We open on John Anderton strutting through a mall. It’s 2054. As he walks his retinas are being scanned, and personalised holographic messages are beamed directly into his eyes.
“Hello, John Anderton. You could do with a Guinness right about now?” shouts the sort of annoying dickhead you’d want to drown in a bathtub of Guinness.
“Get away, John Anderton, forget your troubles.” says a beautiful air hostess-type, being as persuasive as a pot-holing holiday to a Chilean miner.
Why, in the future, is the advertising always so shit?
Has the gene pool eradicated any lasting genetic code from Abbott, Bogusky, French, et al?
Whenever a film offers a vision of the future, advertising adopts its usual role: a symbol of a morally bankrupt world. A world sick with rampant consumerism that will stop at nothing for your time and money.
In the real world, the story is pretty much the same; even when a friend regurgitates “I’m on a horse”, or pretends to drum like a gorilla, they’ll still, when asked, say that advertising is a poo that needs flushing.
For Minority Report Spielberg got together a think tank of scientists, philosophers, etc. to make detailed and considered guesses on future technologies—from cars and architecture to telecommunications and drugs.
Obviously none of them spent any time writing a decent ad (although that would be an interesting bit of business for an agency to pick up), because that’s the hard bit. No, instead, their ideas tapped into the obvious: advertising will get more invasive and more sinister.
Of course, I know, it’s a bloody film. But forgetting that detail, it is interesting how films, (actually any kind of future gazing) always have the same ideas. Try it yourself; think about advertising in the future. You’ll go down a couple of roads, and then end up with invasive media ideas and products that have become more intelligent.
Now, forget those two things, and try instead to think of a good cartoon character, a funny slogan or catchphrase, a short film that will make someone piss themselves, a storyline that will make an audience cry.
Hard. Actually, pretty impossible. It’s a tough job right now, never mind in 60 years time.
Just ask the people in 1950, who thought that by the year 2001 we’d have robot butlers and intelligent kitchens, why they couldn’t predict the obvious hilarity of Curb Your Enthusiasm.
The boring fact is this: the things that made people laugh, cry, worry, envy in 1950 are in principle (though, mostly, not in execution) the same as in 2000.
The one thing that gets forgotten in all these predictions, is the one thing that doesn’t really change, people’s brains.
Technology doesn’t change us. It just allows, moulds, highlights behaviours that are hardwired into our brain’s software. As one advertising legend once said—”It took millennia for our brains to develop; it will take millennia for them to vary even a little bit.”
For example, the millions invested in social media (not to mention the millions of power-point slides), boils down to teenagers, being able to bitch with one another, whilst they watch American Idol; or friends using Facebook to upload pictures, just to rub their friends faces in their incredible social life.
In this respect, if advertising that is beamed into your retina does not appeal to you on an emotional, intellectual, gut level, it will be worthless and ignored. No different to the fate of every shit piece of junk mail today.
It will, as in the past, come down to creativity, which you just can’t predict.
It’s not exciting, but it is the future, and if you don’t agree? Well, when the time comes, you can just talk to my Apple Data-RaX Hand because my cryogenically thawed face ain’t listenin’.
This week the ’shoehorn’ is a little bit softer, a bit closer to home. I’m looking to traditional advertising, which, if the conferences, blogs, and general chatter are to be believed, is nay too popular. Not least amongst the digital fraternity, a large quota of which actually hate advertising. Full stop. To them traditional agencies represent the apex of this evil.
Which does beg the question “Why haven’t they downloaded an app to find the nearest job center and ‘checked-out’?”
So my intention is to tiptoe through this and hopefully shine a light on one of the many helpful things the Mad Men can still teach us, beyond alcoholism.
It’s actually not that long ago when traditional advertising didn’t exist. Circa 1998, I recall it was just called advertising; there was nothing to be ‘traditional’ against. Then brands thought they’d found the holy grail of advertising, the ‘click-through rate’. And the tsunami began.
In 1999, me and my creative partner, Sam, had just begun our first job in a digital ad agency. However, what we failed to mention at the time, was that neither of us had actually been on the Internet. So we had to take a train to Sam’s cousins house to go and see it.
We’d learned our trade as a ‘traditional’ creative team; our heroes were Hegarty, Flintham, McCabe, Trott, Henry, Steel and the mighty Bernbach. Media was simple; a variety of square shapes, you ’simply’ had to fill them with something good.
In 1999, our ignorance of the internet was actually a benefit; had we known our ‘big’ ideas couldn’t be made in 12K we’d have buggered off sooner. Thankfully we met Dave Cox, a rare kind of programmer who used his knowledge to find a Yes rather than say No. I suppose a new kind of creative team had evolved. Unfortunately we didn’t have Twitter to tell everyone.
I was very fortunate to have straddled both worlds, so to speak. At that time, and still today, most people in digital have never actually worked in a traditional agency. The old art of copywriting is either not known or seen as irrelevant, especially if we can get the public to write our ideas.
Exposure to traditional agencies comes from all agency meetings where the digital lot are told what big idea they have to translate. This inevitably leads to a lot of demonizing and a reactionary party line that “they’re dinosaurs” and “just don’t get it.”
On the other side of the table, we have some traditional agencies who treat the digital lot as a bunch of geeks that wouldn’t know a brand strategy if it was loaded on a USB and shoved up their external drive.
As usual it’s mostly bollocks.
There are great people and stuff to learn from both sides.
One of the ‘traditional’ legacies that has stayed with me, is a love of posters. When we were an upcoming creative team the poster was the toughest thing to write.
Using an image and (as a general rule) 8 words, you must communicate a brand strategy, insight and on top of that, do it in a way that is memorable and stands out.
This takes some sterling penmanship. Neil French does a wonderful piece on omitting elements, the fewer elements you have the more powerful the poster.
And for us, this oldest of media is a splendid way to approach an all-singing multi-platform digital campaign.
With all of the variables, platforms, possibilities and different people poking their noses in, it doesn’t take much for the whole thing to become more complicated than waking someone out of a deep sleep and shouting the plot of Inception at them.
So a great way of keeping it all on track is to write a poster for the idea. It doesn’t have to be the next ‘Economist Management Trainee’, (just give that a go to test your mettle) just simply sum up the idea and strategy. The rule is this: if you can’t distill it into a poster it’s too complicated.
Just like the 30 second film pitch, this becomes the backbone and blueprint that allows everyone to riff off and expand upon without losing site of what we’re trying to communicate.
And even more importantly bringing it down to that simple level really shows you whether you have something worth saying; there can be no hiding behind technology, just like a shit film can’t hide behind special effects.
Even today when we see a team’s portfolio it’s great to see the hardest of writing tests. The poster. It proves they can write and proves they have the skills to make things simple. A skill in short supply.
Imagine you had to write a stand up routine. How would you go about it?
It’s likely you would start with people and what makes them tick, observations on human behaviour, greed, love, relationships, jealousy, power, funny things that have happened to you in the past, characters you’ve met, oddities and inanities of modern life, things happening in the news and stuff that just tickles you but you just can’t explain or analyze why.
The last thing you would do is worry about where the venue is, what media the jokes will be told through, the navigation of your forthcoming iPad joke app, or whether the people in the audience are checked in to Foursquare or Facebook Places (although you might write a joke at their expense).
The professional comics, well the ones I have read about all mutter the same sort of advice. Richard Pryor says, “Tell the truth and funny will come.” Others talk mainly of keeping an ear out for funny characters and incidents you see or read about. Everyone agrees that it is mainly down to hard graft—”It took me ten years to become an overnight success,” said Jerry Seinfeld.
Considering who these people are, this is pretty boring, obvious stuff. But they don’t fill venues talking about the process of writing great material; they fill venues with great material.
Much unlike our own industry, we fill venues and conferences by mostly talking about the process and technologies involved, innovations, new buzzwords and platforms. Which, don’t get me wrong, are of huge importance and considerable interest.
But it’s far easier and far more interesting to talk about innovation and technology than about someone who sat down trying to write something funny, or moving or persuasive.
And so, the blend of ingredients required for great work has been skewed. Technology and innovation have become, dangerously, the main criteria for success. The less interesting writing process is seen as a less important skill. Or worse, a skill that anyone can do if they decide to turn their mind to it.
