Max, Dan, Jerry – 2012’s out-performers

December 14, 2012

League tables of achievement are as commonplace as turkeys right now. Why burden you with another one? Well, I’ve been asked to – by the good folk at More About Advertising. So:

Ad of the Year. Yes, I liked BBH’s “The 3 Little Pigs” and Creative Artist Agency’s Cannes Chipotle winner. Also, Del Campo Nazca Saatchi & Saatchi’s work for – of all improbable B2C clients – air-conditioning specialist BGH. Of which this, directed by Juan Cabral, is the latest instance:

As MAA’s Stephen Foster puts it – “bleakly comic”.

My favourite, though, was “Follow the Frog”, a quirky satire of the desk-bound yuppie eco-warrior fantasising about making the World A Better Place. Writer, director, copywriter, art director is Max Joseph – clearly a bit of an Orson Welles in the making. The commercial was produced by Wander Films, a creative boutique in Los Angeles. The moral? You don’t need to go to the ends of the earth to save the rainforest. Just Follow the Frog by buying kitemark-certified Rainforest Alliance products. They’ll do all the ethical heavy-lifting for you: sustain the forests, uphold socially equitable farming methods, and guarantee that what you buy is economically viable:

It’s long – but isn’t nearly everything these days? The measure of the made-for-internet film is not its length, but how well it sustains our interest. On this criterion Follow the Frog succeeds very well. It’s got a good tale to tell, is directed with panache and enlivened by bold use of graphics. Oh, and it uses gentle humour to camouflage the piety of its evangelical message. Yes “Siri”, it get’s my vote.

Agency of the Year. I won’t beat about the bush: it’s got to be Wieden & Kennedy. International networks frequently produce isolated instances of brilliance (Del Campo being an example within the Saatchi organisation). Exceptional work, simultaneously executed on a number of fronts, is another matter. To take an investment analogy, W&K is a momentum stock outperforming in all its main markets. Whether that’s Clint fronting for Chrysler at the Super Bowl:

… London winning the £110m Tesco account – but also producing some of the most interesting creative work since “Grrr”:

Or Amsterdam’s slick spoof for the latest James Bond film, which neatly segues into its current Heineken campaign:

Person of the Year. Tempting to mention the name of Joel Ewanick, isn’t it? No one can be said to have made a bigger splash in the world of marketing over the past year. Arguably, however, the now-dismissed chief marketing officer of General Motors made headlines for all the wrong reasons. A change agent he certainly was, but were any of his changes for the good? And what sort of permanence will they have? We hacks miss him, but I suspect the wider marketing community will not.

Jerry BuhlmannInstead of anti-hero, therefore, I’ve plumped for a gritty go-getter: marketing services’ answer to Daniel Craig. Like Craig, he certainly wouldn’t be everyone’s first choice as the archetypal smooth operator. But his coolness under fire cannot be doubted. Step forward Jerry Buhlmann, chief executive of Aegis Group plc. If there is one thing archetypal about Jerry, it’s that he’s a self-made media man. He started off in the “five to one” slot, in other words the lowest of the low in the full-service agency hierarchy, at Young & Rubicam in 1980. Nine years later, he was setting up his his own media-buying outfit BBJ – along with ultimately less successful Nick Brien and the downright obscure Colin Jelfs. BBJ – nowadays Vizeum – though successful (it handled for example the BMW account) was originally a “second-string” shop for conflicted WCRS media. Buhlmann’s career really took off when WCRS’s Peter Scott had the inspired idea of acquiring Carat – Europe’s largest media buyer – and floating off the combined operation as a separate stock market entity, rechristened Aegis. Buhlmann and his company were soon swallowed up by the independent media specialist, which offered him much wider career opportunities.

But was he a man capable of capitalising on them? While no one has ever doubted Buhlmann’s single-minded ambition to succeed, a lot have wondered whether he had the competence to do so. Yes, he had a mind like a calculator and razor-sharp commercial acumen, but where, oh where, were those human skills no less essential for making it to the top of the corporate pile? There was much mirth in the senior reaches of the media industry when Buhlmann got his first big break as head of Aegis Media EMEA in 2003. “It’s like William Hague trying to emulate Margaret Thatcher” was a typical response to his promotion. Then, as later, Buhlmann’s critics completely underestimated his ability to learn on the job. When he became group chief executive in 2010, the reception was scarcely less friendly. The master of ‘focus’ and ‘detail’ was incapable of taking the broader view vital to successfully running a publicly-quoted company, it was said. And then there was Jerry’s far-from-diplomatic demeanour: how long before he rubbed the City up the wrong way and had to be dispensed with?

It wasn’t as if Aegis was an easy company to run, either. As a (near) pure-bred media specialist, it was susceptible to squalls in the media every time the inevitable financial scandal broke. Inevitable, because media buying and peculation are bedfellows and peculation distorts financial performance – meaning in Aegis’ case it had to resort to highly public mea culpas every now and then. Other major media outfits, by contrast, have been able to rely on defence in depth from the much bigger marketing services organisations to which they belong.

Not only that, Aegis’s card was marked as a public company. For years, it laboured under the strain of being a takeover or break-up target. The strain became nightmarish when Vincent Bolloré, the shareholder from hell, took a strategic stake in Aegis and began engineering a series of boardroom coups.

Some of the credit for Aegis’ eventual soft-landing – a 50%-premium, £3.2bn cash deal with Dentsu, sealed last June  – must go to Aegis chairman John Napier. But that still leaves a lot owing to Buhlmann himself. Not only did he keep all the plates spinning in difficult circumstances, he also demonstrated a strategic clarity which eluded his predecessors. He ruthlessly pruned the company of its lower-margin research operation (by disposing of Synovate to Ipsos), but at the same time bolstered its pure-play media-buying profile with the geographical add-on of Mitchell Communications.

