A few weeks ago I read a couple of posts from The peerless Bob Hoffman. He made some very interesting points about whether or not ‘creative’ advertising was actually more effective than the shitty stuff.
He came to the conclusion that it was hard to prove anything conclusively. I’d go into more detail, but instead I highly recommend reading the posts; they’re far better than any rehash I could muster.
But this lack of certainty got me thinking: never mind whether or not ‘creative’ ads worked better than ‘non-creative’ ones; does advertising work at all?
Dear reader, you’ve seen the title of this post, so you know where I’m heading, but I have to say, we do our job on shaky ground.
Those of you that listened to my podcast chat with Blackcurrant Tango client David Atter will know that advertising is just 5% of a client’s job, so there are plenty of other elements involved in marketing, including pricing, distribution and developing the product in a way that will make it attractive to buyers. In effect, advertising can only do so much, and if your local shop has a Twix but no Dairy Milk, no amount of drumming gorillas is going to create a sale for Cadbury’s.
Of course, it’s more complicated than that. So-called ‘brand’ advertising (all advertising is brand advertising; I mean the stuff that doesn’t directly ask you to buy anything) might get you to make a purchase six months after you see it. Or it might combine with a few endorsements from friends, or a newspaper article that gives it a favourable mention, to give you suffiecient inclination to buy. I remember a brilliant cartoon from the excellent Marketoonist which showed someone seeing an ad for a pair of shoes pop up in several different communication channels. He finally buys them after they appear on his phone, and the stoopid marketers take this as proof that mobile advertising must be the one that clinched the sale.
So it’s vague at best, and that’s before we discuss that uncomfortable moment when Proctor and Gamble cut their digital ad spend by $200m and saw reach go up by 10%. Or the time Uber cut their digital ad spend by two thirds and it made no difference to their business. And if you really want a deep dive into whether ads actually work, have a listen to these Freakonomics Podcast episodes on that very subject (one episode covers TV, the other, digital).
I genuinely spent a few days around Christmas wondering if this colossal industry, fueled by hundreds of billions of dollars, and the foundations behind the vast majority of the internet, TV, Radio and lots of other things you love, actually did anything at all. And, perhaps more importantly, could any effect be proven?
Sure, there are Effies and IPA Effectiveness Awards (isn’t there even a Cannes Effectiveness Lion?), but we’ve all put together case studies that massage slightly underwhelming truths into culture-defining fibs. The very point of our industry is to show the best side of something, so the idea that we wouldn’t do that for ourselves is laughable.
Then what makes me so sure ads have any effect? Well, it’s very simple: I’ve done things because of advertising, and I don’t think I’m alone.
I know I’ve bought Levi’s, and considered them somewhat cool for decades because of ads. In the 1980s my friends and I bought Black Levi’s and put metal combs in our back pockets because someone wrote, produced and showed us this:
And it wasn’t just good ads. This tedious fucker played before every single movie, but people in my school chewed a lot of gum because of it (and possibly kept some around on the off-chance they could share it with some unsuspecting young lady):
Before 1999 I had tried a single sip of Guinness, but found it to be disgusting. Then this made me order a pint of something I knew I hated:
I don’t know how to join the dots to and from every ad and every purchase, but I know there were many, many things that I chose to wear, eat, visit and travel on simply because the people behind them had created messaging that somehow encouraged or validated those decisions. I even started my pension early entirely because of an ad I read in D&AD’s The Copy Book.
So advertising works if it catches the right person at the right time in the right way. Yes, it’s impossible to guarantee that effect, but you have to buy a ticket if you want to win the lottery. Imagine if no ads existed, by which I mean think how you might make your purchasing decisions. Anyone trying to launch a product has to find some way of getting people to know it exists. What would they do without what we do?
It’s true that the examples above, and most of the others that had the deepest effect on me, were well-made TV commercials. I can’t recall consciously buying anything because of an ad on Facebook, or a crappy banner on the Guardian’s website. That might be why I feel somewhat biased towards the older, more traditional media – the stuff that could cut through culture, defining it alongside books, movies and TV. Does digital do that? If I’m basing this off personal experience (and the P&G/Uber examples above) perhaps not. Then again, it seems odd that people would expend so much time, money and effort on something that was genuinely useless.
So that’s my case for our industry. I believe it’s what a methodology hawk like Bob would call anecdotal evidence. But as a wise man once said, all evidence is anecdotal.
I’m assuming the applause for NHS and other workers on a Thursday night has fallen silent.
That’s a shame. They’re still doing exactly what people were applauding them for back in April.
But this ad hasn’t forgotten. It’s a lovely appreciation of the amazing NHS staff and volunteers who are still working tirelessly to keep people safe.
It aims to help raise more vital funds for the NHS Charities Together Covid Appeal, and features real NHS professionals, who also advised on aspects of the script.
