We meet hours before the Ottawa shooting, Canada’s second terrorist attack in a week. Both attacks subsequently reveal an extensive digital footprint, with IS propaganda-inspired postings. Just as brands have had to relinquish control over communications to consumers, the voices of poisonous ideologies now possess a scale and reach once reserved only for governments, ad agencies and corporate firms with multimillion-pound budgets.
“The terrifying thing about the social medium is that it is not out there in a conversation shared by friends and families,” Stanners reflects. “It can be entirely one-to-one and, outside of the digital world, nothing need be spoken of that secret.”
Advertising agencies, rather than shadowy government departments, are well placed to counter such propaganda, she argues. “You would have to muscle in, create debate and break the vacuum of one-way conversation,” she says. “Debate is the powerful antidote. It leads to your forming your own opinion – and your own opinion is something you ultimately hold much dearer than someone else’s.” Harness that properly, she believes, and minds can be changed for the better.
Many would be wise to listen, for Stanners is no stranger to politics, and neither is her agency. The 1978 “Labour isn’t working” poster is one of Britain’s most famous pieces of political advertising, credited with helping Margaret Thatcher into power a year later. Such was its power, Stanners says, that, by the time Gordon Brown was considering going to the country in 2008, one of Labour’s key ambitions was to wrestle the Saatchi brand back into Labour hands.
Today, she believes there is a continuum from Brown to Ed Miliband. “Both have such fierce intellects; I don’t think I’ve ever met people who care more. And, yet, they both find it difficult to park that and don’t want to dumb down the message. They want to treat the voters maturely – but often their ideas are too dense for people. That was the discussion we were having with Labour in 2008, and I think it’s still true now.”
The Scottish referendum has re-ignited politics and reinforces the power of clear communication, she says. “It was one message: ‘Are we in or are we out?’ ‘Are we part of this or not?’ It was tangible.”
So what advice would she give Miliband? “Shrink the message to ‘We reward work’. Let it permeate through all policy ideas. Then let everything else – social justice, fairness, the cost-of-living crisis, immigration – hang off that.” Her sense is that this would address the benefits question without Labour coming across as anti-welfare and would help it to steal a march on the Conservatives.
“Most parties are too afraid to speak through one idea for fear of alienating groups of other voters. But Ukip is doing well precisely because it talks in words that people understand and has one agenda.”
Beyond its name, her agency no longer has ties to the founding brothers, Maurice and Charles Saatchi. They cut all ties after an acrimonious coup in 1995, leaving to start their own agency, M&C Saatchi.
Does she think the industry itself has an image problem? Despite bringing in a sizeable proportion of the £71.4bn generated from UK creative industries, some see advertising as outdated – a Mad Men-esque world of Martinis, misogyny and marital strife. It is yet to convince some in business of its importance, while escaping associations with daytime-TV ads for personal accident insurance and payday loans.
Stanners isn’t worried. Advertising has always struggled to sell itself, she says. “A decade ago, it was desperate to look like a proper profession. So you had our industry body offering chartered this and chartered that. It was like accountancy exams. All I could think was, this isn’t us. We’re a purveyor of original British thinking. We’re deliberately left-of-field. We’re exporting ourselves all over the world. We’re bloody good.”Reuse content