The Big Lie – the complete book online - 24 Admen

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Chapter 24

The wonderful folk who brought you ‘tired blood’

Admen

It is a great responsibility to mould the daily lives of millions of our fellow men, and I am persuaded that we are second only to statesmen and editors in power for good. James Wallen, American copywriter, 1925

In 1999 an American judge gave leave for a disgruntled client to sue the British company, Saatchi and Saatchi, perhaps the world’s best-known advertising agency, for creating a countereffective television commercial. A chain of sports-wear shops claimed that, after just one showing, its sales went into steep decline and the company’s valuation on the stock market slumped by two-thirds. That single airing of the $7 million campaign was in the premier American viewing slot, the football Superbowl. The commercial showed a barefoot black runner being hunted down by white men in a military-type vehicle. They caught him, drugged him, and forced a pair of Nike trainers onto his feet. Waking up, he saw the trainers and ran away wildly trying to shake them from his feet. The idea was to demonstrate the intense dedication of the company to its mission of supplying people with sports shoes. Instead, it provoked a furore of racist allegations. The client complained that the agency’s creative team had browbeaten him into accepting the advertisement. The agency’s legal defence was that it could not be sued for lack of competence in a profession which requires none: “The imposition of a punitive damage award in the absence of guidelines and standards is highly unfair”.

Adfolk are different from ordinary business people. The very brightest university graduates do not go into advertising – they become scientists or academics. But of those who enter the business world, advertising attracts some of the cleverest, particularly those who can think on their feet and relish diversity. There are also plenty of successful ad people who have come straight from art school, or in off the street, armed with a degree only of chutzpah. Advertising has no recognised training system, demands no qualifications. By and large people just drift into it. Apart from researchers, who are at the periphery of the process and never make advertising decisions, few advertising practitioners have an instinct for the scientific method, any training in the principles of psychology or an understanding of mathematical concepts such as probability. Their strengths tend to be intuitive and people-based. The emphasis is on persuasive skills – not mass communications expertise, but person-to-person persuasion – because they have to persuade each other.

Admen and women are versatile. Like management consultants and merchant bankers, they are exposed to a wide range of businesses and must adapt to many different corporate cultures. Typically, they are self-absorbed and intensely competitive. In his book How to Capture the Advertising High Ground, Winston Fletcher, an advertising agency chairman and a past chairman of the Advertising Association, lists fifteen qualities needed to excel in the black art of advertising: “arrogance, charm, confidence, contacts, creativity, diligence, energy, enthusiasm, literacy, looks, oratory, resilience, self-criticism, self-publicity, and wit”. That seems a promising genetic code for success in any business, but to create successful advertisements requires something else: an innate understanding of what makes people tick, plus the ability to reach out and touch those feelings vividly in words and pictures – the instincts of a demagogue.

Advertising was one of the first industries to welcome women into important jobs, as researchers, copywriters and art directors. As more women began to appear in client marketing organisations, they moved into agency management, too, as account handlers and planners. Still, in Britain in 1999, according to the IPA, although half of the people working in ad agencies were women, only 7 per cent of senior managers and just 16 per cent of “creatives” were female. Barbara Nokes, of Grey Advertising, is one of the few women to have reached the level of creative director. She believes, “Creative departments . . . are very aggressive environments. The trouble is that even now women are brought up to please people, to be accommodating. With creative work you are putting your taste, experience and attitude on the line. And that requires a huge ego”. In an industry where it is important that the “face fits” the client, not many representatives of ethnic minorities are agency high fliers either. Most of all, adfolk are young. Ninety per cent of the work force quits advertising before they are 40, according to the 1998 IPA survey; over half of all advertising agency staff are still in their twenties or teens.

