Back in the 1990s your average D&AD annual was filled with work from British advertising agencies. In fact, it was called British Design and Art Direction. Around this time it also contained a smaller ‘International’ section that gradually became subsumed into the main annual/awards.
So what? It’s just some silly old advertising awards.
Well, that was just one tiny piece of a much larger jigsaw puzzle called globalisation. Feel free to read an absolute shedload about the idea, but the TL/DR is that over the last 30 years, the world has become more centralised and, as a result, homogenised. This has happened in all areas: politics, commerce, art etc., and advertising has certainly been part of the process.
Clearly I’m not going to go into the whole kit and caboodle, but the parts that relate to our industry have been a corrosive shit show. Here’s why…
To start with, let’s go back to those D&AD annuals. They’re a good metaphor for all the other guff.
As a rule, the fewer people an ad talks to, the better. Obviously an ad aimed at a single person will work better than one aimed at a million. You can leverage nuance and cultural reference to greater effect, and your messaging will have no need for the kind of lowest common denominator stuff that turns persuasive messaging into vanilla blancmange.
For example, an ad like this one played well in Britain because it took the piss out of an historical antipathy between England and Germany. Of course you can argue that prising open old wounds to sell beer is irresponsible and damaging, but that’s for another post that I won’t be writing. The 1990s were a different time, and although I don’t want to excuse a kind of low-level racial stereotyping, that ad was a perfect answer to that brief at that moment.
Let’s fast forward to 2019. Of course there are still ads that target national audiences, but they are becoming fewer and further between. Instead we are given briefs for communications intended to be as effective in Singapore as they are in Swindon. Many have to appear online, to be viewed by the multicultural, international audiences of The New York Times, Guardian and Pornhub.
More companies are becoming subsumed into other companies, and those bigger companies tend to sell stuff in multiple markets. They also like to save money by creating one ad that can run in all those markets. They can then claim this aids global brand consistency, which is great, because if you’re in Mongolia and you want to buy a Heineken, you won’t think it’s entirely different from the bottle of piss you bought in Mogadishu.
This leads us to the holding companies. I debated giving them an entire ‘things are worse’ post to themselves, but there’s not that much to say, except that, like all big, homogenous companies, they’re leveraging economies of scale, monopolistic conditions and international reach to achieve to the most cost-effective ways of things.
Is there really any difference between WPP’s Ogilvy, Grey, BunchoflettersY&R and PlaceThatUsedToBe JWT? Maybe you think so if you work there, but the rest of us just think they’re a bunch of agencies that WPP gets to pitch against each other so it doesn’t lose accounts (money).
But back to the ads. In my time working on the worldwide rollout of Apple’s commercials I was asked if the need for language and cultural adaptation would mean that we would be unable to make another Mac vs PC if someone thought of it. I weighed up the extra script writing, production, budget and resources required and replied that the odds would be low. Yes, globalisation means that a campaign named as the best of the 2000s would now be virtually impossible.
Of course, global ads can still be brilliant (including Apple’s). From Independent Litany to Dumb Ways to Die most of the Cannes Grand Prix winners of the last twenty years, could record a new VO and run all over the world. But they are the exception rather than the rule.
The default position tends to be the kind of thing you experience in an airport: dull kaka that uses big, abstract concepts, such as ‘connection’, ‘synergy’ and ‘progress’ to say nothing much at all. That’s what globalisation really means: jack of all bollocks and master of none of the deep, engaging human truths that are an essential element of what we do.
And the awards thing is just a self-fulfilling prophecy. D&AD is simply another version of Cannes, with every member of every jury coming from a different country. So the Croatian copywriter will never understand the power of the Peruvian insight, and the Nigerian ECD will be left non-plussed by the reference to Mrs. Brown’s Boys.
But if you stop awarding the esoteric, you start to encourage the homogenic; ads with no words that can be understood by every juror in every (non) language. And the vicious circle starts to spin even faster: blander work, created for more people, rewarded by juries that have little choice but to pat it on the back, leading to even blander work etc.
Add all that to everything else that has makes 2019 advertising bland and the handcuffs are tightened still further.
We now have a smaller playground to play in, and if you want to ask that kid if he wouldn’t mind pushing you on the swing, you’d better be prepared to ask him in Esperanto.
