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What we can do to improve advertising: part two.

So about that post I wrote a couple of days ago about how bad advertising was ruining advertising as we know it

I know I left it with a call to arms about doing better ads but how many of you are really going to do that? Maybe loads (I hope so), but I just wanted to give your efforts the same shot in the arm that inspired me:

Back in the forties advertising was even worse than it is now:

Then this guy called Bill Bernbach came along. He actually started in advertising in 1939, but he spent nine years at Grey, despaired of how crap it was before starting his own agency – Doyle Dane Bernbach. From there he revolutionised advertising as we know it by making sure DDB’s output was intelligent, beautiful and persuasive. Here’s what he had to say at the time:

“There are a lot of great technicians in advertising. And unfortunately they talk the best game. They know all the rules. They can tell you that people in an ad will get you greater readership. They can tell you that a sentence should be this short or that long. They can tell you that body copy should be broken up for easier reading. They can give you fact after fact after fact. They are the scientists of advertising. But there’s one little rub. Advertising is fundamentally persuasion and persuasion happens to be not a science, but an art.”

Sound familiar? Could he be talking about the current preeminence of data? (More incredible Bill quotes here.)

Anyway, he kicked the industry up the arse and is the reason why every ad you’ve ever liked got made. Literally. No exaggeration. No Bernbach, no Surfer, no Man Your Man Could Smell Like, No whatever won the Titanium Grand Prix this year, or any other year.

So what?

So a couple of months ago I was listening to Dave Dye’s excellent podcast interview with my old boss Peter Souter. Somewhere near the end Peter mentioned the effect Mr. Bernbach had on the industry in the 50s. He then said that he felt that there was no reason why a similar revolution couldn’t happen today, and he has indeed attempted to instigate such a thing in his role at TBWA London (it’s worth mentioning that it took Bill around a decade to achieve his aim, in an industry with far less competition and far fewer alternative distractions).

That passage really made me think that any improvement is truly possible. Sure, it once took a man as great as Bill, but that’s no reason why there isn’t another Bill (or ten) waiting among you. Bill wasn’t ‘Bill’ until he became Bill. He saw something in the world that he didn’t like and went about changing it. At first he encountered resistance, then he gathered likeminded colleagues, then they did what they thought was right, then other people saw it and agreed, then many followed suit (or tried to).

And that’s all it takes.

Gandhi’s suggestion that we should be the change we want to see in the world has become so ubiquitous that it’s hard to be consistently present to what it really means. It’s even harder to act on it: you don’t like Brexit? Go and stand for your local council and keep going until until you’re President or Prime Minister. Fed up with massive companies paying no tax? Stop using them, and spread the word until enough other people follow suit and the company collapses. Think advertising is dreadful and getting worse? Start your own agency, enroll clients in what you’re trying to do and make the kind of advertising that’s consistent with your values.

You will inspire others along the way and the world will change.


Why don’t advertisers advertise themselves?

It’s an interesting truth that advertisers, supposedly the experts on advertising, don’t really advertise themselves.

Why would that be?

The surface answer is this: ad agencies need clients, so they’re really only talking to a few hundred people at the very most; in fact at any one time, and taking conflicts into account, it’s probably no more than twenty people. If you have to advertise in a way ad agencies normally do, you’re trying to reach a lot of people, perhaps millions. Trying to communicate to twenty people in the same way you communicate to millions is like trying to use a nuclear missile to play darts. So you use another method: schmoozing at industry functions, perhaps, or maybe a year of relationship building with occasional phone calls and birthday gifts. You might wait to hear a rumour of agency dissatisfaction before pouncing with a box of chocolates and a bottle of Veuve. Anything but a 96-sheet poster (unless you’re doing one of those stunts where you you buy the 96-sheet poster outside the Hamlet client’s house that says something like ‘Happiness is an agency called Spiggot and Flange’ or something. Do they still make Hamlet?).

Occasionally ad agencies create an ad for themselves. Very occasionally it’s good enough to get into D&AD:

But that’s rare and they’ll tend to feature in the trade press (circulation: maybe 10k).

So that’s the basic reason. Is there another?

Well, I wonder if ad agencies would be any good at advertising themselves.

Think about it: doctors who self medicate often go a bit too far because they don’t have the requisite objectivity. Similarly, lots of shrinks are basically a bit crazy and would you be cool with army veterans defending themselves in a reasonable manner back at home? Human traits of taking a mile when you’re given an inch (or taking lots of pills when you’re given the key to the prescription meds cabinet) and seeing every problem as a nail when you have a hammer (or seeing every argument as a reason to punch someone when you’re very good at that) can surpass the strictures of professional responsibility.

I think ad agency people might fret too long over the brief, finding it tricky to agree on exactly what they want to say about something as complex as their own ad agency. Then they’d come up against the creative problem: do you actually abide by ‘creative’ principles when you’re selling your own stuff? If you lose your dog, do you come up with a lateral campaign idea expressed with startling originality, or do you just stick up a photo of your dog above the words ‘LOST DOG’ and your phone number? I recall one situation where I was tasked with doing an ad for my agency to go in the programme of D&AD. When I put it together my boss actually asked me to make the logo bigger (when I pointed out what he’d said he changed his mind).