Good salesmen always like being sold to. And advertising people are themselves swayed by glamorous images, because it is the basis of their craft to know what’s “in”. A whole swathe of London’s service industries – restaurants, bars, clothes shops, decorative arts – depends on advertising people, who are quick to jump on the bandwagon as soon as something becomes “cool”. Most of all, good advertising people love their work and work at it all the time. The pressures are enormous, clients are frequently infuriating, colleagues may be cantankerous, deadlines are always imminent. The best admen and women believe in the integrity of their work and will not yield to the easy temptation to simply give the client what he wants without a vigorous struggle. Unlike business professionals – accountants and lawyers – they often lose clients because of a matter of principle.

And they are anxiety-prone. In a 1996 survey by the Institute of Practitioners in Advertising and the marketing consultancy firm KPMG, company finance directors cited advertising and marketing budgets as the first place to cut costs when business falters. In 1989 nearly 16,000 people worked in the London advertising industry. Then recession bit. Saatchi & Saatchi London shed 250 of its 750 London staff. By 1993 only 11,600 people were working in the centre of British advertising. The industry had lost 18 per cent of its revenue and a quarter of its work force. In good times or bad, clients change agencies frequently, often without justification. Firing the agency is a favourite ploy of the newly appointed marketing supremo. At a single stroke it cuts off links with the policies of the past, and the ensuing chaos buys at least a year’s time in which the new policies cannot be evaluated. With every major account change, people in agencies lose their jobs. And so the entire advertising business is chronically insecure.

Most operational systems, from the production processes pioneered by Henry Ford to retailing or air traffic control, aim to eliminate human whim and variability. The product of an advertising agency, creativity, depends on these eccentricities. It springs from a healthy tension between the creative impulse and the businesslike objective. In the ubiquitous statements of “agency philosophy”, advertising agents tend to locate themselves in one camp or the other: either creatively inspired “hot shops”, or marketing-savvy business advisers. The pendulum swings this way and that. In good times agency people can get carried away with the crest of their own hyperbole, producing wasteful, self-indulgent advertising. When recession bites, clients lose their nerve and insist on banal product-oriented “messages”. John Hegley wrote a poem about the eternal conflict:

 

The Art of Advertising1

Ladies and businessmen,

it is unlikely

that any reference

to your bank or beer

or whatever

will appear

in the finished commercial.

Not even by clever implication.

Your product is merely a starting point

providing finance

for fine art.

Let this be your reward.

Art cannot afford

to set its purpose

to the increase of corporate profile or profit.

Indeed the artist may see fit

to advertise a rival product

on your account

to suit some compositional need.

Yes – we guarantee to induce no increase in your sales

because the way the work is done

there will be no way of telling

which product it is you’re selling

no logo, no catch phrase

no process of suggestion.

No glorification of consumerism

or the market economy, whatsoever

Art has higher things in mind,

to be doing well

it must be ill-defined

in ambiguity.

Let the artist choose.

You have nothing to lose

but your money.

 

Like poetry, the best advertising ideas usually spring from a single brain, but the route to market is an involved team process. Agencies have devised a system for producing ideas which is universal in the business. It convenes a triumvirate of interests: the account executive represents the aims of the client; the account planners use research to interpret consumer desires; the “creatives” are expected to supply the spark that leaps the gap between the two. In practice many people are involved in these functions at various hierarchical levels, and are assisted by specialists such as researchers, media planners and buyers, television producers, typographers and print experts. In a large advertising agency, a major account may involve fifty or more people who may influence the creation of an advertisement, plus a large variety of outside suppliers. Like the group of blind gurus trying to describe an elephant by grasping different parts of it, each of these contributors tends to have a different personal agenda, hence a different idea of how advertising works and what it is supposed to achieve.

The star turn is the originator of the idea , almost always a duo nominally consisting of a wordsmith or “ideas man” and an “art director”, although these days both tend to be visually-minded (albeit rarely able to draw). The general assumption is that creative genius is innate:

 

In every department other than the creative department, people are taken on from the best colleges, they are trained to the hilt on the job and spend at least a year trailing others. Only in the creative department are people taken on and expected to hit the ground running from day one. Training and recruitment of creatives is all about recreating the norm.2

 

These craftsmen live literally by their wits; above all they want to demonstrate personal brilliance, in order to reinforce and increase the value of their creative reputations. (When they change jobs, they usually go as a team, like a successful stage act.) This aura, reinforced perhaps by exotic dress and behaviour, is the main support for their arguments, which are likely to be presented in aesthetic terms. Many “creatives” are attracted into advertising because of their interest in art, literature, films, or design. It is from this quarter that the notion of advertising as an art form emerges.

