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Advertising industry sheds crocodile tears over Steve Hilton’s departure

March 6, 2012

Few in the ad industry will lament the departure of Steve “Yoda” Hilton, David Cameron’s director of strategy. Indeed, such is the relief that he is going, some would willingly pack the diminutive “blue-sky” thinker’s bags, as he contemplates a year’s ‘sabbatical’ with his family in California. Politically speaking, California is the sunny side of Siberia.

Why good riddance? Well, the word that best sums up Hilton’s relationship with the ad industry is “renegade”.

Although Hilton’s association with Cameron and the Tory party predates the 1992 election campaign, most of his subsequent years were spent in the service of advertising, the career that actually earned him a living. Hilton quickly hooked up with Maurice Saatchi, who professed to see in young Steve a kind of son: “No one reminds me as much of me when young as Steve”, he is reputed to have said. And the admiration was mutual. Steve dutifully followed Maurice from Saatchi & Saatchi to breakaway M&C Saatchi as a kind of intellectual bag-carrier. Hilton’s ability to think “out of the box” or perhaps more accurately, “to get out of his box”, soon became apparent with his contribution to the 1997 election campaign. The “Demon Eyes” poster was certainly visually arresting and highly memorable, but trying to make the then-saintly Tony Blair into the Devil Incarnate probably did more to win votes for Labour than for the party originating it. This episode would seem to underline an abiding truth about Hilton’s career: that high intelligence and original thinking are no guarantee of common sense.

Never mind. After 13 years of hard Labour, which saw the 2002 ban on cigarette advertising followed in 2007 by severe TV restrictions on foods high in fat, salt and sugar, and much muttering about out-of-control drinks advertising, the ad industry seemed to have every reason to pop the corks when it emerged that one of their own was to become the man officially in charge of David Cameron’s brain.

How wrong they all were. Had they done their homework more carefully they would have found our man wasn’t the pragmatic trimmer everyone hoped he might be. A Steve Hilton blog post from as early as 2004, entitled “Will sexual marketing be the next consumer backlash?”, espoused some rather unfashionable, untraditionalist opinions on the matter of “the relentless drive by big businesses to sexualise small children, ageing them prematurely in the process”, while denouncing the “sexual predators of the advertising industry” for good measure.

Ring a bell? “The Bailey Report”, says one insider, “Appears to have taken its brief directly from Steve Hilton’s old blog.” Too right, and laudable though the principles informing Reg Bailey’s report are, what a nightmare they have proved to implement. The regulators have gone into puritanical overdrive, with a zeal reminiscent of the Salem witch trials. Practically any female flesh exposed in a public place (ie, on posters) is now regarded as a potential contaminant of young minds – as the recent case of the Advertising Standards Authority versus Marks & Spencer only too vividly reminded us.

However, the Bailey Report and its aftermath are a mooncast shadow when compared with Hilton’s other bequest to the ad industry. Fairly or not, Hilton’s blue-sky thinking is blamed for the ultimate destruction of the Central Office of Information. For which read a £540m-a-year ad industry gravy-train.

Pinning the blame on a single person for what may yet turn out to be a government-wide communications disaster zone might seem a little harsh. After all, there are plenty of available villains – if that’s what they are – from Francis Maude to half the cabinet office. And yet the suspicion lingers that Hilton somehow gave Maude the intellectual confidence to take an axe to the venerable institution in the first place, with his bizarre proposal for a spare and minimalist Ad Council to displace the heavily bureaucratic COI.

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Whatever you think of the British Airways ad, for God’s sake don’t mention the War!

September 23, 2011

 

Long awaited; now we’ve seen it: BA’s first major corporate advertising campaign in over a decade.

It represents a litmus test moment for agency BBH which, frustratingly, has had to battle through years of turbulence, in the form of industrial unrest, corporate mismanagement and radical restructuring, not to mention volcanic ash-cloud and a recession, before being allowed to do its first major work since wresting the account from M&C Saatchi in 2005.

But what do we – the viewers, the BA audience – think of it? Does it magnify the brand, or is it simply grandiloquent? Does it, in sum, hit the right note?

To my mind, the 90 second ad rumbles along the runway well enough but fails to reach the soaring heights to which it aspires. True, it’s beautifully shot with what appears to be loving attention to period detail. And it’s hard not to be touched by the romance and heroic derring-do of early civil aviation that underpins this hommage to BA’s corporate history. Then there’s all that gleaming, nostalgic aerial technology: the primitive, wind-in-your-hair De Havilland DH-9; the elegant Dragon Rapide; that rugged warhorse the DC3; the once-ubiquitous VC-10, as we move into the age of jet propulsion (though not – I note – the more innovative and earlier Comet, with its unfortunate tendency to metal fatigue in mid-flight); and on through the sound-barrrier with the space-age Concorde, the fastest airliner ever built.

