Monday, March 31, 2008

A hiding to nothing

So the new Cadbury ad is here, and the knives are out.

My opinion? In the circumstances, it's as good as it could have been.

A big part of what made Gorilla so effective was its novelty. Not just the freshness of the 'glass and a half full of pure joy' strategy, but the sheer audacity of spending 85-odd luxurious seconds focussed on something so simple. Any further executions that stuck to that formula were bound to feel slightly familiar.

As if that weren't enough, both the central idea ("trucks having fun") and the fact that there'd be another mawkish 80s soft rock soundtrack were revealed in advance.

Imagine if, before you first watched Gorilla, you knew you were about to watch 90 seconds of an animal playing the drums, and that the thought that tied it back to the product was "joy".

It wouldn't have felt anywhere near as fresh.

Personally, it missed a little bit with me, for a fairly stupid reason that I only relate because it illustrates just how irritatingly arbitrary viewer reactions can be:

Not being familiar with the song, I spent the whole first viewing trying to figure out who the familiar-sounding band was. I only clicked that it was Queen when the guitar solo started, and spent the next two viewings wondering whether there was ever another guitarist with quite such a distinctive signature tone as Brian May.

Monday, March 24, 2008

Real underground writers

Most public language is so dry and bloodless.

Public bodies would generally rather offend nobody and inspire nobody than inspire 100 and offend one. That's as it has to be I guess, but it's rather dispiriting for those of us who love language and its ability to move the spirit.

Every euphemism is a wasted opportunity.

That's why i love one particular delay announcement on the underground. It pulls no punches, but it's hardly setting out to shock. In fact, it's the prosaic, matter-of-fact tone that bestows its ability to make one shudder. That and the condemnation implicit in the refusal to gild the lily.

"The District Line is closed due to a person under a train"

You conjure up your own image, and it's more effective than any shock-horror don't-throw-yourself-under-a-train-you-inconsiderate-bugger campaign ever could be.

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

...or the lives of ideas, at least.

Words - their nuances, their power to evoke and persuade - are part of our stock in trade.

Yet most of the agencies I've worked have been careless about the language they use, both internally and often externally, when speaking to the client.

Example: For a brief of any size, we present a "spectrum" of options for the client. Nothing wrong with that.

But what's at each of the spectrum? Generally, one end is marked "safe", the opposite "edgy" or "creative".

Let's take "safe" first.

With the possible exception of "inexpensive", I struggle to think of an adjective that would be more enticing to a client.

"Safe" means "my job is safe", "my mortgage is safe", "my kids' school fees are safe". Safe means "nobody can criticise me for taking this option".

And what does the other end of the spectrum hold out to answer this warm, inviting safety?

"Creative". For us, the word has overwhelmingly positive connotations. Not only is it our job title, it's the quality we strive for most in the execution of said job.

But for the client (and perhaps for the society at large?) it might means something a little different.

It has connotations of art, of the avant garde. It's an excuse for flaky behaviour ("He's very creative you know"). It's synonymous with self expression, perhaps even with us indulging our artistic whims at the expense of the brand. Many times i've heard it used as the opposite of "effective", as in "well, that's a very creative option, but we're here to SELL!"

Even if I'm overstating it, "creative" isn't the good-in-itself to a client that it is to us.

What about "edgy"?

Sounds dangerous. Sounds like something that someone might not like. Sounds like I might cut myself. (And, 99% of the time, it's a lie. Compare the any but the edgiest TV spot to even a mildly transgressive TV show and it comes out looking pretty tame. The same is true of most other media environments.)

So what's the solution? I don't know . But one thought might be to start talking about the creative stuff in a way that reminds clients of what they come to an agency for: "this is the more interesting/ more engaging/ more thought-provoking/ more attention-getting/ more involving option".

And stop calling stuff "safe" when the only thing it can be safely said that it'll do is be ignored..

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Obligatory "Stuff White People Like" post

The lead character of the immensely popular '70s sitcom "All in the Family" was a fairly unreconstructed bloke called Archie Bunker. His racist, sexist and otherwise offensive attitudes were part of the show's comic fodder - they were held up for ridicule.

Yet when the ratings people broke down the figures, they found that the show was a big hit amongst viewers whose attitudes mirrored Archie's own.

People just filtered the satire out.

Even an ostensibly one-way communication like a TV show is in fact a two-way exercise. A reader, viewer or listener plays just as great a role in creating meaning as a writer, a director or a speaker.*

Which brings me to "Stuff White People Like" (via Toad).

