"Remember Those Great Books About Those Great Volkswagen Ads?"

At the weekend I had the pleasure of meeting Alfredo Marcantonio and John O'Driscoll, two of the authors (along with the late, great David Abbott) of the seminal book about the seminal VW ads (that's a two-seminal sentence). And very nice gentlemen they are too, not least because it turns out that they regularly read this blog (hello gents!). They have released an updated edition of the book, with new material and improved images of some of the ads. Well worth getting even if you're lucky enough to already have a copy of the original...

Read it again and ask yourself the difficult question: Is advertising going backwards?

Advertising Is Losing Maverick Thinking - What's The Solution?

It's a well discussed topic that the advertising business is suffering from a lack of the maverick and challenging thinking that has traditionally given it it's edge.

You need the mavericks - they're the ones who ask the difficult questions, and who won't accept the lazy or easy answer.

"All progress depends on the unreasonable man" as George Bernard Shaw said.

You can point to a number of reasons why this might the case.

Within agencies, things like agencies increasing in size meaning they have become more like huge corporate structures, or the pressure of holding companies leading to a 'play-it-safe' mentality.

And bigger, societal factors like the economic pressures and a less buoyant jobs market meaning people are scared to risk their jobs or their income. But being outspoken and maverick in ad agencies used to be a positive quality. Why is it now seen as a bad thing? Why do people now feel at risk if they poke their head above the parapet and question the status quo?

Certainly most mainstream agencies are largely led these days by the boring wankers who greased their way up the pole without upsetting anyone over the last ten or fifteen years. And sometimes it's self-perpetuating – mavericks like and hire other mavericks – these civil-service types hire and promote other grey, smiley yes-men.

But advertising is a worse business for it. And the value to businesses is diminished as a result. Ad agencies used to be a kind of way of gently cradling the creative mavericks needed to get something great – businesses could access that thinking from people who they would never employ directly.

But now agency people are largely hard to distinguish from people in other businesses.

How does the ad agency break out of this cycle?

I'd love to hear your thoughts, dear readers.

My suggestion is the same for a lot of these problems: the good people should start their own agencies.

Ad Of The Week

Another corker from Channel 4.

Smart, simple and highly impactful.

Building Real Brands: The Difference Between Building A House, And Painting A Picture Of A House.

The latest in our best of the blog series...

Much of advertising and marketing has developed into the study of brands. But are marketers and advertising people over-obsessing about brands?

That's possibly a controversial statement I realise, the kind of statement that is often met with You just don't get it or pitying shakes of the head. Because obsession with brand is the 21st century advertising and marketing business.

But whilst I totally agree that a 'strong brand' - a brand with positive associations and that people trust or believe in - is important, I'm not so sure I agree with the current thinking of how they are built. 

Marketing and advertising people, and 'brand consultants' increasingly measure things like the above; trust, positive associations, etc. - the kinds of things that cumulatively tend to be known as 'brand saliency'. That might be a useful barometer of where the brand is at, but it's only one half of the story.

People outside of marketing departments in client companies understandably get twitchy when those things become the sole measure of marketing or advertising success. After all, they're used to measuring things like growth, profit margin, market share and 'gasp' - sales.

The trouble is, when people become over-obsessed with the measures of brand saliency and related soft measures, these are then often subsequently taken to be the 'end game' - brand saliency becomes the ultimate aim, rather than a useful barometer. Brand saliency becomes what people call a 'false proxy' - something we can measure, but that in itself isn't actually success.

What do I mean by that? Well, good advertising and marketing people are well aware that strong brand saliency and business success tend to go hand-in-hand. There is a strong correlation between brands with a strong image and positive associations, and brands that are commercially successful and strong in their category.

The big mistake being made by marketing, advertising and branding professionals is in the blanket assumption that the brand saliency was the cause of the business success, and not simply a correlation.

That is to say - doing well the things that build commercial success, also tends to build alongside it a strong brand. While there are exceptions to this line of thinking on both sides (brands with strong saliency that go out of business, and brands with poor saliency that are commercially successful) in the era of the cult of brand, the assumption and belief from marketing, advertising and branding professionals is that this purely happens one-way - that strong brand saliency causes commercial success. But I'm not so sure it always happens that way around.

So what happens next in their line of thinking is, these people have decided that to build a commercially strong brand, you need to use your advertising to build saliency. And if you want good saliency measures as results, you put in stimulus designed to increase them. So the obsession becomes with 'brand' and its attributes, personality, emotions, trust - the soft measures.