Stirring stuff. But here the epic narrative plunges into bathos, with the appearance of BA’s contemporary fleet of 747s – utilitarian, safe and (relatively) economic no doubt, but hardly the epitome of legend. Indeed, the ad’s closing sequence merely reminds us that the transcendent feature of modern-day civil aviation is its banality. Today’s pilots may be terribly well trained and reliable but, in an age of advanced avionics and autopilots, the risks they run hardly bear comparison with those of their intrepid predecessors.

That is not my only criticism, however. If you’re going to do a nostalgic commercial, make sure it’s glamorous rather than merely portentous. Virgin Airlines knew exactly what it was about with its 25th birthday tribute (crafted by RKC&R/Y&R) 2 years ago; it’s shallow, showy bling, but none the worse for that in imparting a sense of credible excitement.

With the BA ad, by contrast, we’re in trouble almost from the beginning with that overwrought voiceover addressing its paean to the heroic pilot qualities of a bygone age.

And then – and this is the corker – there’s that extraordinary catchline – To Fly To Serve; a motto, we’re told, pinned to the chest of every serving BA captain. Close your eyes, and you can imagine Guy Gibson touching down in his Lancaster after destroying the Möhne Dam. Actually, I’m not joking. “To Fly To Serve” is the English translation of Volamus Ut Serviamus, the motto of 691 Squadron – which was formed on December 1st 1943 with a brief to provide the Royal Navy with aerial training targets around the Plymouth area.

Unfortunate coincidence? Someone not done their homework properly? Probably. But also a subliminal clue that most national carriers (so I’m informed) are military in origin. BA, for instance, is a lineal descendant of Aircraft Transport & Travel (just glimpsed at the beginning of the ad), which was set up during WW1 with a fleet of former military aircraft. Not, I imagine, an aspect of BA’s heritage that its management would care to dwell on.

It would be no surprise to find this particular ad line experiencing a rapid upgrade.


Creative momentum for M&C, Wieden, Del Campo and – of course – BBDO

January 24, 2011

Just like the business and financial world, the advertising creative industry has its reporting seasons. The Cannes Festival represents the annual benchmark and we are now at the interim stage, with the Gunn Report and AdAge – the industry’s biggest trade paper – issuing their verdicts.

To stretch the analogy a little further, these awards “analysts” heavily favour momentum stocks. That may be because – like their financial counterparts – they’re at heart an unadventurous lot who don’t like nasty surprises. Win at Cannes, and the chances are you’ll pick up a truckload of gongs elsewhere. King of the number-crunchers is the Gunn Report, which resembles Wall Street’s Quants in more ways than one. To quantitative analysis, which monitors an agency’s creative performance over many years and almost every conceivable awards scheme, is added a mysterious proprietary ingredient. We’re never quite sure of the relative weight put on the data. How else explain BBDO’s preeminence as top network for the fifth successive year?

Enough of this. The point I’m making is there are no great surprises at the half-way stage, although some of the results are well worth highlighting (BBDO’s not excluded). Rather pleasingly, M&C Saatchi’s print campaign for Dixons (honourable mentions at Cannes; it also picked up a top award at Epica) was Gunn’s global winner. The art of long copy is not yet dead.

With similar predictability, Wieden & Kennedy was garlanded  AdAge’s Agency of the Year, primarily on the strength of Old Spice Guy. And rightly so. Anyone who can create celebrity out of Procter & Gamble advertising deserves a medal: especially so when the now lionised brand was as hopelessly quaint as Old Spice.

While we’re there, a nod in the direction of AdAge’s International Agency of the Year, Buenos Aires-based Del Campo Nazca Saatchi. Del Campo, which has just celebrated its first ten years, is the epitome of a rolling creative revolution which has now persuaded some premier league clients to consider Latin America as their first port of call when devising a global campaign. In Del Campos’ case, it has just been added to Coca-Cola’s international roster.

The secret of its success seems to be a carefully blended balance of creativity and planning, reminiscent of Boase Massimi Pollitt in the Eighties. Here, at any rate, are a couple of examples of its work. The famous Teletransporter commercial, for Andes beer, which was lauded at Cannes:

And Chocolate Meter, for Kraft, which has apparently resulted in a 50% increase in Cadbury sales:


Epica Awards give boost to France – and WPP

November 29, 2010

This year’s Epica creative advertising awards – the 24th in the series – sprang some interesting surprises. France was the lead country – both in the number of winners and total awards – for the first time since 2004. WPP’s Y&R was deemed the most creative agency group – far outdistancing the usual competition from the Omnicom Group. And one of the top winners was an iPhone app.

