The not so Mad Man

Maybe the Mad Men weren’t as mad as we thought.

I was prompted to think this by meeting my old friend and former creative director Andrew Cracknell, for a burger up the Brompton Road.

Like most old friends having dinner, we argued like cat and dog.

If you can imagine a cat and a dog quoting Evelyn Waugh and Bill Bernbach at each other while attempting to flirt with the waitress.

It was great fun, and Andrew ended the meal by giving me an article that described the great Carl Ally giving an extraordinary speech.

Andrew is the world expert on America’s real Mad Men, and Carl Ally is now his favourite of them all – above even Bernbach.

At his peak, Ally was renowned for flirting and drinking at championship level, and even having fist fights with his clients. He was larger than life in a way that now seems unreal.

And occasionally he gave speeches. The theme of all of them was about “being in the agency business and maintaining your self-respect and your determination to say and do what you think is right –  whatever the cost”.

Integrity, in other words.

And in one speech in 1974 he launched into an extraordinary topic for such a man – a thorny but favourite topic of mine,  the potential for advertising to solve global problems, not add to them.

Speaking more than 35 years ago, his words seem more relevant now than they would have done back then.

For instance – “80% of the world is  in so much trouble it’s appalling … We have mislaid our priorities so badly we are now going to have to pay for it. The single-minded pursuit of personal or national affluence at the expense of others will have to go. … We’ll have to develop a new ethos … because all the people of the world are chained together at the legs, the well-being of all must be important to each of us. Some force must portray the saving, collective effort, and that’s us. The character of advertising will change because the character of society will change … I no longer believe in the affluent man who exists at the suffrance of the poor man”.

He’s knocked over a whole stack of cans of  worms there.

I’m fond of using two quotes when I give speeches – one which typified 1980s advertising in Britain – “it’s not enough to win, somebody else has to lose” – and a contrasting one which I consider more contemporary  – ”nobody wins unless everybody wins”.

But Carl Ally was talking about all this – to an audience of admen – in 1974.

He was talking way before any of us knew about the internet. (This is from Wikipedia:  Use of the term “Internet” to describe a single global TCP/IP network originated in December 1974 with the publication of RFF 675, the first full specification of TCP that was written by Vinton Cerf, Yogen Dalal and Carl Sunshine, then at Stanford University. How would you like a name like Carl Sunshine ?)

But the “chained at the legs” bit is now the internet. That’s why its existence is so closely tied in with notions of open sourcing, from Tim Berners-Lee onwards.

Where this gets really interesting, however, is in how we could apply this thinking to our commercial requirements.

After all, what is a brand ?

Something you trust, something that you feel has integrity.

How many brands has the ad industry really helped to create ?

We might all have different answers, but the three brands which are normally trumpeted are Apple, Virgin and Nike.

I’ve always felt that their success has been because they fought a battle on behalf of the consumer, at least when they first launched.

Apple pitted itself against Microsoft’s drive for world domination; Virgin took on and exposed BA’s arrogance; and Nike fought a battle against … our own laziness. When there are so many temptations to slob out and get fat, Nike was a massively positive conscience (although it could only do this by being ultra-cool and non-preachy).

So if the most successful brands somehow makes us feel that they are “on our side”, that we are “in this together”, then surely bringing this ethos to any brief you’re working on can only be good, can’t it ?

Particularly in the present world of online communities.

And if you could  do that BEFORE your competitor …

  • Michael Wharton

    ‘A burger up the Brompton Road’? Sounds like a euphemism (especially given Cracknell’s presence).

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