If you want proof of this kind of thing have a look at most agency websites. Although it’s a shop window into the creativity of the company, you’ll find that even the most out there shops tend to follow a fairly straightforward pattern of ‘About, who, work, careers, contact’, with some pictures from their most recent ads. Is this because they want to appeal to as many potential clients as possible, and most of them are fairly straightforward people? I’d say so. But does that ultimately undermine attempts to persuade the client to ‘take a chance’ or ‘do something brave’ when they’re selling the work? Hmmm…

Perhaps this is simply inadvertent honesty. After all, as they say, the way you do something is the way you do everything.

How bad advertising is finally killing the ad industry as we know it, and what we can do about it.

The entire business model of the internet depends on advertising, yet the entire business model of the internet is killing advertising as we know it. That’s weird, isn’t it? All we keep hearing about is how clickbait is chasing eyeballs for advertising dollars, news sites are pushing out sensationalist and fake news for the same reason, social media sites are harvesting an obscene amount of our personal data to better target their advertising (and charge more for it), and old media is dying across the world because it can no longer attract advertising.

Is anyone else surprised at the extent to which liddle ol’ advertising is the engine that powers the life and death of so many companies? That the attraction of advertising dollars is the only reason for the existence of many of the sites that monopolise our lives? How did that happen? I get that radio and TV stations needed/need ads to pay for their existence, as did/do newspapers and magazines, but unless I missed something big, the vast majority of the world didn’t always move to the beat of advertising’s drum.

The odd thing is that none of this has funneled more money into the conventional advertising industry. On the contrary, agencies are dying on their arses as they try to convince companies that they need ‘proper’ ads instead of the computer generated poo that we get served up on the web each day. In addition many have been complicit in the dark confusion of online advertising because it’s the only way they can get a share of where the ad dollars are going. (The fact that 99% of all new ad money goes to GoogleBook must be utterly galling.)

So the advertising ‘experts’ have been overtaken by the advertising newbies in less than a decade, and all to the utter detriment of what the ad industry used to hold dear: creativity, intelligence, craft, memorability, disruption and originality (of course I’m not saying that all ads reflected those values but it tended to be the intent). Does that mean none of those things mattered? Clearly the public aren’t up in arms about the change; we seem only to be bothered about the weird messages that follow you around and base their content on your conversations, but the ads being boring and ugly appears to be fine.

This is because we’ve become used to ads being ignorable wallpaper, so when more wallpaper arrived no one really noticed the difference. ‘Bad’ advertising is now killing the entire industry in a way that none of us predicted. We produced many things of a standard that was apparently easy to match, large companies matched it cheaper, quicker and with more accurate aim, and we had no reply.

So here we are.

Now, are going to die or fight?

(I think I heard you all shout ‘fight!’ as you rose to your feet.)

Then what does the fight look like?

It looks like this:

It looks like brilliant, beautiful ads that make people think and laugh and gasp.

It looks like ideas and executions that make a positive difference in people’s lives.

And most of all it looks like messages that Google and Facebook can’t replicate with an algorithm.

Every time we compromise we drive another nail into our coffin.

Every time we settle we push more companies into the arms of GoogleBook.

Every time we make our jobs look like anyone can do them we devalue what we do.

I know it’s not easy, but it’s really all we’ve got left.

The clock is ticking and the brief on your desk is the next chance to slow it down.

Well, you should see Polythene Pam. She’s so good-looking but she looks like a man. Well, you should see her in drag dressed in the weekend.

13 ways with a VW bus (thanks, D).

An in-depth look at the music biz (thanks, D).

AI generated celebrity faces look real (thanks, D).

Muppets do Bohemian Rhapsody:

VD is for everybody (thanks, T):

The most popular song of every year:

Privacy in the face of inconvenience

The other day I was having a chat with some friends who had come round for dinner.

They told me about their forthcoming trip to a resort area in Mexico. We discussed it for a bit then moved on to other things.

The next day I started to receive online ads for that part of Mexico.

We hadn’t emailed about it, hadn’t searched for it (I don’t use Google anyway. The search site I do use, Duck Duck Go, isn’t supposed to pass your search information on to any third parties) and hadn’t made a call about it (not that companies listening in on your calls is OK).

I then tweeted about it and got a surprisingly large response, including some advice and a link to an article that seemed to think it was more down to some kind of coincidence or a second-hand reading of my friends’ emails that then connected to me (even though my friends and I communicate via text; of course those communications could be available to someone nefarious).

The digital community is spying on literally every single thing we do (for advertising purposes, lest we forget). And yes, you were probably aware of such a thing, but were you aware of how utterly brazen the whole situation is? This link shows a video where they boast in a very cosy way about a level of spying that would make a KGB agent blush.

So far so creepy, but what amazes me is the level of complicity that comes from almost all of us. If a man came up to you in the street and told you he had details on every website you’ve ever visited, everything you’ve ever bought, what you earn, your sexual preferences, what your boss thinks of you, your medical history, where you’ve been at any time of the day or night and who you were with, you’d probably find it deeply disturbing. But that’s 100% the case, and it’s not just one man, it’s lots and lots of organisations, many of whom are susceptible to hacking from many more, some of whom might not have your best interests at heart.

