Thanks to Iain Hawk for drawing my attention to this article that The Independent, published yesterday. It’s mostly about the old advertising fraternity burying their heads in the sand and denying that the world is moving on. Frankly Martin Sorrell speaks the most sense. But John Hegarty makes a fair point too.
Why don’t we make good ads anymore?
Advertising is an art form but as consumers’ attention wanders, many of its practitioners fear that it’s no longer reaching the heights it was once capable of. So is the industry suffering an ideas crisis? Ian Burrell canvasses leading opinion.
SIR FRANK LOWE
Partner of The Red Brick Road
According to independent research by TGI (Target Group Index), the proportion of the audience who think that television ads are as good as the programmes has fallen from 32 per cent in 1991 to 15 per cent in 2006. Advertising is getting worse, and I would give five reasons why.
First, remuneration. In the past 20 years, this has dropped – according to the IPA (Institute of Practitioners in Advertising) charts – from an average of about 15 per cent of the total billing to 8.2 per cent. Of that 8.2 per cent, we must assume that at least 2 per cent goes to the agency’s holding group, so we are down at 6 per cent. It’s impossible to do consistently great work for 6 per cent because you can’t pay and recruit people properly.
Add to that the increase in the role of clients’ purchasing departments, who know nothing about advertising and buy creative work as if they were buying car bumpers. Paying by the hour doesn’t recognise the nature of creativity. How many hours did it take Terry Lovelock to write “Heineken refreshes the parts other beers cannot reach”? He wrote it in the middle of the night in the La Mamounia hotel in Marrakech. He woke up and wrote it by the bedside.
“Happiness is a cigar called Hamlet” was written by Tim Warriner when he lit up a cigar on the top deck of a London bus. How many hours was that? I found Stella Artois’s “Reassuringly expensive” in the body copy of a print ad written by Geoff Seymour. It wasn’t written as a line.
“Every little helps” for Tesco was written by Paul Weinberger between going in and out of the loo when we were having a drink at the Paxton’s Head pub in Knightsbridge. How does a procurement officer work out how much money you need for that and how valuable it is for the client? It could be worth hundreds of millions of pounds.
Second, investment. Agencies spend a far smaller percentage of their income on creative people than they used to. That has severely hampered the recruitment of talented people. There are many more exciting things to do than advertising: there’s new media, there’s making a fortune in the City, there’s opening a chain of restaurants.
Third, time. Everybody has less time to do anything. Nobody will make up their mind until the very last minute, and because research rules the roost you have to have a lot of different campaigns, from which you get a winner. You rarely get campaigns today like John Smith’s or Stella that run for years. Most people are in such a hurry that they sell a one-off script, which simply doesn’t build images.
Fourth, media. The divorce of media agencies (who plan advertising strategies) and advertising agencies (where the creative work is done) has been a disaster for the creative product. We now have a generation of media people who have nothing to do with the creative people, and vice versa.
And fifth, the parallel universe of planning. Good ads were originally a combination of the client’s knowledge and courage, the planner’s understanding of the consumer, the creative department’s intuition and the account person’s work as producer. Now, the planner works with the client and decides the strategy, which is then given to the creative department. If a creative disagrees, he’s normally told to get on with it. So many ads simply play out the strategy verbally and visually, without imagination. Advertising creative work has become more about information and less about persuasion.
In Britain, the TV creative revolution began 10 years after commercial TV started. Radio was not dissimilar and is still a mixed bag. New media has not yet had creativity applied with any degree of certainty, simply because the sector is new; while everyone says how important it is, we have not yet worked out how to use it. The consumers find it easier simply to ignore the ads or find something else to do. They can change to hundreds of channels, which they didn’t have until recently; they can turn to their computers, check their emails; get on their mobiles and start sending texts; and of course, with things like Sky+, you can simply avoid the ads. Years ago, people didn’t want to do that because they enjoyed the ads.
SIR MARTIN SORRELL
This sounds like a Lowe blow to me. Frank Lowe looks back with rose-tinted spectacles on the time when he was in charge. I’m not sure that’s fair. It depends on how you define creativity, and whether it is in the old, traditional sense of 30-second TV ads. The internet – there’s bags of creativity there, though it may not be the sort of creativity the old lags are used to.
I think it’s a bit stuffy, somewhat arrogant and old-fashioned to think about creativity as great television or press advertising. That’s still there, but creativity doesn’t just reside in the creative departments of ad agencies; it applies to direct agencies, PR agencies and social networking; the growth of MySpace, YouTube, Flickr, Facebook or Second Life are providing good examples of creativity that transcends what we were used to.
I think there are superb pieces of work being produced continuously, but in new clothes and in different ways. A lot of it is user-generated, which makes people in the industry uncomfortable. We’ve got examples of people making television work with mobile-phone cameras. It’s the same way that journalists feel threatened by citizen journalism.
In the design area, it might be product design, packaging design or branding and identity – a lot of the work is superb. Healthcare communications has become a very big category.
In the UK, internet is 20 per cent of total advertising. Worldwide it’s only 6 to 7 per cent, so the UK is very creative in the sense of its penetration of the direct interactive and internet market. Mobile, internet, iPods, video iPods and PVRs are all giving us opportunities and demanding more creative skills. If people skip ads with PVRs, it is beholden on us in the industry to be even more “creative” in the way we go about things.
So I would say a resounding “no” to the pessimists. It’s just old age that is grabbing us and making us cranky, though I would profess to not being as cranky.
Chairman and worldwide creative director, BBH
Would I say “crisis”? I think there’s a confusion around creativity in advertising. An enormous number of new media have opened up and as yet we are not absolutely sure how to use them.
When you create a piece of work, you have an instinctive understanding of the media and how people consume them. But online media is so new that it’s very difficult to understand absolutely how people are relating to it. When you paint a picture, you have years of understanding of how people approach paintings; when you write a television commercial, we have a plethora of information about how people are consuming it. We have had to move from a “learn and do” culture to a “do and learn” culture. In many ways it is very exciting, but some people find it quite unnerving and are not sure how to move forward, how to judge things, and whether something is good or bad. Time is the greatest of all critics.
If you look at the start of commercial television, there was great confusion. In essence, people ran visual printouts on TV, full of charts and words. It took some time before people understood that it was about telling a message in an entertaining way.
There is confusion now. Some will claim they have an intimate understanding of it all because everybody in advertising always claims an intimate understanding of everything. But with a medium as young as this, that’s absolute rubbish.
The eye has been taken off conventional media and is focused on new media. So there is less input and effort going into conventional media, and yet it is still incredibly powerful. A creative department has to ride a number of different horses.
Chairman and creative director, BMB
No, there is no creative crisis. Journalists are always keen to write up a crisis, and the ad industry has always liked to tell itself scary bedtime stories, the current one being digital.
Actually, there is no bogeyman. Blogging, by rank amateurs, is having an impact on journalism but there isn’t a blogging equivalent of adverts; people merely mash-up the existing work. There aren’t going to be people sitting around having ideas for chosen brands, whereas there are people blogging about any random thing.
If there is a situation in advertising, it’s time. There’s less thinking time to do the work now than we’ve ever had. Five years ago, there was creation time and then time to craft an idea. That’s now just sliced and sliced. Your first idea has to be the right one and there’s no time to craft it.
The world is accelerating at a rate of knots. Everything is about speed and the great boast is to be able to deliver faster. So some of the ideas are less considered and I think that’s a problem.
I think there are fewer great people coming into the industry because kids don’t want to work for companies of 300 people any more. The old model of starting as a junior, working up to MD and then starting your own company has gone. You can now start your own company with a laptop and a mate.
But I don’t think advertising is any more in crisis than the film industry or journalism. Everyone can write a blog, everyone can be an art director, everyone can be anything at the moment. Those who have the best ideas and execute them the finest will be the winners. I think it’s great.
Chairman and CEO, AMV Group
I think the best agencies always have a healthy paranoia about the work. We certainly do in our agency. I say “healthy” because it’s an ambition and an enthusiasm to do better. Great work comes from a confident, positive environment and outlook. Fear stifles creativity. Could we all do better? Sure. We had no sooner won the Cannes Grand Prix for Guinness than we were talking about what the next winner in the stable could be.
The bar is always rising. Every award show leaves us thinking that we could and should raise the game, individually and collectively. The British agencies did well at Cannes and in the Gunn awards last year. It will be interesting to see how we fare this time.
Is there a creative crisis? No. There’s huge creative ambition, a great big digital opportunity landscape, brave clients and talented, enthused and ambitious people to keep the standards ever higher.
Creative director, Chick Smith Trott
There used to be a time when it was all about breaking boundaries, being revolutionary and getting talked about. Now, it’s about making money. The people that everybody admires most are the people who are making the most money.
Mechanically, why this has happened is that you have clients and account men much more involved in handling, overseeing and judging the advertising. It used to be much simpler. The job in the creative department was to get seen and get remembered. Now, you have great industries involved in research and checking every comma. What we have lost is the immediacy, the energy and spontaneity.
I teach a lot at art schools on advertising courses. It used to be that if you wanted to be successful in business you went to university, and if you were a rebel or a reject you went to arts school. All the exciting people that came to creative departments from arts schools were rebels and rejects.
