The thinwa

When Sir John Hegarty says something, it’s always worth listening to. He’s probably the pre-eminent advertising creative of this generation.

So I was rather taken aback to see on the front page of last week’s  Campaign that he was advocating having me shot.

I’d opened my front door and stepped into a surprisingly chilly Thursday morning when there it was, on my doorstep – the “thinwa”, which I’ll call it, as opposed to a fatwa, in deference to John’s eternally trim waistline.

Now, to be fair, the copy read “whoever invented tissue meetings should be taken out and shot” and I can’t claim to have personally invented the tissue meeting. That was Jay Chiat, the legendary US adman, who can’t be taken out and shot, because he’s dead already.

But the fact that within a couple of pages John referred to them as “completely stupid”, “a bloody tissue meeting” and “a sodding tissue meeting”, shows his level of frustration. And HHCL was the first agency to import the idea to London.

So let me, in the interests of fair play, and pandering to the desires of adfolk to see 2 old fogeys doff their jackets in the car park, attempt to answer the point he’s making.

The first thing to say is, he’s right.

Tissue meetings, as they are now used, make it much harder for agencies to sell brave creative work to clients ….But the second thing to say is that nobody uses them as they’re supposed to be used.

It’s no good doing what all agencies do now, which is troop in, run through 4 ideas and ask the client what they think. You have to have a strong opinion on which ideas are most interesting, you can only present great work,  and you must use the tissue structure as a series of stepping stones to push as far as possible.

And I think the key point is this – tissue meetings didn’t suddenly introduce client involvement in the creative process. That was happening anyway. Tissue meetings were just a recognition that you were better off working with that, rather than against it.

They need to be a way of showing a client what they expect to see – the brief answered – and then taking them on a guided tour of more exciting alternatives.

John talks about Leonardo da Vinci not going to a “sodding tissue meeting”, but he had powerful patrons – and they had powerful opinions. I always loved the New Yorker cartoon of a Renaissance artist showing his patron his latest work and the patron saying “Give me more angels and make them more pleased to see me”.

But how much involvement Renaissance patrons had is academic anyway, because these days, clients are incredibly involved in the creative process – and it’s very difficult to change that. All you can do is play the game as well as you can.

Let me give you a concrete example. When Fuji came to HHCL, their brief to us was about “the quality of light” in their photographs. This made very little sense to us, but we went back with an idea that answered that. We also went back with three other ideas. The best one was a campaign which said “photographers can change the world for the better”, involving social issues like racism and the treatment of the mentally handicapped.

That was the one the client loved, and it became famous and very successful for them. I honestly don’t think that could have been sold to a client who’d given us a brief about “the quality of light”, WITHOUT the tissue process.

I always use this (unfortunately, rather prosaic) analogy to explain it. If I brief a decorator in the morning to paint my kitchen magnolia and I go back in the evening and it’s purple, I wonder what the hell is going on. But if the painter has done one bit in magnolia and then, to show me how unexciting that is, done other bits in yellow, orange and purple, we can go on this journey together and explore more interesting options.

It’s the best way I know of moving into fresh, uncharted territory. As a result, HHCL created a decade of among the most irreverent work ever produced in British advertising – and irreverence is what John quite rightly points out is at the heart of great creativity.

In advertising it’s quite often about how you work with clients that determines how good the final work is.

And despite the vitriol heaped on them, if they’re used properly, tissue meetings can work incredibly well.

And the final thing to say is that right now it’s very difficult to sell outstanding work. So I absolutely share John’s frustration.

I think the bigger problem (which is behind the frustration of anybody who genuinely cares about creativity in advertising – and I include all seven of us in that) isn’t about trying to work collaboratively with clients to get outstanding and brave creativity.

The bigger problem is short-term financial greed. To sell great creative work you have to care more about the idea than the income – it’s as simple as that.

You can see this greed everywhere. In agencies undercutting each other financially to win pitches, taking dictation from clients just to keep the retainers rolling in, and going for a quick sell to a network on the basis of pure financial performance, rather than any attempt to raise the creative bar.

The industry has become about money, way above creativity – and it has to be a balance of both.

So, I agree with you John. Lots of things in the article had me thumping the table  in passionate agreement.

(Which is not easy, and a little embarrassing, on a Tube train at 8 in the morning.)

The creative product of ad agencies should be treated with much more respect than it is. We need to learn how to respect the creative temperament for its own sake.

Creativity is the most valuable asset in our industry, but it’s never been less respected than it is now.

Tissue meetings can help the process, but of course they should never be mandatory – agencies should have the right to say “we’ve only got one  idea with us today and that’s what we think you should buy” .

We need to explore all the different options, to try to get creativity back at the core of our industry.

Now, will you call off the hitmen, or do I have to go into hiding in a time-share in north-west Abbotabad ?

  • CopyBeard

    So do you usually take a little table with you on the tube for the specific purpose of thumping? Is this something all creatives should do? 😉

  • Stan

    I’m with you but, just for the record, if Fuji had bought your idea about better light, would you have been happy?

    Because of course, you have to be happy to make everything presented.

    But, you can’t have more than one favourite…

  • Stan

    I’m with you but, just out of interest, if Fuji had bought your idea about better light, would you have been happy?

    Because you’ve got to be happy to make everything presented.

    But you can’t have more than one favourite…

  • Steve Henry

    Stan, hi. We gave them the best idea we could come up with on light. But we made it clear that it wasn’t our recommendation. We had a favourite, which was the route we recommended, and which was the one they bought.

  • michael hills

    A few years ago, a new agency trying to make a name for itself took a banking product and developed a new campaign which they then splashed all over 48-sheet posters. The visuals had no bearing whatsoever on the product and the posters contained no message either – the agency explained that the client just wanted ‘publicity’ so as long as the product’s name came across nothing else mattered. Of course a lot of clients may have looked at this and reached the fairly understandable conclusion that in advertising, therefore, the ‘message’ and the ‘craft’ mattered not one jot – all that counted was the fact that publicity was achieved. Fast forward to today, and it seems most clients have adopted this thinking. The client back then was First Direct, the agency HHCL, and the CD Steve Henry.

  • Steve Henry

    Michael. Hmm, Not sure what this has to do with the blog ! And I’m not sure I can answer it briefly. But the launch of First Direct used polarising techniques that were applicable to that campaign only. (All campaigns need to be unique to that client. I wouldn’t advocate using Tango’s slapstick humour for a funeral parlour, for instance.) There WAS a message – “24 hour person-to-person banking, it’s extraordinary” , which communicated the brand’s selling point as the first 24-hour phone banking service. And it did this while counterpointing the deliberately “ordinary” images – in a humorous way that not everybody got. Because not everybody was supposed to get it. That was the polarising bit. The whole campaign was designed to provoke response and to give early adopters a sense that only they would get it. In commercial terms, the launch achieved its target of 100,000 customers in year 1, and has gone on to become, I would argue,. the only real brand in the banking sector. And I suppose I should be flattered that the launch is still being talked about 21 years later. Even if it’s still being misunderstood !

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