Today, most branding experts and advertising experts alike will tell you that your marketing and advertising budget should be spent building these things. But in effect they are often just 'gaming' the system of measurement ("Yay, look our saliency is great!"). Not actually brand building.

Unfortunately this a very 21st century type of problem. Much like a lot of current popular culture, it's all about facade and light on the substance. But whilst it's fine for a modern pop star or slebriddy to have a fleeting, mayfly-like moment in the sun, we expect the money we spend on building a brand to have a lasting, commercial effect.

Just like vacuous celebrities, building a brand 'outside-in', image first, isn't very robust. And just like celebrities, those with some actual substance and robust foundations (in the case of celebrities, read 'talent') at their heart will outlast and endure.

The 21st century approach to brand building is like the wannabe pop star who, noting that Tina Turner wears high heels and a sparkly dress, spends all their time at the mall, working on their outfit.

In this industry we spend a vast amount of time studying successful brands. When you look at the strongest and most enduring brands, it's clear that most have what we would consider to be strong brand saliency.

But what is often dangerously overlooked in this era of the cult-of-brand, is that their success has often been built over time by people buying, and continuing to buy – and use, and be satisfied with, that brand's product or service.

And that, in turn, that good saliency we can observe and measure in those successful brands, has been generated by that continued purchase, use of, and satisfaction with, those brands' products and services.

Those are very robust foundations. And often, when we observe the saliency of these brands, we don't realise that that saliency wasn't created by the things we now call 'brand building', it was built by promising and delivering something of substance.

It's easy to overlook the fact that often the marketing and advertising that built those strong brands was used to communicate why people would benefit from the product or service of that brand, and reminding them to use it.

To (badly) paraphrase Bob Hoffman, people grow to 'love' those brands because they buy those brands' products (and are satisfied with them), they don't buy their products because they love the brand.

So when you take a step back, we might ask ourselves if where marketing and advertising people are going wrong, is that they have the causes and effects mixed up.

That in a world where all categories and products are different, where reasons and impetus for buying are different - complex combinations of rational and emotional reasons - that the blanket assumption that the best way to build strong brands, is by using the advertising for brand-building - attitude pieces, rebrands and emotional, please-like-us brand-led advertising, is possibly a little naive. And maybe, an extremely bad use of a lot of valuable budgets.

That, in effect, it's like the difference between building a house out of bricks, mortar, wood and nails – or painting a picture of a house.

In advertising agencies of the 21st century, people seem to be spending an awful lot of money painting pictures.

Maybe those advertising budgets should be used to actually build instead?

First published 29.01.2014

Holy mother of music videos

Goosy this video by .

"...the final effects and colortunings were done with a magnet on an old VHS Tape and were composited in an extensive post-production to achieve the effect of a VHS Image in Full-HD Resolution".

Not sure what that means, but it seems to have worked really well. 
It looks fecking fentastic and made me dizzy to the point of almost falling off my seat. 
If you're looking to have your eyes massaged and your back nearly broken, watch it.  

Dave Dye Talks To Lenny Sirowitz

If you work in advertising or marketing, or are student of either, there's only one place to spend your time on the internet today, and that isn't this blog, it's here - Dave Dye's fantastic interview with Lenny Sirowitz. Lenny, in Dave Dye's words: Hired by Bernbach in the fifties. Ran VW in the sixties. Set up his own shop in the seventies. Now in his eighties. One of the finest Art Directors ever.

This is inspirational stuff, a must read if you're in the business of coming up with and making advertising. I was blown away by the body of work. Such a huge amount of top drawer stuff. One of the biggest things I took out of them was the simplicity of thought, and the economy of both word and design. Any of these great ads would be the best ad in the paper or magazine if they ran today.

Please do head over there and feast your eyes and mind.

Just a taster...

Masashi Wakui

This week we're loving the photography of Masashi Wakui. His moody street shots of Japan are lovely. They have a warm, cinematic feel that make you want to hop on the first plane to Japan and star in your very own Lost In Translation. 

It's worth hitting up his flickr and viewing his photos as big as possible, perhaps with a Suntory in hand.

Øivind Hovland Illustration

Let's start the week with some illustration. The strong illustration of Øivind Hovland in particular. I'm a fan of his work, which has a timeless quality to it. In general I'm quite cautious about how and where to use illustration in advertising, because I find that often where I see it used, illustrative style shrouds what the image is trying to communicate. But I can imagine Øivind's work being very effective in the right context. You can see more of his work here.

