Here’s a nettle. grab it.

What’s the bravest thing you’ve ever done ?

I don’t mean in your personal life, which probably involves bungee jumping or telling your partner there’s a pitch rehearsal on the evening of their birthday.

Either of which, in my view, shows that you’ve got your priorities completely wrong.

I mean in a business sense.

It’s long been my belief that advertising is full of very bright people and very nice people – and also very good-looking people – but not enough brave or radical people.

One way of describing the current malaise in advertising would be to say that ad agencies completely failed to get to grips with digital matters back in the 90s. As a result client companies lost confidence in their agencies, split their accounts between various suppliers, and also started doing more and more in-house.

I can remember countless conversations back then along the lines of “We don’t have to worry about all this”.

Now, you could construe this as just rather attractive nonchalance.

But actually I think it’s something more serious.

I think it’s about an unwillingness to confront difficult topics.

You’ll have your own opinion of course, but in my view the best bit of thinking ever to come out of an ad agency was DDB’s  “We’re number 2, we try harder” for Avis.

That came out of them looking fearlessly at the problem facing Avis. Hertz was number one, they were 4 times bigger – why wouldn’t you go there ?

That ability to grab the most uncomfortable nettle is incredibly rare in our business, where difficult stuff is usually brushed under the carpet.

Although why you’ve got nettles in your living room is, frankly, beyond me.

But – how many times do you sit down with clients and say – what’s really keeping you awake at night ?

What’s the elephant in the room ?

(Or if that’s too difficult, try talking about the elephant stuck in traffic but hoping to join the meeting  half an hour later.)

In my view, most advertising doesn’t work very well – and one reason is that it’s often not really engaged with the core problem.

You have to go to where it feels difficult.

Any psychologist will tell you this.

Grab the nettle.

We did this at HHCL a lot – an obvious example would be Pot Noodle, when we did the “slag of all snacks” campaign.

And talking of sex, a psychologist will  tell you that the biggest problem for all men is the Oedipus complex – but apparently there is a tribe in Brazil which confronts THAT issue head on.

The young males in the tribe go through an initiation ceremony at puberty where they make love to their own mothers.

Whether this cures them of the Oedipus complex, or reinforces it even more deeply, is open to conjecture.

And probably depends on how good a shag your Mum is.

Anyway, I just wanted to say in closing that I love the Jamal Edwards TV ad for Chrome. I know the lovely Tess Alps despairs of me ever saying nice things about TV advertising – but I do genuinely think there are some stunning TV ads out there.

I’m just usually more interested in looking at new ways of doing things.

And  the key thing for me is that the ad feels  spiky – it’s not a smooth little story that assumes a passive audience is there.

But that’s it in a nutshell for me – if you want to stand out in our business, an element of discomfort is essential.

  • Hannah Sturrock

    Completely agree that for a long time, agencies didn’t feel they ‘needed to worry’ about digital, coz there was another agency building those boring banner ads. Many agencies are still wrestling with the urge to slap a Facebook page/QR code/iPhone app on the back of their TV idea, and hope that ticks the ‘media innovation’ box.

    All agencies have the power to come up with great ideas, the real question is whether they have the guts to allow technology/technolgists to get involved early and direct the idea, not just produce the end product. Whether they have the guts to ‘grab the nettle’ with the client is one thing, but also it’s the guts to change the way they behave internally too.

    Specialist digital agencies can evolve, media agencies can evolve, traditional agencies can evolve. Nobody is stuck with their current structure for better or worse.

    While you don’t need to know exactly ‘what goes on under the hood’ you do need to spend some time looking at and engaging with the digital platform, in order to spearhead the cultural shift required in many agencies.

    I’m still surprised at how few senior people in agencies really understand what’s going on out there (out here!). They see some awards going to Geo Social ideas, and then decide they need to do one of those ‘check-in’ things. Unfortunately, this year it’s already reported that check-ins
    and Geo-Social interactions are dying off in popularity.

    The only way to survive – and actually thrive – in this changing environment, is to be committed to staying close to what’s actually happening, and to those who know more than you. Don’t be arrogant. Don’t be defensive. Don’t be dismissive. Grab the nettle.

    Our jobs are about selling to real people, not to each other, and not to the small group of people who still watch 30 second TVCs or who read the direct mail in their letterbox.

    • steve henry

      Thanks Hannah – think you’re dead right.  And  you can also understand what’s going on “under the hood” – that’s not so difficult either ! But I love what you’re saying, and you put it really well.


    I like new things too Steve.  In fact, in my 13 years at PHD I led the evolution into interactive and contenty stuff.  But a) there’s lots of new stuff happening in telly and b) you don’t have to hate what’s already here and still works in order to love the new.  In fact they work brilliantly together.  Thanks for letting me prey on your conscience – even if only *very* slightly

    Hannah, I’m really, really sorry, but I can’t let your comment “the small group of people who still watch 30″ TVCs” go without me giving you the facts.  We watched more linear TV last year than ever, more commercial TV than ever and more ads at normal speed than ever.  Plus extra TV on-demand.  So if you want to ‘sell to real people and not each other’ TV is definitely worth thinking about.

  • Kevin Gordon

    Hi Steve,
    Remember when Heinz shifted it’s TV spend to posters? There was such a hullabaloo.
    We all know TV is mass media to mass audience all at the same time. So are posters.
    we all know Online and digital is mass media to a mass audience all at different times. It’s disparate.
    It can leave a client with a disparate global market and no local market to fall back on.
    With distribution and transport costs constantly rising, clients are working together.
    Some competitors like Kraft and Nestle now distribute products together to ensure their lorries don’t travel on return journeys empty because that’s an on-cost that affects the bottom line and profitability.
    Each client needs to determine these days whether they are going to play locally or globally before they even enter the market. If UK agencies think locally first they will soon become history, the only exception being if their product appeals purely to a local market. Agencies need to think as much about what business is suitable for their operation now as much as clients need to ask if their agency can deliver at all profitable points of engagement. So what’s the bravest thing I’ve ever done? Call in the receiver to my own business because my ex-partners would not face the consequences of reality.

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