As one of the 26 trade journal editors drawn from across Europe to judge these awards (exceptionally, the winners are not decided by a jury of creatives) I can testify that recovery is definitely on its way – entries were up 10% this year to over 3,000. But it’s a patchy recovery. The year that has seen France emerge from a creative wilderness is also the year in which one of its two principal advertising trade magazines, CB News – founded by the legendary Christian Blachas, has gone into administration. Elsewhere, the quality of print work (at least, in my opinion) has improved after a long decline; by contrast this was not a vintage year for the television and cinema commercial.

A sign of the times was the ‘Streetmuseum’ iPhone’s app – devised by Brothers & Sisters for the Museum of London– bagging one of the competition’s top four prizes, the Epica d’Or for interactivity. With a museum as client, it was always likely to be a low-budget affair, but what good use it made of that budget. The app artfully exploits sized-to-fit historic photographs as overlays on present-day Google street-map technology to give a vivid impression of London’s past whenever a visitor looked up a landmark on his iPhone. The app shot up to 19th most popular free download and, so the museum reckons, has trebled the number of its visitors.

In the hotly contested film section (TV and cinema commercials) the winner was the somewhat controversial ‘Dot’ created by Wieden & Kennedy London and Aardman Animations for Nokia N8, a smartphone. As a piece of low-budget film-making it’s masterly and involving. On brief too: Nokia has fallen behind in our perception of a desirable smartphone brand and this film, which uses CellScope technology on a bog-standard phone to achieve a remarkable piece of micro-animation, helps to redress the balance. It is one of a series that highlights Nokia’s technical competence in the smartphone arena. The (admittedly non-creative) question mark is: how much of a media budget was spent on disseminating the message? In other words, how many people have seen it?

Stacked up against ‘Dot’ in the final heat was Fred & Farid’s bizarrely amusing ‘Anytime, Anywhere’ TV and cinema ad for Orangina. A series of animals (from giraffes to bears and gay cougars – my own favourite is the iguana sketch) impersonate the actors in a range of cliched television ads, from floor-cleaner to car polish, breakfast cereal to energy drink and zit-buster. The common factor being Orangina starring as the product in every ad. Cut to bloke watching the ads on television, nuzzling up to a sheep (presumably his wife) on the sofa. Animated hommage to Disney, satire of the advertising industry? Who knows? It could only be French. Try it and see:

In the circumstances, there were other commercials that should have made it to the final cut. For example, Ogilvy’s Dove Manthem (you know the one: sing along to William Tell), which was the winner in the toiletries and healthcare category.

Just as odd was the exclusion of Adam & Eve’s ‘Always a Woman’ ad for John Lewis. It lost out at the category stage to Sapient Nitro’s ‘Sneaker Mastermind’ work for Footlocker. Not itself a great ad, but one not dogged by a plagiarism controversy.

Fred & Farid may have been pipped at the post by ‘Dot’ but they triumphed in the outdoor category with an Epica d’Or for their Wrangler Red work. The ‘animal’ theme (lots of that this year) is not new, but the photographic execution was considered outstanding.

More interesting was the final major category, the print Epica d’Or, where M&C Saatchi’s ‘The Last Place You Want to Go’ ad for Dixons narrowly beat BETC Euro RSCG’s Evian ‘Baby Inside’ work.  Evian has made the baby theme something of a trademark these past ten years, each year developing it in a new and interesting direction. This year the image was of adults with the bodies of babies superimposed on their white t-shirts: simple and effective.

But not as startlingly unusual as the Dixons ads, which appealed to the head as much as the heart. It’s good to see outstanding retail print work, full stop; but even better when it employs witty, old-fashioned long-copy which makes elegant fun of the retailer’s rivals. In the eternal struggle for mastery between copy and image, copy definitely won out this year.

So much for the work, but what of the winning countries and agencies? It was noticeable that while France was easily ahead in all winning categories – winners, silver, bronze and total awards – Britain managed to nail three of the four Epica d’Ors (film, interactive and print). It came third overall, but behind France (a long way behind) in the categories winners’ league. Sweden was number two overall, with Germany in fourth place. Far down the league table was the usually feistier Spain.

The top agency was Sweden’s Forsman & Bodenfors, Gothenburg, with 15 awards in total, four of them category winners. Serviceplan Gruppe, Munich & Hamburg – a previous winner – came second. The more important insight to emerge, however, was Y&R’s easy dominance as top network. It had 8 winners across four offices, compared with next-placed DDB’s 4 winners across the same number. Ogilvy came third with four across three. BBDO (like DDB, owned by Omnicom), often an overall winner, has drifted well down the table  (3 over 2).

Taken at face value, that’s something of a pat on the back for WPP creative supremo John O’Keeffe, whose avowed aim is to displace Omnicom as creative top dog. O’Keeffe has his eye on the Cannes Awards, but Epica winners have often proved a useful harbinger.