Ah… this is like shooting a marlin in a really small barrel using every single weapon Arnold Schwarzenegger has ever looked at.
I’m saying literally every single creative on Planet Earth hates open plan offices.
But it’s Saturday evening, and my kids are on their third rewatch of The Cleveland Show, so let’s do an easy one.
Back in the 1990s every team had an office to work in, and ads were much better. Are those two facts related? Does the Pope shit in the woods? Just imagine… you have some work to do and you can – get this! – close a fucking door while you do it. Amazing! So you have the peace and quiet you need to concentrate on a bit of copy or art direction, but more importantly, you have a sealed-off environment in which to talk about whatever you want.
Now, this is crucial to the creative process. You need to feel comfortable discussing anything, from Barry Lyndon to Barry Sheen; from geometry to geopolitical crises; from Jimmy Krankie to Jimmy Savile. That’s how you get your ideas going, so you need to be able to let it all hang out, and look stupid, tasteless and stroppy, should the mood take you.
Next, you need an office to stick stuff up on the walls. This allows you, and everyone else, to judge your ideas. So you put ’em up, accept the inevitable feedback, and improve your work. It’s like a small, crappy version of the Pixar Braintrust.
You also need an office to house your books, videos, TV for watching inspiring reels (or football), shoot loot and all that junk. You can create an environment in which you feel ready to work, be that minimalist and tidy, or a candidate for a documentary on hoarding.
Last but not least, you need a place to bitch about the other people in the agency. I’m not suggesting for a minute that you should do that gratuitously, but you’re going to have to do it sometimes, because people are dickheads sometimes. Venting helps mitigate any negative feelings you might have about that.
So open plan offices have deprived us of all those good things:
You no longer have a reliably quiet place to work. Yes, you can pop to the local coffee shop/park/toilet, but it’s in no way the same as having a place, stocked with a pile of your most inspiring stuff, that you can call on at any time, where you can get away from the planner who likes shouting about Yuval Noah Harari, or the finance people who discuss their troublesome veins, or the other team who are working on the same brief as you, and would love to take that great idea you’ve just explained to your art director, and make it just a little better before the presentation deadline (true story).
And you now have to discuss the merits of Alien 3 vs Alien 4 in front of people who will then think you’re an indulged prick who just gets to waste time while they do the real work. Even if they don’t say it to your face, you could well imagine a chat in the kitchen that ridicules and trivialises your conversations. (And that doesn’t even include all the people who think you’re an idiot for preferring Alien 4.) The way we work – the way we have to work – is not the way the other departments work. We don’t produce spreadsheets or Effie papers, and if we need to discuss Vic Reeves and American Gladiators to get to a good solution, so be it.
Even worse is when you have to say your shitty ideas in front of people who don’t understand that ‘Woody Allen building his own playground’ is the first step on the way to a business-boosting Cannes winner. You need a safe space to vomit out all the crap from which you can pick out the nuggets of gold. So every glance of derisive incomprehension is another speed bump in a process that is already fucking hard.
That need for safety will extend to the now-non-existent walls of your now-non-existent office. Remember when you had a place to judge six nascent ads alongside each other? Remember when you could ask for a colleague’s trusted opinion on said ads? Remember when you could stick up reference photos next to layouts to see how they hung together? Sure, you can now do all that on a computer screen, and it’s exactly the same. Except it isn’t. That 13-inch Powerbook isn’t an entire wall, so I’m sorry for your loss, but tough shit: the global headquarters of your holding company needed to prop up the Q3 earnings call by saving some cash, and fitting more employees into a smaller space was an easy win, so deal with it, you wanky prima donna.
And where do you keep all your stuff? In the pedestal, obviously! Cram a few David LaChapelle books in there, along with all your (literal) bottom-drawer ideas, a Magic 8-Ball and that money bank in the shape of the cat out of My Neighbour Totoro. Is all that stuff necessary to writing a good ad? Define ‘necessary’. Pixar thinks having your own space is essential, but what do they know, eh? They made Cars 3, so they can piss right off (they also made Toy Story 1-4, Inside Out, Wall-E and all those so-called ‘classics’, but: Cars 3).
