It’s not often that I greet the front page of Campaign with a whoop of joy.
Normally the news is pretty miserable, as accounts move around as urgently as a small ugly guy at an orgy.
What raised my whoop was a picture of one of HHCL’s most interesting campaigns (the “slag of all snacks ” for Pot Noodle) and the line “Is this the bravest ad ever made ?” Aha, I thought. Recognition – applause – all good Lemmon Quaaludes for my status addiction.
But as is often the way in life, my lip-slavering was to be followed pretty sharpish by a slap round the chops. Because although the main article by James Denton Clark was asking some great questions, my mood was deflated as fast as a fat man on a faulty space hopper when I carried on reading.
My old mucker Jon Burley, who wrote some amazing campaigns at HHCL, said some brilliant and lovely things, although I wouldn’t have used the phrase “gleefully celebrating the inherent vileness of the dehydrated filth it was trying to sell” myself. We celebrated all we could celebrate in the product, which was its addictive taste hit – we’d finally persuaded the clients not to whitewash the message with some adland weaselling around claims for high fibre etc.
That campaign was actually one of the first to celebrate with humour and courage a self-deprecating AND HONEST way of talking about a product. Several years before the brilliant Skoda campaign from Fallon, for instance.
But what worried me more were the words from Andy Sandoz.
Let me say immediately that Andy is one of the good guys … an immensely talented and visionary man … but I got straight onto him because his comment really worried me.
Andy wrote that the campaign had led to “tanking sales” It turned out that he was merely repeating some gossip that was going round when the account moved on (a couple of years AFTER this campaign ran).
But phrases like “tanking sales” are always the spectre at the feast of great work. They’re the way the ad industry gives itself an excuse for not caring or fighting enough for great work.
“That brave stuff doesn’t work – let’s just do the average shit again.”
It’s a long time ago and I can’t remember all the details – but this industry loves to bitch. It would rather snipe and hope that by undermining a particular relationship, that it will pick up some scraps from any fallout … like a bunch of hyenas in Boss suits. (Which is as good a definition of a new business department as you’re likely to find this year.)
I’ve spent most of my career defending HHCL from accusations of irresponsible wackiness – because we had processes in place that helped produce work that was stand-out AND effective in the market-place.
So let’s look at the gossip at the time, which insinuated that the work hadn’t worked because mums buy the product more than kids.
But it’s much more complicated than that.
“Slag” ran for two years before we then ran an even bolder campaign about people “having the Pot Noodle horn” – a campaign which was even more out there, even braver and funnier, than the “slag” work.
I.e., we kept on doing work aimed more at kids’ sense of humour.
Because firstly – mums have a sense of humour. Secondly – mums recognise when you talk to kids that that tone is going to be appropriate to kids. (To take a brilliant example – Lynx.). Thirdly – kids eat the stuff and funnily enough they don’t want campaigns that talk the same language as their mums.
Look what’s happening to Facebook now – it’s losing currency with kids because Mums are on it.
So you have to tread a thin but fascinating line.
If you buy the usual crass research findings that mums are stupid and humourless – well, good luck advertising to them.
To be fair, Andy did say “ultimately tanking sales” – which reduces the criticism to being merely pretty meaningless rather than actively damaging. That’s like saying that the surreal poster campaign for B&H “ultimately” led to declining sales of those cigarettes – completely ignoring time and a long list of other contributing factors.
At the time it ran, that campaign provided a huge boost for Pot Noodle in a very difficult market-place – and won an internal award from Unilever as their best advertising globally that year. Even more importantly, it pushed the boundaries of advertising, it explored new ways of communicating using honesty and humour. It did what creativity is supposed to do, it got talked about by being different in a way which resonated with the target market.
It genuinely pioneered a more honest and accountable approach, too.
So there will always be people who say “Sony Balls didn’t work” or “Cadbury’s Gorilla didn’t work” – and there are discussions to be had around all outstanding pieces of creative work, sure – but unless that person’s take-out ultimately is that such innovative work is better than the average crap the industry produces … don’t listen to them.
They’re what Jerry Della Femina called “killers”, people who make a career out of saying No.
Now, Andy isn’t a killer. In fact he’s one of my favourite people in the whole god-forsaken industry. But if this industry is ever going to get its cojones back – a weekly theme in Campaign – it has to start by celebrating what is great and interesting ….
In the world advertising needs to inhabit – of prototyping, experimenting, pushing – you would see a lot more innovative work like “slag of all snacks”.
But if “brave” is equated with stupid rather than with intelligent, which is what that piece seemed to suggest – maybe that’s because people have forgotten the point of being brave. Which is to produce work that breaks through the massive indifference most people feel for advertising.
You don’t do brave work to win awards or lark about. You do it if you want work that works.
But maybe adfolk are scared of everything these days – including their own shadow, coming towards them.
The shadow of Google.
This used to be an industry that was creative and had fun and took risks. But it seems pretty miserable now.
And no wonder 90% of it is shit. (The opinion of, among other people, John Hegarty, Dave Droga, and your humble blogger.)
Someone was quoted in Campaign the other day saying that 90% shit levels are OK, because that’s true of everything in life.
a. I don’t agree.
b. Remind me not to go round to their place for dinner.