The term account planning was coined by Stephen King at JWT London in 1968, although the system was first introduced by the late Stanley Pollitt when he helped form the agency Boase Massimi Pollitt three years earlier. The account planner has the job of providing the strategic platform for the creative leap and the intellectual rationale for the result; he will construct these in terms of the market situation and consumer psychology. Like all apologists, planners can lose the view of the forest while grinding up trees to produce their documentation. Dave Trott, creative director of Bainsfair Sharkey Trott, famously asked his planners for “one word and a thousand facts” – rather than the other way around – and for the sake of concision also prodded them to conceive their briefings in the form of advertising posters.

The role of the account executive (or account handler or manager or director) is a balancing act: he wants to retain the regard of his colleagues, but ultimately he has to please the client, who is the source of his power base. He is the point man of the platoon, and when this team has resolved on an approach, he will lead the presentation to a legion of critics in the client organisation. Because an advertisement is a highly visible exposure of executive judgement a great many people may become involved, not just marketing men, but others: salesmen, the PR department, the board of directors, the chairman. All are anxious to cover their backsides. The chairman, recognising that his position may put him “out of touch”, normally consults his wife. Many other executives, prompted by the same feeling, submit proposed advertisements, particularly those directed at women, to the dreaded “secretary test”.

So, before it is ever seen by the public, every advertisement must satisfy an internal audience, within the agency and at the client. It is here that the process often falls apart. These individuals are disparate in temperament and taste, and also different from the target purchaser. As there is no evidential measure of effectiveness, the decision is a hierarchical one, deferred to the top dog. The task of the creative person, if he wants to keep both the approval of his colleagues and the client’s business, often degenerates into pleasing the internal audience. The external audience is marginal to this agenda, which is why so much advertising seems so off-key to those it is intended to influence.

Advertisements also often seem to be very much like each other. This is for the same reason that so many magazine covers look alike. Both are produced by a small group of people trying to impress each other. People create advertising to advertise themselves. They must be au courant – hip, cool – and that means following fashionable trends. Their paymasters are keen to avoid personal risk, too, and are really comfortable only when they are doing what everyone else is doing. The client brief is reduced to a request for an imitative style, nowadays often a few modish clichés such as “in-your-face”, “off-the-wall”, or “edgy”. The iconoclastic talent that is responsible for the genuine breakthroughs in commerce, science, and the arts is rare in advertising. In advertising there are no creators like the scientist Richard Feynman, who go back to reason from first principles. Without fashionable provenance, originality would be the very devil to sell, so “creatives” simply recycle the latest pop artefact from the entertainment world.

Many “creatives” disdain the work they do, and almost all of them nurse loftier ambitions: to become a novelist, an artist, or, most glamorous of all, a film director. Production of commercials is invariably contracted out to independent film companies, which have a roster of talented directors and cameramen. Most of these have their eyes on Hollywood. Famous feature film directors such as Ridley Scott (Blade Runner), Alan Parker(Bugsy Malone and Angela’s Ashes), and Hugh Hudson (Chariots of Fire) began by directing commercials. Young film-obsessed advertising “creatives” vie to work with cult directors who will authenticate the advertising idea with their charisma: David Lynch, the maker of the enigmatic Eraserhead, Blue Velvet, and the Twin Peaks television series, drew a fee of close to $1 million to make an offbeat film for Adidas focusing on the pain barrier of long-distance running, with no product story whatsoever. Riding the coat-tails of such superstars, the agency “creative” frequently becomes an acolyte. Junior agency and client “suits”, even if they attend the shoot, are clearly one-upped. The film director takes over the thinking, and so the entire burden of advertising thought – the weighty, strategic deliberations of the agency-client team – devolves upon an individual who is not advertising-trained and who there is no reason to believe knows anything whatsoever about how advertising works.