Debenhams brushes off the past, Burgess loses his Local Jewels, Loaded is spent and Foster’s will get funnier

August 23, 2010

Four thoughts on a week spent away:

1. Debenhams has irrevocably hitched itself to the voguish positioning of “natural beauty” pioneered by Unilever’s Dove – with its decision to bannish “air-brushed” fashion models. The department store has been making a number of gestures in this area recently – for example, using a size 16 and a disabled model. But this latest initiative looks definitive.

Debenham’s rallying to the cause raises some embarrassing issues for other elements of the fashion industry which, shall we say, have been less forthcoming on the permissible limits of artifice in projecting an advertising image both unrealistic and unattainable. L’Oréal, for instance, seems entirely comfortable with lightening the skin pigment of rock star Beyoncé Knowles. And let’s not forget the vexed case of Cheryl Cole’s preternaturally bouncy hair extensions, which featured in an Elvive campaign. The Advertising Standards Authority gave Cheryl a clean bill of health. But I cannot help thinking this was a wrong call, out of step with the times. What Dove and Debenhams are doing is the thin edge of a wedge fast being driven into a post-production fixated fashion industry.

2. Now Unilever’s “Local Jewels” really have lost their setting. The departure of Matt Burgess, UK managing director of Marmite, Peperami, Pot Noodle, Bovril and Slim-Fast, seemingly brings to a painful conclusion Unilever’s interesting Chrysalis project, which was formally dissolved last month. Like its architect James Hill, Burgess has moved elsewhere in the organisation. Details remain sketchy, but he would – lucky man – appear to be assuming responsibility for integrating the Radox, Brylcreem and Sanex brands offloaded by Sara Lee into Unilever’s skincare division. Not without a last hurrah, however. The crowd-sourced Peperami ad, described in greater detail by Louise Jack on Pitch, may not be to everyone’s taste. But it’s a wake-up call to agencies.

3. IPC’s willingness to dispose of Loaded, a nineties best-seller, is a reminder of how much the lad’s mag phenomenon has been butchered by the internet. According to the most recent Audit Bureau of Circulations figures, Loaded lost over 26% of its circulation in the last year. That may be a disaster, but it’s by no means a unique one. FHM, now owned by Bauer Media, lost about 18%; while the weeklies Zoo (Bauer again) and Nuts (IPC again) plunged 22% and 17% respectively. From Phwoar! to Uh-ah! in less than 20 years.

4. While on matters laddish, was I alone in being underwhelmed by Adam & Eve’s first stab at refashioning the Foster’s campaign? To the untutored eye, it looked very much like a seamless continuation of the hackneyed stuff that has been pouring out of M&C Saatchi these past few years. Where was the simple Big Idea the client claimed had won A&E the account?

Now we know. Simple, but brilliant. One-off remakes of some of our best-known laddish comedies – Alan Partridge and the The Fast Show have been mentioned – using where possible the original writers, producers and stars; all inexpensively posted on the internet. And all intended to build on Foster’s title sponsorship of the Edinburgh Comedy Awards and Channel 4 comedy. Let’s see how the idea catches on.


Obama’s take on Change4Life

November 30, 2009

Sian Jarvis, director general of communications at the Department of Health, produced a confidently upbeat report on the Government’s showpiece healthcare communications policy, Change4Life, at a recent Advertising Association sponsored conference, Food Advertising: Time for a Healthy Debate.

The £75m three-year anti-obesity campaign, launched in January this year, is now about to move into its next phase, targeting adults of 45 and above.

As Jarvis herself confessed, the campaign (which is handled by M&C Saatchi) was the brief from hell. A nightmare of political correctness, it had to avoid a patronising, admonitory tone and persuade rather than bludgeon. Despite the fact it is all about health, there could be no mention of sport and fitness (which are middle-class connotations, and therefore not “inclusive”). All in all, it was a miracle that those luminous, animated little men and women made it onto our television screens at all.

Despite this unpromising start, Jarvis was able to report that the campaign has, in ten months, signed up 170 partners and achieved high ratings on most awareness/satisfaction indices.

Probably the biggest endorsement, however, is the fact that the Change4Life blueprint is now being actively considered for a US roll-out. Health secretary Andy Burnham was recently in the White House giving President Barack Obama’s team a briefing on the whys and wherefores. Do expect a US-version of Change4Life in the not-too-distant future. Don’t expect the US taxpayer to be nearly as generous as our own. That would be a “socialist” solution and therefore politically unacceptable in the Land of the Free. Most likely, a very large begging bowl will be sent around industry.

More on Change4Life, and other facets of the conference, in my Marketing Week column this week.


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