Take a look at the posts, if you haven't already. They're witty, well-written and beautifully observed. A friend of mine described it as "too close to the bone to enjoy".

So who would you imagine to be the readership? People more or less like those being satirised, right? "Upscale, urban, thirtysomething, white, male hipsters" (thanks again Toad) who like to laugh at themselves.

Now take a look at the comments: "I'm white but I don't like X", "This is racist","I am a racist", "Let's seriously discuss the cultural and political implications of this post" - people who don't get it.

The fact that something is popular tells us very little in itself. What matters is why it's popular.

What you're saying's important, but it's what people are hearing that counts.

* This is the basic principle behind creative advertising, right? - you can't stop people flexing their interpretive muscles, so you may as well direct them by giving them a little something to work out

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Ads not so bad

There's been much harrumphing recently about how badly we creatives are paid compared to our contemporaries in The City.

I'm not sure it's an apt comparison. Was investment banking ever really an option for too many of us?

In my first year of college, my lowest mark was in Commerce. In my final year of university, my grade in Commercial Law was almost bad enough to get me turfed out of honours. I realise a sample of one is far from scientific, but there's no way I was ever going to be writing the 'City Boy' column in my spare time.

It seems to me that, as a breed, we have more in common with other creative types like musicians than we do with bankers. In fact, probably half the creatives I've ever met outside of work have been musos.

On Saturday night I went to see The Zombies play at the Shepherd's Bush Empire. They were celebrating the 40th anniversary of Oddessy & Oracle, an album that routinely ranks along with Pet Sounds, Sgt Peppers and Highway 61 as one of the great albums of the 60s.

Yet within weeks of releasing the album, the band broke up. Despite already having a string of hits, including a US Number Two with "She's Not There", they simply weren't earning enough to live.

Singer Colin Blunstone went into the insurance business.

Suddenly, that latest round of client revisions doesn't look so bad.

Thursday, March 6, 2008

Boys and Girls

My (female) AD and I are freelancing at the moment, so we're coming into contact with a lot more other teams than we normally would.

On Monday, two new teams started at the agency we're with right now. And both of them are also, for want of a better term, co-ed (I thought about "transgendered", but that seems a little ambiguous).

I hadn't realised until they turned up how rare that was. I mean, I'd noticed that by far the majority of teams consist of two blokes, but it hadn't occurred to me that most of the rest of them comprise two girls.

In fact until Monday, I'd only ever met one other girl-guy team.

Why is that? Is it a social thing - guys just like hanging out with guys better? Or is it something about the male and female minds not generally gelling well together?

What do you think?

Tuesday, March 4, 2008


I've never got that thing where clients get praised for their "courage" when they buy a decent ad.

It seems to me to be setting the bar patronisingly low. Surely they're just doing their job properly?

But I must admit to a certain admiration for whoever bought the new poster campaign for Heinz "Tastes Like Home" soup. And for whoever sold it to them.

No photo, I'm afraid, but for anyone who hasn't seen them, the ads consist of a massive product shot with the headline printed as instructions or ingredients on the label. Stuff like "Ingredients: aunties and uncles who aren't really aunties and uncles". The strap is something like "one taste and you're home".

It's not brilliant, but it's good. And it pops like hell. Why? In large part because there's no logo. Because there's no logo, it doesn't look like an ad. And because it doesn't look like an ad, you look twice.

When you think about it, the omission is entirely logical. The product shot is, as i said, huge, so the viewer is in no doubt about what's being advertised. Why add another element that communicates no new information?

But logic is generally no match for habit. And clients habitually advocate for few things more stridently than their logo.

Someone here has had the balls to break with habit and dogma. And they've been rewarded with an infinitely more effective ad as a result.

Monday, March 3, 2008

Mad men overhyped?

Is it just me, or was anybody else underwhelmed by the much-vaunted Mad Men?

In comparison to recent shows like The Sopranos, The West Wing and Deadwood, it seems kind of old-fashioned and one dimensional.

And unlike those earlier shows, it doesn't seem to credit the viewer with a tremendous amount of intelligence to connect the dots - at least not if the pantomime winks at the audience about technology ("It's not as if there's some magic machine that makes perfect copies of documents"), future events ("It shouldn't be too hard to convince the nation that Richard Nixon is the next president") and social mores (here's hoping there's no more troweled-on irony from the closeted art director) are anything to go by.

Still, it's early days, and first episode was worth it for the wish-fulfillment scene where lead character and Creative Director Don Draper threw a tantrum at a new client and stormed out of the room.