The 22nd of September 1955 saw the launch of the first UK television commercial:
It was a big change for an industry that had hitherto been used to nothing but press, posters and radio. TV production departments had to be assembled, commercials directors had to be invented, and creatives had to learn how to write and art direct for an entirely new medium.
Actually, it wasn’t entirely new. These creatives had presumably been watching films and TV shows for most of their lives, and the structures didn’t have to stray a million miles from what they’d already been writing for radio. Even so, it took a good few years for the industry to really master the medium.
It would be forty years before another seismic change arrived, but this one was very different. In its early days internet advertising was a bit of joke, with banner ads that looked pretty pathetic in the shadow of TV commercials and 96-sheet billboards. But little did we know, that was only the beginning…
It’s fair to say that the ensuing 26 years have been quite the rollercoaster: Second Life, BMW Films, Subservient Chicken, Lynx Feather, The Viral Factory, microsites, Google, Myspace, Napster, Friends Reunited, Facebook, the Carling Pint app, programmatic, whitelisting, mobile-first, 140-character Twitter, move fast and break things, native, SEO optimisation, Snapchat ads that disappeared as soon as you watched them, other ads that lived forever online, skippable pre-roll, Dunk In The Dark, Instagram Stories, 280-character Twitter, 360-degree campaigns, podcasts, carousels, Vine, The Ice Bucket Challenge, digital OOH, AI, VR, experiential, 9×16, post copy, Tik Tok and on and on and on.
A whole new vocabulary, a whole new set of jobs, a whole new structure with above-the-line agencies obliged to play nice with the social specialists and the Belgian network CCO that runs the domestic account for the global brand that needs an ad that can work in fifteen media, twenty languages and 106 countries.
The new ability to speak to a couple of billion people simultaneously has been a blessing and a curse. What do you say when you can say it to 1/3rd of the planet? Should Snickers be on Twitter, Instagram, Snap, or all three? Should its funny barb at Maltesers drop now, or ten minutes’ time? If a kid on Youtube can get 14 million likes for free, why should anyone pay an ad agency to get 100,000?
(I’m not even going to mention open-plan offices, holding companies, the further rise of strategy, comms planning, HR and a million other ad agency alterations that sit inside and outside the creative process.)
So it’s been a lot. And it’s not over, not by a long shot.
Sure, we’ve all adapted to a different reality of literally everyone carrying hundreds of pounds of electronic equipment in our pockets, only to come home and second or third screen while we live tweet the football game and chat on WhatsApp. But that was a fairly surface adaptation, spread over 10-15 years. The industry has had to rework itself in response to several fundamental changes a year.
Creating great ads with memorability and cut-through was difficult in 1995. Making sure it happens in 2021 is, without doubt, even harder. Multichannel touchpoints are now entirely normal. So you came up with a great idea for a TV ad? Never mind choosing a director and making sure the shoot goes well. Where’s the landing page going to live? What’s the hashtag? Who is creating the assets for the carousel?
Yes, it’s a headache, and headaches are annoying. And spreading creativity’s time and money increasingly thinly is not a walk in the park. And it may not be what you signed up for. But there is a tiny chink of light at the end of the tunnel.
Contrary to appearances, the difficulty of the current situation is not a fathomless chasm of doom and gloom. It’s the beginning of a new way of doing things (or 67 beginnings of new ways of doing things), and that is unavoidably uncomfortable. Change is awkward and painful, but it’s the only way progress happens.
Look at what isn’t brilliant and see how it could be done better. There are agencies out there who are succeeding, both financially and creatively. Those of us who don’t work in them should learn from what they are doing and apply it to our own circumstances.
No one knows how long it will take for things to settle down, but that process will accelerate when we take situations that aren’t working very well and do our best to improve them.
Maybe there should be fewer people in your meeting. Who will you ask to make that change? Maybe four high-quality media placements is better than fifteen mediocre ones. What facts will you need to back up that suggestion? Maybe the attendant fame of a billboard is better than the efficiency of SEO. When are you going to start a billboard-specialist ad agency?
Eventually, people will come up with new ways of tackling each problem, and that will help others to follow them down a more workable path. Sure, not every issue will be ‘solved’ – some may be intractable – but we’re currently in 1955 to the power of a thousand, so the sooner we get to our equivalents of CDP, Ridley Scott and Alan Parker, the better.
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.