Nice one! (Interested declared: my old AD and friend Daryl Corps was the CD).
Agency: Iris Worldwide, Global ECD: Grant Hunter, Creative Director: Daryl Corps, Creatives: Filipa Mauricio & Michael Boszko, Executive Producer: Michael Hanney, Production Company: Sweetshop, Director: Nicholas Jack Davies, Editor: Billy Mead @ Ten Three, Soundtrack: Birdy, Colourist: Simone Grattarola @ Time Based Arts, Post: No.8 Sound: Sam Robson @ No.8.
Early in my career a CD gave me and my art director an excellent pep talk about the need to do lots of good work on his account. We were fully enrolled in his inspirational words and promised to apply nose to grindstone in order to realise our collective ambitions.
I don’t remember what happened next, but that CD does: apparently I bumped into him while leaving the office at 5pm. He’s told me (and others) this story on a few occasions, marking it out as conclusive proof that I was a workshy dilletante who couldn’t even keep his word for a single day.
And for ten years after I was first reminded of my dreadful behaviour I sheepishly agreed that his assessment must have been accurate; after all, why else would I be leaving the office at ‘banker’s hours’?
However, the most recent time I heard this story, I was listening to the CD telling it on a podcast as I jogged around my neighbourhood. With plenty of free thinking time, I wondered if laziness really was my reason for leaving ‘early’. I had no proof one way or the other, but then neither did the CD. I get that it might seem to be a likely scenario, but I remember that around that time I much preferred to do proper writing at home because it was quieter. Maybe I was going to work into the night on my sofa; maybe my AD had already gone home for any one of myriad reasons, so there would be little benefit to staying in the office.
But maybe I had a ‘hot’ date; maybe I was going to visit my sick Grandma; maybe there was a brilliant TV show I didn’t want to miss; maybe I was packing for a trip the next day; and maybe, just maybe, in my mind, at that time, doing more work on that account wasn’t at the top of my list of priorities.
And maybe that’s OK.
Advertising is a funny old game. Not exactly like other jobs, in that a bus driver wouldn’t give another bus driver a pep talk about how to put in extra hours to drive their bus better, or think it was a shame that they’d gone home at 5pm on the day of that non-existent talk.
We tend to think that we work in a special kind of business, one that prizes hard work and long hours. But unlike, say, music or art, there is an industrial element to our output that means those hours are both for us and for the man. By which I mean that John Wren is probably delighted that he can employ people who push themselves and each other to work long hours in the office, but also on the bus, in the shower, watching TV, over weekends, on holiday and pretty much anywhere and everywhere else, at no extra charge.
Of course there’s a possible reward for all this extra work that comes in the form of money, promotions, self-satisfaction, the respect of your peers, little chunks of wood in the shape of pencils and all the attendant benefits that flow from those things (nicer houses, cars, holidays etc.). So you work extra hard for some company that’s working for some other company because that might bring you the kind of things that working extra hard on your bus driving will not.
Then again, there’s life.
One of the pieces of advice you’ll see given most often to aspiring creatives is that they should get out of the office and soak up some inspiration, otherwise their work will get stale. Art galleries, cinemas, pubs, relationships, foreign countries… they’ll all help fill your inspiration bucket and give you the fuel you need to create great work.
But they all look suspiciously like fun, don’t they? Was I heading out to a movie that fateful day, one that would have unlocked a brilliant piece of work? Was I going for a chat over a pint with a sparky friend whose funny anecdotes might also have inspired me to a great campaign concept? Was I just going for one of those highly recommended idea-generating walks that Charles Dickens and Graham Fink swear by?
But if I’d told that CD that’s where I was going, would he have patted me on the back for using my initiative to find a lateral path to a creative solution, or would he have thought that a trip down the Dog and Duck or the Odeon Marble Arch was more an avoidance of work than an extension of it? I think the latter. No matter how much we recommend life outside the agency, there’s still an implication that it’s somehow skiving. Unless you have a layout pad and a pen with you, cranking out thumbnails, you’re not really working, are you?
I would guess that my inspiring CD would divide ‘working’ time up into ‘gathering inspiration’ and ‘deadline on the way; get writing’. Fair enough. The action of writing can often produce the best results as you back-and-forth between you and your partner, and you can only grow a superlative oak if you start with an acorn of some kind. Then again, you often have your best ideas in the shower, or at some other time when you’re not trying to think them up. And isn’t it horses for courses? Many of us have go-to techniques that bring out our best, but they might not look anything like work. For example, I was told that Vince Squibb could often be seen staring out of the window of Lowe’s, not looking particularly industrious, but that was clearly how he would produce the Stella magic. Then again, if he was staring out of the window of a plane on the way to Benidorm, how would that appear? Many people talk of the great Alan Waldie as some kind of alcoholic joke because he he was usually down the pub as soon as it opened. But he was also one of the best creatives this country has ever produced, so why should we question his methods? (Of course, you could question the wisdom of his alcohol consumption. I’m just saying that he wasn’t skiving off).