Creativity is a fragile process, so poking holes in it, tweaking its nipples, and farting in its face is not recommended. Maybe a favourite set of poker dice will never be the difference between brilliance and excrement, but that kind of stuff can’t be measured, so within reason you should give creative people the environment they need to succeed. Ot at least, don’t entirely ruin that process by giving them 22 inches of white desk in a room as noisy as the third row of a Selena Gomez concert.
The last compromise, the one about venting and bitching, is probably the smallest, mainly because that kind of thing is better done in the pub or coffee shop. But sometimes you just have to get in a vaguely sound-proofed room, shut the door and swear a lot. It helps because it’s therapeutic and gets you back into the game more quickly. Sometimes it can lead to another idea that replaces the one your ECD just killed, and it helps if that happens in your working environment.
One more deadly thing about OPOs: headphones.
In the days of offices, no one wore headphones, so everyone was open for business at all times. You didn’t have to lean over them creepily until they noticed you, or tap them on the shoulder and hope they weren’t too startled. The dynamic was different: spontaneity was possible because you could just chuck stuff out and know someone was listening. Today you have to enter another situation called ‘sorry to disturb you’. It’s a different transaction, where you’re figuratively knocking on your partner’s door, with no idea what’s taking up their attention. So what you’re showing them had better be worth the disturbance. And you’d better not do that six times in five minutes, like you might do in an office. Each interruption must be earned, and that’s a broken, stilted path to creativity.
Maybe all of the above makes sense; maybe a mere 3% is of merit. But it matters not. My shoddy opinions can be disregarded in favour of the many scientific studies that shit all over OPOs. Nothing suggests they are better than the alternative. they are officially nothing but a money-saving exercise that has contributed to the worsening of our output. They are a post-vindaloo toilet blockage. A short-term gain for a long-term pain in the arse.
Unfortunately, I don’t think they’re going anywhere soon, but until they leave our professional lives we’re going to have to accept that we’re working with one hand tied behind our backs, and a vociferous, candid member of the comms planning department yelling about his favourite podcast right next to our ears.
Back in the 1990s ad agency Fridays had a different vibe about them: people would come in at some point, often with a hangover from an elongated and inebriated Thursday, pretend to do some work until the earliest point at which they could reasonably head off to lunch. Then they didn’t really come back. Or they came back to an office that was almost empty, with any stragglers possibly just hanging around because they were in town and meeting friends nearby in the evening.
Yes: for most of us 1990s creatives Friday wasn’t an actual work day. I believe the same applied to the 1980s, but on a grander scale, with even less adherence to the notion of punctuality. (Gray Jolliffe, great creative and subsequent inventor of Wicked Willie, was once stopped by his managing director when sauntering into the office late in the morning. “Hey, you should have been here at 9 o’clock!” said the manager. “Why?” replied Gray. “What happened?”).
And it wasn’t just Fridays. Sometimes a slow Tuesday afternoon adjourned to the Carpenters, the Crown and Two or the Prince of Wales, where ‘work’ stopped, fizzy chat started and the world was put to rights. (I should probably add that this early exit wasn’t entirely confined to drinking situations; people might also have popped to the cinema, an art gallery, Selfridges, Comme Des Garcons, the Eurostar to Paris, or even home to spend a few more hours with their families. Crazy, I know!)
So the informal 4-day-week was an assumed thing. I think it still exists to some degree today, as staff are often allowed to leave the office a little earlier to beat the weekend traffic. But here’s the question: in 2019 do they ever really leave the office?
Email, Slack, shareable Google Docs and Keynotes, Workplace Chat, text messages, Whatsapp etc… As someone wiser than me once pointed out, you’re now in the meeting that never ends, during the 24/7 workdayweek.
Just for clarity I’d like to point out that there’s nothing wrong with working hard. And under the right circumstances (a good, well-organised brief in service of a decent product would be a start) long hours can be also be fine. I’d also say that most of the industry would gladly welcome the 8 hours x 5 days arrangement, as is amusingly suggested in their contract, with voluntary extra time on top.
So whether you’re checking your emails, ‘just’ taking that ‘quick’ call on holiday at the expense of spending time with the people who deserve your attention, or adding another ‘late one’ or weekend to your week’s tally, the job never really ends.