And people are now choosing to have Alexas and Echos placed in their homes even thought they’re clearly going to listen to every single thing they say and report back to Amazon and Google (and whoever can hack Amazon and Google), and the government of any country (they can definitely hack Amazon and Google).

I feel as if I’m writing some kind of tin foil hat screed about conspiracy theories, but this is all entirely real, verifiable and not even hidden.


I think perhaps the reason why nothing much is being done about it comes down to three things:

  1. ‘I’ve got nothing to hide so why should I care?’. Fine. Send me an email about everything you think of during sex. I’ll stick it up on the blog then tweet out the link to 5000 people.
  2. ‘I can’t really stop using the internet, can I?’. Fair enough. Everything runs through the internet these days, so detaching from it in any way would be a massive arse. And you have now admitted that convenience is more important to you than the small chance that your (supposedly anonymised) information gets used in a way that can harm you. That makes sense, but it still seems like a massive violation of something we held dear relatively recently.
  3. ‘I had no idea this was happening, at least to this extent.’ I think this category applies to over 90% of internet users and neatly proves the truism that ignorance is bliss. The internet companies don’t want you to know about this and you don’t really want to know either. It’s kind of like putting your hand up the U-bend of a toilet: you know something bad is up there and you won’t get much out of finding out what it is, so it’s best to just not think about it, eh?

So keep talking about your rectal prolapse in front of Siri, using Google to search for that exotic Tumblr site you’d never tell your spouse about, and sharing your entire life with Facebook. It’s just easier that way, isn’t it? And who really wants to leave Instagram just because it’s a thinly-veiled information aggregator for the purposes of advertising, disguised as a picture sharing site? Hardly anyone, apparently.

And I get it: I’m on Instagram, slightly on Facebook (I deleted my account recently but returned in a half-arsed manner to stay in touch with people whose email addresses I didn’t have) and fully engaged on the rest of the internet. But I can’t help wondering how this trade-off slipped so easily into billions of lives.

I also can’t help wondering if a grim and pointy reckoning is on the way. Will we regret selling so much of ourselves for so little?

Edgar Allan Poe said, ‘“It is by no means an irrational fancy that, in a future existence, we shall look upon what we think our present existence, as a dream.”

Dreams come in many shapes and sizes…

ITIAPTWC Episode 48 – Cam Blackley

Here’s my chat with my old AD, Cam Blackley.

Looking at his awards haul since we worked together, you could make a good case for the fact that I was just holding him back: D&AD Gold and Silvers, Titanium and Gold Lions etc., along with a rocket-like career trajectory that has seen him go from AD to CD to ECD to CCO.

Thankfully I’m not in the least bit put out by this, because Cam is such a good bloke.

Check out his many excellent ads, along with our chat, which touches on the following…

Good old laziness leads to advertising.


Find the best people and places to work for.

London (another Grey).


Working with me.

The ‘benefits’ of redundancy.

Paul and Nigel.


Dave Droga.






‘Do you really want to make that?’


‘Be careful of long term dreams.’

Here’s our chat, the iTunes link and the Soundcloud link, along with some of the ads he and I did together:


Say your prayers, little one. Don’t forget, my son, to include the weekend.

People having a shit day.


Weird music.

The truth behind the scenes of photos.

This never gets old:

Once there was a way To get back homeward. Once there was a way to get back home. Sleep, pretty darling, do not cry! And I will sing the weekend.

Amusing photos of stupid stuff.

Robert Plant’s musical life.

Stupidest doctor/patient stories.

Visions of T:

Advertising we should all aspire to:

Nice film:

Going on a living spree, plenty wanna come with me. You don’t wanna miss your chance, near-life experience. Faces making the weekend.

For fans of The Deuce: when Times Square was gritty.

The utterly fascinating Race of Life (thanks, J):

Amusing design fails.

The amazing soup robot.

The bird:

Sleeping people embroidered onto handmade pillows (thanks, N).

ITIAPTWC Episode 47 – Hugh Todd

Like most episodes of ITIAPTWC, my chat with Hugh offers many thought-provoking lessons on creating work, doing your best for different bosses and working out what to do next.

In addition, Hugh started around the same time I did, so I found the parallels and separations between his career and mine an interesting lesson in how you can choose many different paths in this business.

So we discuss that, and…



Teaming up with Adam.

Trudging round Soho.

Making Harley Davidson.


Euro 96.

Good brief/tough brief.

Gail Porter.


Saatchis/Droga (he made shit happen).

Coco De Mer.

Toyota radio ad from real life.

Tony Granger to Nick Bell.


Golden Skins. 30 albinos.

Post-Nick (Russell).


Lonely-o Burnetts, then a new team.


Back to Saatchis (and HSBC).

Then VCCP.

Man Shitty.

(Slight) return to journalism.

This is Hugh’s site, which contains all the work we discuss, along with his writing. And this is his blog.

Here’s our chat, the iTunes link and the Soundcloud link, along with a special topical link I think Hugh will enjoy: