Now, what is it exactly that we’re trying to sell here?

Whilst idly leafling through a certain publication at lunchtime [Management Today, since you asked], I realised that I had subconsciously skipped every single ad in my quest to find some editorial content of interest.

In short, I was consuming the medium of print like a normal human being.

Nothing particularly remarkable about that. And nothing particularly remarkable about the fact that not a single piece of advertising had caught my eye.

After all, we’ve banged on enough on this blog about how much vacuous wallpaper stuff there is around these days, so it’s hardly surprising that every execution went unnoticed, despite me working on the front line of the business and all that jazz.

Anyway, I thought I’d go back through the issue to see if any of the ads had redeeming features.

Nope, not really.

You could tell that whoever was involved had clearly put a lot of time, effort and money into making these ads. They were for big corporations with big budgets, not tinpot outfits with tuppence ha’penny to spend.

The ads weren’t exactly bereft of an idea or bereft of craft. They just weren’t very good.

I think part of the reason for that [and it might be just my own personal view of what makes for great advertising here] is that very few of the ads were actually focused on selling anything tangible, like a specific product.

They were more concerned with conveying some sense of the kind of brand that they wanted you to think that they were. A spirit, an attitude, a feeling, a way of life, for you the punter to buy into hook line and sinker.

Now, that’s all well and good. Nothing wrong with that you may say.

However, in the medium of print it’s a bloody difficult thing to capture and express something that is capable of building a real emotional connection with an audience.

So many companies these days seem intent on using advertising to convey a brand positioning rather than flog a product. That’s misplaced energy in our view as it’s an arse about face way of creating enduring relationships with customers.

We’re 100% with the grumpy sage Bob Hoffman when he says;

"We don’t get them to try our product by convincing them to love our brand. We get them to love our brand by convincing them to try our product."

The huge backward step of the new Apple campaign is an ‘Exhibit A’ case for the prosecution of putting brand over product. Style over substance.

I’m a big Apple fan and that campaign actually succeeds in making me feel less, not more, positive about them as a company. 

Fuck knows how it makes people feel who don’t currently have any Apple product. Confused? Ambivalent? Satisfied that they haven’t made such a smug choice?

I bet the one thing it doesn’t make them feel is any desire to go out and buy an Apple product.

I could cite plenty of other similar serial offenders on TV for the examples are legion in many an ad break. However, I’d rather not as even the act of recalling them is profoundly depressing and I'd like to finish this post.

Now, clearly there’s no right or wrong approach. We’ve said as much here.

But I can’t help feeling that there’s a lot of confused clients and agencies out there who have lost their way and ended up working back from communicating a brand purpose rather than starting with the question;

Now, what is it exactly that we’re trying to sell here?

You can often see the thought process on the page as these brand-y bollocks ads can’t avoid becoming anything but an expression of a meaningless, undifferentiating and clichéd corporate chest-beating straplines.

Going back to my one man print survey, here’s a few examples of some straplines I came across.

Go Further
Simply Clever
Brilliant For Business
Inspire The Next
Let’s Build A Smarter Planet
Amazing In Motion
Make It Matter

You what? The ads weren't for bleedin' NASA or anything.

I’d wager that only an idiot savant ad geek would be able to namecheck all the brands behind this cringeworthy puffery.

I’d also wager that they cut no ice with people in the real world and would be barely remembered at best or even attributed to the right brand.

The insular and self-obsessed worlds that many corporations operate in fail to recognise that most of these real world people don’t really give that much of shit about them in the first place.

Quite often in this business, it’s our job to do something interesting and make these people give that shit.

Starting from a standpoint of trying to communicate a brand positioning first usually means that this is actually less likely to happen.

It’s almost as if agencies have forgotten what the point of advertising is.

Which brings me back again to this key question.

Now, what is it exactly that we’re trying to sell here?


  1. I think agencies went from selling products to punters to selling bullshit to clients.

    And they've become very good at that.

  2. Have they though? Whilst the big networks appear to have done well financially out of selling bullshit, the flip-side is that most clients appear to (probably rightly) dislike agencies.

  3. Whether or not they are disliked is a different question. The question should be, are they making any profit with that? The answer to that is yes.

    Everyone, whether it's the agency or the client, is just trying to cover their asses. Do what the client says. Accept crappy ideas from the agency and run it.

    No one has the balls to speak up, because the first one who does usually is the one who gets to look for another job.

  4. I don't think agencies have forgotten. Or the creative department at least. I would bet my arse department that the creative department came up with better lines and ads than the ones that ran. It's just that the client either didn't know what a good ad was or they simply don't want good ads. My bet is all the best stuff is in the creative department's rubbish bins.

  5. Yeah, we need another Bill to go through our bins and get out the good bits.

  6. I don't think it's a particularly new thing that creative departments are coming up with better lines and ads than the ones that ran.

    There were still a lot of piss poor ads about in the glory days.