Nowadays, the ones I teach are asking for permission, asking what you are allowed to do in advertising. They are trying to copy what has been done and are asking me questions about how much you make and how much it costs. Everything is money-centred.
But it goes in cycles. It’s just a low in the cycle, not a crisis. Look at the Government. Creativity is different shades of grey, but how much is there to choose between Blair and Cameron? Advertising doesn’t lead, it reflects what is going on. It’s the same with music; everything’s grey for a bit and then you get black and white.
I think it can get considerably worse yet before it will change, at least for another five years. There’s not even universal agreement yet on the dullness, and whether there is any problem. As long as people can see there’s money to be made from doing it this way, people will do it this way.
Chairman, Leagas Delaney
I think of the position that London advertising had in the world. Even though we still win international awards, we only have to look at advertising on any channel to know that it has changed. Even the agencies that are supposed to be fantastic are only fantastic in patches.
The young agencies don’t do great work any more, which always used to be the way a young agency became a great agency and eventually sold itself. You stood out, you were braver, you had the ideas you couldn’t have in a bigger agency. That model doesn’t seem to work any more. There are young agencies that have grown and everybody says: “Yes, but the work is rubbish.”
Technology has meant that clients can put together ads on a Mac or PC. They just raid an image bank, type in a headline and say: “This is what I’m thinking.” If you send something down, they can just replace the picture.
So, the “what’s going on in the kitchen?” feeling has been taken away. I’m not saying that what we do is black magic, but you need some mystery. And there is a mystery. Not everyone can create mass communications.
What’s happened since the Saatchis started buying agencies and Martin Sorrell did it properly is that the conglomerates own 85 per cent of the business. The big companies are about heavy-duty results. They have got to have quarterlies. Big agencies set the tone, and if they set a financial tone, they change the nature of the business. The overall effect could be debilitating for creative people.
And the digital revolution has thrown a new group of people into the creative arena, who are not necessarily ideas-driven but are geeky or digitally driven.
I do not believe what they keep writing in America, which is that advertising is dead. We just added 10 more media options to the five we already had. That doesn’t change our expertise or mean that other people can do it better than we can and we are going to die because consumers are going to make everything.
Managing partner, Fallon
Do I think there’s a crisis? No – but there are too many agencies in the UK, and there are too many agencies focusing on their clients’ comfort zones rather than on the brand’s success. The result of that is, at best, instantly forgettable creativity.
The creative side of the industry is not in crisis – it’s just not as good as it could be. There’s creativity wherever you look across all the platforms, including the digital space, and there is still a body of clients who believe it’s a hard currency, not a soft currency. We have Sony, Orange, the BBC and Asda, who all think that.
There’s a legacy and received wisdom that London is the headquarters of creativity, and with that comes an inbuilt arrogance and sometimes complacency. There are parts of the world, especially South and North America, that are producing really interesting work but don’t get as much airtime as London. So there’s a “watch out” for London. If the industry starts believing its own hype, that’s dangerous.
But if we believe that keeping creative standards as high as possible is a long-term business proposition for an agency, which I do, there has never been a better time to be in this business.
Executive creative director, Wieden + Kennedy London, and president of the D&AD creative awards
All we are doing is going through a transitional period. We have been through a technical revolution. Now we consume media differently. Kids rarely watch TV and get what they want online, a lot of it is open-sourced.
So the more traditional forms of advertising and the people who have worked in them need to adapt. It’s the same as when television started – nobody wanted to be part of it and everybody said radio was better. In the same way that you understand how television works, you should understand how the web works.
What is creativity in advertising? We used to think of it as posters, press, TV and radio. I now think of it as anything that affects that brand.
Advertising is when you are given a business problem by a client and asked to solve it. There shouldn’t be any media attached to it. You should be able to do advertising for any brand, at all relevant levels.
If you stopped the whole of the advertising industry doing TV, press and radio and said, “Right, you are only doing websites,” they’d get on with it and start thinking of ideas. Many companies are already doing it.
The actual opportunities for creativity at the moment, with media wide open in front of us, are huge. It used to be that you had to have a load of money to advertise. You don’t now. Performers such as the Arctic Monkeys and Lily Allen have built their reputations via the web.
Executive creative director, TBWA\London
There’s a watershed – and not before time because the model we’ve worked to is flawed.
In future, we are going to be creating content that in effect turns brands into media themselves. Take our campaign for PlayStation3. We have short films in cinemas, on TV, as virals. We are creating a piece of content and the process isn’t dissimilar to creating a TV programme or a film.
People want to be entertained; they don’t want to be sold to using the old advertising model. It’s about competing for people’s time, and the competition for ads is not going to be other ads – it will be films, albums, books, TV programmes. This is the fundamental change that’s going on.