One man bears a great deal of responsibility for this turn of events. John Lloyd was a producer for BBC radio who in the early 1980s launched a comedy spoof called The Hitch-Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, which attained classic status. After reproducing its success on television, he went on to create a series of enormously popular TV parodies: Blackadder, Spitting Image, and Not the Nine O’clock News. Standard fare on the last-named was send-ups of advertising. These sardonic programmes were meat and drink for advertising “creatives”, who paid homage by reproducing these conceits in their own humorous advertising efforts. Lloyd reckoned that if imitators could make advertisements out of his ideas, so could he, and beginning in 1994, without any background in advertising, he swiftly produced a series of parodies of advertising genres or specific advertisements which are still revered within the industry, for example, his commercial for Castlemaine XXXX lager which showed a princess turning a frog into a hunky Australian, who then abandoned her for the beer. Lloyd believes programmes like his own have rendered straightforward advertising claims obsolescent. His theory of advertising is entertainment-based: to make a brand relevant through humour. He cites alcohol: “You can’t say anything good about it really, except in the vaguest terms. You can’t say ‘This stuff gets you pissed really quickly, and it’s not too bad’. So what you’re selling is image: ‘This is the lager for people like you and me’”.

Is advertising merely entertainment? Or is it, as many believe, an art form? Only in the sense that, say fly-fishing or woodworking is an art – that is, it is based on skill or craft and permits self-expression. If it were to fulfil the purposes of art – to free and enlighten the human condition – it would fail in its purpose, which is to proselytise. A more intriguing question is: is advertising a business or an indulgence? On the one hand advertising is dominated by multi-million-pound multinational organisations. But many advertising practitioners act as though their purpose is simply to entertain, or to create artistic effects. Agency staff often behave more like butterflies than businessmen, and agency fortunes are notoriously mercurial.

Advertising is a personality business on a Hollywood scale, as the names agencies give themselves betray. One was called, for a while, Boase Massimi Pollitt Doyle Dane Bernbach Needham Worldwide, though most of these personalities were dead. It’s a virtual people business. Everything depends on the people who have the reputation of being a creative genius, or of having the clients in their pocket. Just as a bit of side, some contacts and a run of good fortune can give a kid on a trading floor a reputation for the Midas touch. Like investment banks, advertising agencies pay such legends legendary salaries. Advertising agencies are always taking each other over as fortunes wax and wane. They don’t buy physical assets, but temperamental talent which can flounce out of the door at any minute. To keep them at their desks, earn-out schemes were devised, whereby part of the purchase price of an agency is deferred and linked to future performance, laced with lavish top-ups for achieving targets. The effect of these “golden handcuff” schemes means that when the agency’s key people descend the lift-shaft each night, they are taking not just the assets of the business with them, but also the future profits.

The crucifix on which the business hangs is the speculative creative pitch. All advertising agencies need new business all the time: to grow, to replace the constant turnover in disaffected clients, to boost their self-esteem. It’s so fiercely competitive that it’s customary for advertising agencies to actually deliver the goods – both creative strategy and prototypes – before being appointed and receiving payment. Agency staff thrive on the competitive new business pitch, a crucible in which exciting new ideas must be produced in record time. Adrenaline surges, imagination runs free, staff are pulled off existing accounts, and budgets fly out of the window as the presentation gathers all of the tension, and some of the dazzle, of a Broadway first night. Although a strong agency contender might persuade the potential client to pay a nominal rejection fee, this never approaches the astonishing level of investment involved. Sometimes there’s no winner, because the client elects to stay with his incumbent agency. Occasionally, clients go off with the idea without appointing the agency. It’s a business strategy the Soho prostitutes who walk the same streets would laugh at.