    What I do think has changed is agencies approach to the style of advertising that is being produced nowadays and the briefs that creatives are being tasked to answer.

    Advertising that focuses on touchy feely brand positioning stuff rather than compelling reasons to buy a product [either rational and emotional].

    And it's not clients who are to be blame for this. It's agencies who put profit before creativity.

  7. There appear to be people commenting here who are only too willing to pass the buck, or make excuses for shit work: It's the client's fault - waah, I did good work but it got binned - waah. But the agency is making a profit - waah! I don't want to get fired - waah!

    The best creatives have always not just come up with great creative work, but had the wit, guile, energy and balls to make sure it gets used.

    Apart from a very, very small amount of great clients, most have always needed convincing that what they want and what they need aren't necessarily the same thing.

    Maybe, as well as an era of profit-before-pride agencies, there is a current generation of creatives who don't have the balls to stand up for the right thing because they're too scared of getting fired.

    They don't even sound like creatives to me, just shiny-arsed office types, running scared like some cubicle-dwelling civil-servant. Read your Dave Trott, your David Ogilvy and your George Lois - and fucking man-up!

    Some Old Guy.

  8. I'm sorry but "Confessions of an Advertising Man" is the Mein Kampf of the industry. It's as self-referential as the stodgy, monolithic agency culture that Ogilvy's legacy spawned. If you have to read it, do so with the academic scrutiny of a historian, not as an aspiring creative. Or better still, as an easily impressed client.

    Let's find our own, new, better ways of working eh. Then we can finally relegate the industry's anxiety, self-loathing and alcoholism to the era and culture that created it.

  9. "Read your Dave Trott, your David Ogilvy and your George Lois - and fucking man-up!"

    And I assume you're one of them? Which fantastically great ad campaign have you managed to get past the PM, the CD, the client recently?

    Please tell me. Because honestly, I'm sick of people name dropping and going "Oh look, but they managed to do it! So you have no excuse left not to do it as well!"

    Get your head out of your own arse once in a while and stop giving us young people stupid ideas on how to completely alienate ourselves at work and stand up for "our ideals".

    I've been on the dole several times and I'd rather be a shiny-arsed office type than a depressed cunt, wasting away in my flat trying to get another job. When was the last time you had to look for another job?

    It's not like in the times of the people you mentioned, where ad agencies were the last resort of most rejects who couldn't make it anywhere else.

    This is just advertising. Most of it is shit and most people don't care either way. Take it for what it is and don't bloody glorify it like it's the be all end all of the human race.

  10. I'm afraid I have to respectfully disagree with this post. A lot of what you are saying is very applicable to selling products to consumers, but I'm guessing that since it's Management Today most of these ads were b2b.

    You mentioned the IBM line "Let's Build A Smarter Planet." I don't think that's a boring campaign.

    The line is actually a pretty good distillation of their proposition. They go into businesses and help them to automate and streamline processes. When you sell something like that the brand ad has to be the first stage in the sales funnel. The product is too complex and dry to be the hero. "Lets Build A Smarter Planet" is a hell of a lot more exciting than "X4303 Token Ring Ethernet Server" or whatever it is it actually says on their invoices.

    On top of that, they've actually done pretty well. They've turned something dry into something quite exciting. and cool, and imbued it with this exciting sense of contributing to human progress.

    You might argue that some grey suited logistics chief is unlikely to be swayed by this type of fluff, but I disagree. We're all human, and I think logic and emotion are equally important when it comes to persuasion. You make a man believe, then you give him the facts to justify it to himself and his money men (or his wife).

    Of course it all depends on the product and the brand. As in your excellent campaign for Fentimen's soft drinks, sometimes the product is the perfect hero.

  11. @ Anonymous 11:49

    Yes, I get good work out and have over the years too. It's not easy. All good creatives feel alienated sometimes or feel like the crazy guy in the room sometimes. Most good people have been fired at some point. I have. Maybe you're just not cut out for all that, that's okay. Not everyone has to be great. Some people are happy to be an average person doing poor work. It sounds like you're completely happy being average, you'd rather not lose your job. But that is part of the problem. You can't simply blame clients, when even the young creatives at their ad agencies are happy to do poor stuff.

  12. Fair do's, Ciaran. Thanks for the kind words about our Fentimans ads.

    I appreciate that there will always be times when it's not appropriate for the product to be the hero. And, as you state, that's probably the case with the IBM campaign.

    However, I'd argue that the same principles should still apply whether your advertising is consumer or B2B focused.

    You're still targeting people and need to get on their consideration list by making ads that are interesting and compelling.

    Most B2B advertising would be a hell of a lot better if creatives thought of that audience as being like consumers rather than some sort of business type alien species that they need to spout gobbledygook to.

    To that end, I totally agree with your point that grey suited logistics types are human and likely to be persuaded by logic and emotion. So are the other key decision-making management folk who don't fit into that stereotype [true as it may be].

    I just didn't see any evidence of that in a single ad when I went back through them.

    Nothing grabbed my attention as either ad bloke and business owner.

    I guess that's the real problem here.

  13. "Most good people have been fired at some point. I have."

    Right, because being fired automatically means you're great.

    I'm still waiting for any sort of link to your work. Put your money where your mouth is and shut up the annoying shiny-arsed office kid.

  14. Times have changed Some Old Guy. The guys you mentioned worked in a different age. An age when creative departments were respected and listened to. Now when one rages, one rages to an audience of none. No one gives a fuck about the advertising and if you rage and stand up for your idea you become an obstacle to them making money. And they have the power.
    It doesn't stop creatives doing good ads, it just stops them making them. Usually.
    Sometimes through serendipity, not tricks or standing up for yourself, you get one out and pick up a shiny object that no one else gives a fuck about.
    It's as much a cliché to say "Don't blame it on the client" as it is to blame it on the client.

  15. "You just don't get it, do you?"


  16. @Some old Guy

    No you don't.

  17. I rest my case, old guy.

  18. I'm not sure exactly what case you're resting there unfortunately. It appears your argument is based on justifying why it's okay for creatives or agencies to be producing crap. No matter how bad things have got, I've never heard a good creative try to justify bad work. If its 'just a job' to earn a bit of cash to you, that's part of the mess advertising finds itself in.

    I suggested above you read your Bernbach, Ogilvy, Lois - I'd add to that Trott, Henry, Abbott - read also Ed Morris' twitter. It's not about their era being different. If you actually read this stuff, rather than just soak up the sound bites that people shove out - you'll realise that it has always been hard for creatives and agencies to get the best work out. Apart from a handful of truly great clients, it has always been hard. That's what these greats understand - advertising isn't just coming up with ads, it's getting the right ads to run. Not everyone has the balls or the force of personality to do it, but you won't get anywhere moping around blaming your poor circumstances.

    On that note I'll leave you to your self-pity.

  19. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  20. @Some Old Guy
    No one's justifying why it's OK for agencies and creative to be coming up with crap. Because on the whole creative are not coming up with crap. They are coming up with not crap. I am explaining why ads these days are crap. It's never been more difficult to get a good ad out. Stand up for an ad in the old days and you were a passionate maverick who only wanted the best. Stand up for an ad these days and you're a problem.
    Compared to today those guys had it easy.
    Anyhoo we shall have to agree to disagree on this one.
    I shall leave you to your delusions.

  21. @Anon 17:45

    It's a sad state of affairs when the best chance a creative has of getting great work out is serendipity.

    Times may hay have changed but it's no wonder the advertising industry is in the shape it's in if its full of moany creative people with no hope who suck up the status quo and don't believe they have the power to make a difference.

    Your world-weariness of "it's never been more difficult to get a good ad out" is the kind of attitude that ultimately becomes self-fulfilling.

    And so the cycle continues...

  22. Where are all these passionate creatives? I see no great ads out there. Even Dave Trott doesn't seem to be throwing his toys out of the pram to get good ads out.
    All these people who talk the talk are not, as the evidence on our TVs and in our newspapers and on our computers tells us, walking the walk. But it doesn't stop them telling us to stand up for our genius ads, rage against the dying of the good ad, fight the good fight against clients, CDs, CEOs, planners and everyone else who's agenda is one of making money, not one of getting good ads out (in fact it is usually quite the opposite - getting bad ads out is actually the aim)and lose our jobs.
    No one's moaning at work. We're just writing our ads and getting them blown out, all the time aiming to write the best ad that's ever run. We are moaning on advertising blogs because franky, if you can't moan there, where can you moan?
    You speak as if we are deliberately trying to write bad ads. We're not. Ever brief is attacked as briefs always have been. With the aim of doing a great ad. The odds are stacked against us like never before and toss pots moaning about us moaning and offering simplistic solutions is fucking irritating. You exonerate everyone from blame but the creative. Not the client, not the planner, not the CD. No they have no influence. It's the creative's fault.
    As a very wise man once said, To every complex problem there is a
    solution that it clear, simple and wrong.
    There is no solution. They have won. We have lost. It's too fucking late. Accept it. Find creative outlets elsewhere and just carry on churning out routes and every now and then you'll get a good one through. By luck.

  23. Anon 12:04 , I feel very sorry for you that you see the situation as so hopeless. If you ever want to come and chat to some people who don't, then feel free to get in touch and pop by Sell! Towers for a restorative cup of tea and a chinwag.

    By the way, I don't think anyone here is exonerating everyone apart from the creative - far from it. Saying "don't blame the client" isn't saying the client isn't part of the problem, it's simply saying the problem doesn't only lie with the client.

    For what it's worth by the way, we work with some excellent clients here, who support challenging and unusual work. But that work doesn't always happen without difficult conversations and a lot of hard work from everyone involved to get that work run.


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