Not a bad result, all in all, for the man once dubbed the king of the second-string.


The Epica Awards: Whatever happened to the 30-second ad?

December 7, 2012

EpicaYou don’t have to look far for this year’s Big Theme in the Epica creative advertising awards. After 25 years as a Eurocentric awards scheme, with a nod now and then to the wider EMEA hinterland, Epica finally went global, welcoming entries from the dynamic emerging markets of Brazil, Argentina, India and China – not to mention the biggest creative challenger of the lot, the USA.

A recalibration of award winners – agencies, networks and countries – was only to be expected. It comes as no surprise, therefore, that three out of the top four awards – the Epica d’Or or grand prix –  went to countries that had never before won a grand prix.

What didn’t change was the judging principle. Epica is unique in representing the choice not of the creative community itself but of experienced journalists drawn from trade magazines in over 24 countries. I would not wish to give the impression that their judgement has been skewed by an influx of jurors from the new world, because that would be entirely untrue. The panel remains, for now at least, what it has always been: essentially European. The new challenge is the enlarged scope of their perspective.

Enough of the preamble. Who got the big prize? That’s normally taken to mean the film Epica d’Or. And the answer is: a total outsider from Denmark. When I say ‘total’, I mean total: the campaign was produced not by an agency, but by the in-house communications team of coach operator Midttrafik. Simply stated, the problem with coach travel is it appeals to the head, not the heart. It offers a no-nonsense, value-for-money alternative to other modes of transport, but “cool” it is not. The creative solution proferred by Midttrafik is a piece of burlesque called “The Bus” that humorously highlights coach travel’s unglamorous practicalities: comfy seats, panoramic views, acres of space, 24/7 availability, special bus lanes, and experienced, reliable drivers who take the strain. See the film a couple of times and you too will be saying, “Ja, still cool,” and “Yeah. Din es ‘street'” with a Danish accent. Watch out for the young guy on an orange motocross bike: his expression is a treat.

While the campaign creatives may be amateurs, direction and production are slickly professional. Step forward Marc Wilkins/RARE and M2Film respectively, who managed to make the whole thing on a budget – I’m told – of only €200,000. “The Bus” also took top prize – as it must do to qualify for the Epica d’Or, a gold – in the transport & tourism category.

Runner-up for the top prize – and also winner of the corporate image category – was Marcel Publicis’s epic “Cartier Odyssey”. Filmed with icy majesty, it is a lapidary hommage to the life of Louis Cartier on the occasion of his 165th birthday (165th? Don’t ask why – we’re talking high fashion here) which deploys the watchmaker and jeweller’s iconic panther as its leitmotif. Beautiful – and yet there is a chilly emptiness at its heart. What exactly is the point of this 3 minute 30 second historical travelogue, supposedly made for the cinema?

For my money a good overall winner would have been “Follow the Frog”, devised by the Rainforest Alliance and Los Angeles agency Wander. But it was scored in the public interest category, which by definition excludes it from consideration for the top film or print prizes. The Rainforest logo is a kind of kite mark, reassuring consumers that the product in question has signed up to a prescribed set of environmental standards. The campaign – long enough for cinema but meant for viral –  needs little other explanation. As you will see:

Long, isn’t it? Indeed, if there is a general criticism of this year’s film crop – which is considerably better than last year’s – it is encapsulated in the word “overblown” – too long, too self-indulgent and too reliant upon humour. Here’s an example of what I’m talking about from Canal+ and BETC, “The Bear” – which won the direction and cinematography category and was a runner-up in media:

It’s a mini-film in its own right, which is all very well if you’re the next Ridley Scott with designs on Hollywood. But whatever happened to the discipline of the 30-second spot? Well, it’s here, in this Aldi/McCann Manchester offering (actually 20 seconds long). Not new, I know – but as a seam of inspiration it’s seemingly inexhaustible. It won gold in the confectionery & snacks category:

Print winners: what can I say without a despairing note in my voice? It’s a fading format, with one or two redemptive examples of excellence. The overall winner this year – a first from Finland – was McDonald’s “Large Coffee”, devised by DDB Helsinki:

McDonald's

It’s probably better as a candidate for the outdoor prize, but no matter. That went to the Microloan Foundation’s “Pennies for Life”, devised by DLKW Lowe. Think wishing-well meets poster in an innovative digital format and you’re half-way there. Microloan is a charity that supports women in Africa setting up their own business. The idea is that you contribute virtual spare pennies via your smart phone, and watch the digitally-generated poster image take shape as the coffers swell:

Microloan

While on the subject of outdoor, one of the cleanest examples of the genre was “Stop Trying”, a gold winner in the household category devised by Herezie (a French agency) for Vapona. Not desperately original, but classic: strong, simple colourful imagery is complemented with unmistakable branding in the bottom right-hand corner. Brownie points to Herezie for pulling it off in a difficult, low-interest category:Flyswatter

And finally…

  • Germany once again topped the rankings, with a total of 66 awards, including 9 gold winners.
  • Britain moved up from fourth to second, at the expense of France and Sweden, which were third and fourth respectively. It won 56 awards but an unsurpassed 13 golds.
  • Top agencies were Jung von Matt Hamburg, with 16 awards (including two golds), followed by last year’s winner Forsman & Bodenfors, Gothenburg, which captured 10 awards and two golds.
  • Most successful network was DDB, with one Grand Prix and 8 golds. Next in line were Leo Burnett and Publicis Worldwide.
  • More on the awards here.

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