Another contradiction can be found in the extent to which we fetishise work. If it’s a brief we want to work on – something that might end up famous or really good – then we’re happy to apply all hours to it. But if something looks dead-end, or it’s another pitch that’s going to be run badly by an idiot CD who is in over his/her head, or it’s an eighth weekend in a row on a pan-European shitfest, then maybe work isn’t such a great and noble thing.
How do we distinguish between ‘get ahead by putting in the hours’ and ‘burnout is a very real thing’? Do we just think that work we like to do isn’t so much ‘work’ as some version of ‘fun’, like a crossword puzzle? Are bosses taking advantage of our willingness to put in the hours on career-driving stuff to flog us to death on any old garbage where an indecisive or thick client would like to see more ‘routes’?
When I was younger my AD and I knew of the general idea for one of the agency’s groovier clients, so we used some of our free time to work up a few executions and present them to the people in charge. When the head of traffic found out he said we weren’t allowed to do that; if we had any ‘spare’ time he had other (shittier) briefs that needed tackling, so we should take those on instead. I argued that it was time that we chose to use for extra work, beyond our given briefs, and we weren’t going to just offer it up for any old crap. In effect, if the job wasn’t good, there was no ‘spare’ time. Those minutes would be used for watching TV or drinking gin. It seemed pretty odd for him to lose our offer of largesse by insisting we must spend our free time working on something we didn’t want to work on. Result: no extra ads for anyone, two pissed off creatives, and the word spreading through the department that there was no point in being proactive. Eye-roll emoji.
Returning to the subject of whether work is as noble as creatives tend to imply (on the occasions when they’re not complaining about having to do the more annoying work), it might be worth exploring whether or not the ‘work’ element, or thrashing yourself just to write a better headline for a car company that’s polluting the planet and has no idea who you are, is really that important.
Sure, if you’ve taken on a position to do the best you can for your wages, then you should fulfill that obligation and hold up your side of the bargain, but what about doing your job to an OK level, going home and forgetting all about it until the next day? Is there anything wrong with that? Is ‘that’ll do’ always a heinous way of assessing your output?
We might consider the vast majority of advertising creatives, who never get near a D&AD Silver or a Cannes Gold, or even manage to produce anything famous. I’m sure some are trying to progress from pharmaceutical legal lines to 90-second Nike briefs, but I’m equally sure some just see it as a job, where they don’t wank off about Bill Bernbach quotes or a great ad from the 1978 One Show Annual.
Just as there are plenty of great guitarists who aren’t Jimmy Page, plenty of brilliant scriptwriters who aren’t William Goldman and plenty of excellent authors who aren’t Hillary Mantel, there are also many fine art directors who aren’t Neil Godfrey, and have no idea who he is.
And what if their lack of commitment to the greater good of advertising allows them to excel in other areas? Family, sport, cooking… The same year I received that pep talk, one of my end-of-shoot parties was named Wrap Party of the Year by Campaign. Did that ad win an award? No, but I met my wife of 20 years on the shoot and enjoyed that ridiculous party. Would a lame party, no wife and a Cannes Silver have been a ‘better’ outcome? If I had concentrated more on the shoot and less on my wife-to-be, would the ad have improved? Who cares? Fuck BT Cellnet. It doesn’t even exist anymore. I won some other awards, found my way to a very acceptable salary and now live in the Hollywood Hills with a delightful family and a somewhat overweight cat.
That’s not to say my path is the be-all and end-all of ambitions, but I have compromised the quality of my advertising on occasion because sometimes it’s just a job. I’ve gone above and beyond for many of my clients, but I also found places to draw the line and find happiness and satisfaction elsewhere. Sorry, Pizza Hut. Occasionally I didn’t work my fingers to the bone on your behalf. Live with it.
When I left early that day, I have no idea where I was heading, but ultimately I ended up doing award-winning work on that client and doing whatever else I did that afternoon, so does it really matter?
Job satisfaction is a subjective feeling with a subjective standard. Go home early or stay till midnight. Sacrifice an amazing date for a Creative Circle Silver or sacrifice a Creative Circle Silver for an amazing date. Make that headline for that shitty company 10% better or watch the Great British Baking Show.
None of it matters any more than anything else. You choose, and go wherever that choice takes you. As long as you’re working as much as you agreed to, you have no obligation to do any more. And if you want to work longer hours to increase the possibility of things that you value happening to you more often, then that’s fine too.
Life’s hard enough as it is without people doing this 👀 just because you fancy a pint, a movie or that person in planning instead of another hour on a Knorr brief. Be like Frank: do it your way, and be cool with the consequences of your actions, whatever they may be.