Lovely Letterpress Posters By Delicious Industries

Our good friend and talented designer, typographer and printmaker Judith Wilding AKA Delicious Industries has just completed these lovely letterpress posters for Ditchling Museum of Art and Craft.

Ditchling is a small village in East Sussex, which has always attracted talented designers and craftspeople. It was the home of legendary type designers Eric Gill and Edward Johnston, and the base from which they created their famous work – Ditchling Museum celebrates the work of these giants of design and type history.

The museum has its own print room with its own historic type library, and Judith wanted to use these to produce the Museum's own promotional posters. The series of six was designed by Judith to use the type from their library, which she then personally letter-pressed in her studio.

It's great to see wood-block letters used in a way other than set in horizontal rows, and posters produced straight off-the-press in this way, with no digital post or manipulation. If you've ever worked with wood type and letterpress (as we have on our print advertising for Fentimans) you'll know how much skill it takes to set type like this and get the feel that these have. Lovely stuff, hats off.

Buddy Rich Drum Solo

This is us in Sell! Towers today... happy Wednesday...

Are Professionals Killing Marketing And Advertising?

Today Marketing Magazine published a good article by Craig Mawdsley about over-professionalism in marketing getting in the way of creating great advertising, a subject we agree with, but believe isn't just confined to marketing departments, but agencies as well. So we thought it would be a good day to reprise our post on the subject...

I was following some chatter on the old internet earlier, instigated by Armando Iannucci asking "Has politics actually come to an end? I'm serious. Does it work any more?".

Someone replied "What's Poisoned politics is the professionalisation, people going into politics for life. It's not normal." Someone else added "Politics has replaced government - politicians who know how to play the game, but no idea how to make things actually work".

I think there is some scary truth in that. Governments used to be made up of principled individuals who had a vision for how to make life better, and how to get there. But now it seems like the debate is more important than the subject being debated. Being seen to do the right thing is more important than doing the right thing.

I don't think that it's a problem exclusive to politics.

We live in the era of professionals. You can see it in business, in organisations like the FA and, unfortunately, in advertising and marketing.

When I first came into advertising, people who had studied marketing at college or university were few and far between. Almost every marketing person you met had come up through the organisation, and ended up there because they were good at it. Generally they had a great grasp on the realities of their business.

Now, almost every marketer you meet is some kind of marketing graduate. They are trained in theory, charts, diagrams, powerpoint.

I remember the hilarity when we saw our first Brand Onion - what a crock we all thought. But it was the exception. Now every brand has a brand onion. Or a pyramid, or a doughnut.

When we used to present work, you looked for a visceral reaction in the client. An understanding of why something would work.

Now, you just sense a series of check-boxes being mentally ticked off.

But this isn't just confined to the client side. Oh, no. Agencies used to be the stamping ground of interesting, lively dangerous free-thinkers and do-ers.

Agencies are now largely staffed by advertising's version of corporate drones. Advertising civil servants.

And people who have played it safe are at the top of the business. They have smarmed and politicked their way there, they kept their heads down and made the right moves. They didn't upset people, they didn't take risks, they just greased their way up the pole. They keep the holding company happy.

How someone can be professional in the field of advertising I have no idea. The best advertising comes from people who walk in every morning with no idea how they ended up there, and no idea how they came up with their last good idea. And if youdo approach something in some organised, structured process, I guarantee the result will look like exactly that.

We got an email the other day from some young person who said their life's ambition was to be an account manager. Fuck me. Poor bastards.

It's not just confined to the accounts side. Never has the ad industry's creative departments been inhabited by such a professional, organised, uninspiring lot. Who are these people who decided at age 17 that they wanted to be a creative? They scare the living shit out of me. This isn't like being a doctor you know, you can't learn it at college. What life experience and lively thinking has someone to offer who has been training themselves in the business of being a creative for the last five years?

I had one of those pointless internet exchanges with a creative the other day, because they wouldn't accept that there might be another formula to creating good advertising other than the one they were taught on their ad course.

In the end you have bow out of these things and allow them the last word, after all, as someone much more funny than I once said "The problem with arguing with stupid people is that they drag you down to their level, and beat you with experience'.

And to be fair, they weren't stupid, far from it. They were just a product of a world where professionalism, knowing how, doing it right, going by the rules, playing by the book, are encouraged.

We live in the era of professionals in advertising.

But, and I know I've asked this question before.

If people now are so much better trained, clued-up - professional - then how come almost all advertising is absolute crap?

The answer... No matter how hard you try, you can't professionalise your way to great advertising.

First published 15.5.13