To simplify this and redress the balance, we often use a “joke” analogy with our clients. It serves primarily to get beyond all the buzzwords, hoopla and complications. It helps us remember what our goal is, which in this case, is to make people laugh.
We ask them to imagine that instead of writing adverts, we write jokes instead. (An invitation for them, and you, to politely inform us that they already knew that).
A joke, as we all know, can appear on TV, a poster, mailer, banner, blog, twitter, AR, app or whatever platform we’ll be evangelizing tomorrow. The most important thing is how funny that joke is. If it doesn’t make the person who sees it, in whatever guise, laugh, then they won’t remember it and won’t retell it down the pub/school gates/office.
It’s the writing of the joke and all its nuances that is clearly the vital ingredient. And just as not everyone is a comedian not everyone is automatically a good advertising writer.
Granted in the real world our job isn’t to just make people laugh, it’s to sell and persuade. These days we use an ever expanding array of tools to reach our audience, engage with them and be of some use to them.
No crappy analogy can address every variable this beautifully complicated industry throws up, but for us it serves to make it less complex to our clients and also gives balance and respect to all the different types of skills needed to make great work.
A while back I read this quote from the artist Christo “the concept is easy. Any idiot can have a good idea. What is hard is to do it.”
Whilst for my own sake I’d take issue with the first part (after all, once he’d cracked the first wrapping idea the rest sort of wrote themselves…) you can’t argue with the second.
This quote reminded me of one of my Dad’s old friends, “Bunter” as he was known. Not quite as high brow as an artist, a steel trader from Birmingham (UK) but nevertheless a very successful and wealthy one.
My Dad was always amazed by Bunter because he had a certain naive childlike aspect to how he approached business. His intellect didn’t get in the way of his believing it was worth having a pop.
I remember years ago he bought a golf course. My Dad and I were keen golfers whereas Bunter would have used a tee peg to pick his teeth. Regardless, he proclaimed he’d create the world’s longest snake bunker and have greens that had slopes with a 1/10 gradient.
Away from his company, we pissed ourselves laughing at his lunacy. We’d enough knowledge to know the huge amount of expertise that went into course design. In fact we new just enough to be certain that we’d never attempt such a thing.
Bunter never batted an eyelid. Never rationalized his gut feelings into submission. He went and built his golf course and his momentum of belief made it a great success.
Which brings me to my digital shoehorn. I’d gamble that loads of digital agencies have powerful, memorable, effective ideas stuck in their bottom drawer. I’d also gamble that just as many actually get to make these ideas, so why in the wider world is the shit work winning?
For me visualizing the whole process from the moment an idea is bought by the client to when it hits the public’s screens helps make sense of it all.
Take this picture of KISS in their prime, as a visual metaphor for the great idea that the client has just signed off:
The agency team working on the project has one goal; KEEP KISS LOOKING LIKE THIS.
However KISS are now off on an assault course like no other, traversing research groups, internal squabbles, late nights, late client feedback, change of goal posts, sphincter quivers, panic buttons, server crashes, boredom, hatred and finally antipathy.
So when KISS plops out the other end and onto the publics screens it more often or not looks like this:
It’s sort of the same idea just not quite as potent or powerful as it once was.
The real killer though is that normal people, or, as our industry calls them, consumers, only ever see the final picture.
They’ll never know about how great you were in those client meetings, all the battles you won, the heroic late nights, early mornings or the dazzling copy change that got the nod from the client right at the last minute.
No, they just see a shite ad, and that’s if you’re lucky enough for them to acknowledge its existence at all.
The answer is clear. To do great advertising of any kind a Christo/Bunter approach is the way forward.
Both Christo and Bunter had ideas that are crammed full of risk, excitement, impossibility, absurdity, passion.
This has to be our starting point, otherwise there won’t be enough in the tank to get the team through the assault course or keep their rational minds from kicking in and derailing the whole thing.
All very difficult in this often risk-averse process-heavy world of advertising. Especially when so much money is made by charging for the very process of risk aversion.
But if we can follow Christo and Bunter to the promised land, our ideas will flourish and we’ll walk hand in hand with the client down the fairway where golf bunkers stretch to the stars and the club house is wrapped in cloth.