It’s little wonder that the business community at large finds it difficult to accept advertising agencies as grown-up businesses.3 Indeed, ad agencies are quite spectacularly inept at projecting themselves credibly to their own target audiences. Consider this advertisement, placed by a newly formed advertising agency, in a brochure produced by the Marketing Society (its membership would constitute the core of the agency’s potential clientele) for its annual conference. The advertisement consisted entirely of four quotations spread boldly across a full page, above an injunction to call for “a free quote”:

Advertising is the rattling of
a stick inside a swill bucket.

Advertising is legalised lying.

Advertising is the art of making
whole lies out of half truths.

Advertising is a racket.



George Orwell
H. G. Wells

Edgar A. Shoaff
F. Scott Fitzgerald

 

It is impossible to imagine a similar advertisement placed, say, by a firm of solicitors in the annual conference programme of the Law Society. Nor was it seen as an aberration. On the contrary, this advertisement was singled out for special commendation in the pages of the advertising industry’s trade weekly, Campaign, for its “creative irreverence”. Advertising agencies like to be cute, at all costs – including that of projecting themselves as lightweight, not to say light-headed, dilettantes in the business community.

Yet whatever excesses and self-indulgences agencies may be guilty of, it is the client who must carry the can for what appears on your television screen, in print, or on the hoardings you pass. The client sets the agenda, approves the process every step of the way, pays for it all, and has ultimate authority. Every client also likes to contribute to the creative process, and the clever account handler ensures they feel some ownership of the idea. Everyone can write a letter, many clients can write documents, so most of them feel that they can write advertising. Clients are less confident with graphics and film, where agencies can easily outwit them. Clients may be supposed to have better marketing skills, and the successful agency-client partnership is one in which both parties cooperate while respecting each other’s superior abilities. Yet personnel turnover in client marketing organisations is high; young people on the make don’t stay in one job long. Eighteen months seems to be about average. Agency personnel change frequently, too, but because they have established the discipline of account planning, the preservation of long-term brand vision is often the inheritance of the agency.

 

Advertising agencies and their clients are usually pretty skilful at developing strategies – i.e. agreeing what they’re trying to achieve – and research techniques are available to assist them. More elusive is the vital creative spark which translates plan into persuasion. Because there are few objective criteria of performance, adfolk quickly become jaded and cynical, and so do their ideas: a self-fulfilling vicious circle. Even the very best advertising minds are frequently confounded by the group system and advertising illiterates in positions of power in agencies and client organisations. Like the idealistic writer who takes the Hollywood dollar, or the fictional private eye, admen and women like to portray themselves as cynical, hard-bitten professionals who have sold out truth and genius to clients for money. Like most of us, they use “the Nuremberg defence” to evade big moral issues, by separating the things they have to do to earn a living from real life and genuine personal relationships. Tony Brignull wrote this when he was a copywriter at Abbott Mead Vickers BBDO:

 

“Are we a profession?” I asked an account director. “No”, he replied. “We’re a bunch of tarts”. . . . Some agencies do, in fact, ask employees if they’re prepared to work on cigarette accounts or the armed forces or for one political party or another. There hovers a question of your commitment. Are you inboard (a member of the team) or outboard (and soon to be overboard)? In matters of conscience the individual in advertising gets little help from the industry because we lack a collective conscience. The accepted wisdom is “if we don’t do it – fag ads, booze ads, junk ads - someone else will”.4

 

There is, in any case, little prospect of reward for the high-principled. When, as a condition of the “master settlement” with the tobacco companies in the US, health authorities were awarded funds and poster sites to conduct anti-tobacco advertising, most did not scruple against employing the same well-known advertising agencies which had served tobacco clients on the grounds that they, too, should have access to the best available talent.

 

1 Reprinted by permission of PFD on behalf of: John Hegley. ©: as printed in the original volume.

2 Larry Barker, creative director of the Boase Massimi Pollitt agency and president of the Design and Art Directors’ Association, in a speech to D&AD in 2000.

3 It was a famously successful American creative director and agency founder, Howard Gossage, who said “Advertising is no business for a grown man”.

4 The Guardian, 21 December 1992.