I’ve written before about how enough extra hours will eventually add up to another half-a-member-of-staff per year, per team – an additional employee that your company gets for free under the guise of ‘work hard, play hard’ or some such bollocks. Anyone who works long hours that aren’t their own ambitious choice is doing so because their bosses took on extra work without having to pay extra people to do it, and that’s a big expense off the books.
A friend of mine once took a job on the express understanding that he was going to do a real four day week (not a lazy Friday situation as described above) for 80% of his regular pay so that he could complete other projects he had taken on. To me, that would create a weird tear in the space-time continuum, where some part of the week was actually ringfenced to be entirely out of bounds to the account teams and project managers that simply can’t cope without 168 weekly hours of you. Sure enough, the ‘just this quick one’ messages started coming in on Friday mornings and spreading throughout the day because this deadline was close, or that director call couldn’t be missed. In the end he was simply doing his normal job for a 20% pay cut because trying to keep those emails and Slack notifications at bay is like being King Canute, sitting on his throne in front of an ever-encroaching tide.
And the really sad thing is you probably don’t even notice it. It’s now the water you swim in. The way things are. The status quo. And so it goes for 2019 lawyers, journalists, publishers, doctors and almost any job that’s eventually supposed to lead to decent pay and enough status to allow control of your own schedule.
But here’s the real kicker: that day will never come.
In fact, the higher you rise, the more demanding things get. So you’ll almost certainly be at the beck and call of some opportunity, client, or ’emergency’ to the end of your working days. Yes, it might be easier at the top because you can occasionally just walk out when you really need to, but I recall speaking to an old ECD of mine telling me that he literally remembers nothing of his youngest son over a particularly onerous two-year stretch.
When my first kid started to crawl it was mentally demanding: if I happened to turn around for a moment, when I turned back he could easily be on the other side of the room. So all I could really concentrate on was where Jackson was and whether that location was dangerous. And because we were new parents, both my wife and I took this task on. After a month or two I came up with an idea: I would take on the job for two hours, then my wife would take the next two. That meant that instead of being 90% on alert for four hours, we could be 100% for two, and 0% for the other two. The effect was amazing: we could actually read the paper, watch TV, go for walk or get some work done for a couple of hours. And even the babysitting time was better because we knew what our job was. Instead of being half-distracted and panicky, we could go to the playground and enjoy proper time with our son.
Long story, I know, but you can see where I’m going with it: when you perpetually have something going on in the background, whether it’s the need to answer an email, or the threat of the need to answer an email, or the possibility of an ‘important’ massage arriving just as you’re settling into a long-awaited date night or movie, or the possibility that the weekend plan you’re about to make will be upended by a last-minute pitch (and, by the way, the better you are at your job, the more ‘indispensable’ you become, so your reward for excellence is the extension and expansion of the nightmare. Hooray!), you can’t concentrate on or enjoy anything else. It’s like someone tapping you on the shoulder all fucking day; a kind of mental water torture. No wonder we lose people to other industries.
And no wonder the work is getting worse. It’s simple maths: if you preoccupy people on a constant basis, you give them no time to feed their minds with anything that might be useful to the creative process. And you give their subconscious no room to make all those little backroom combinations that bring forth creative solutions. And you add stress and bother to their days, increasing cortisol, which messes with brain functions including the all-important memory, which I believe is useful for helping people to remember stuff, and that might then be useful for having creative ideas.
And what are the benefits? Always being available to make sure someone can answer all those questions and make those adjustments that are so crucial to the success of a project? Again, we can always measure quantity, so you know the number of hours, emails, phone calls and meetings someone has attended, but there’s no way of clearly assessing the content of those interactions. Were they all successful? Were they all beneficial? Were all of them necessary? Were any of them necessary?
Which brings me back to the 1990s: no email, no text messages (except the Nokia 3310 ones that used punctuation to make it look like popping a bottle of champagne), far fewer meetings, no Slack, no shared docs but (altogether now)…
Somehow the work was better.
Mark Denton has been many things: art director, creative director, director, founder, graphic designer… But he’s now an author.
The main one was: how do you make a book? I mean, if you have an idea of a book you’d like to put together, where do you start? Well, allow Mark to explain.
In usual MD style, we also discuss other things, such as the time he had to go to New York to think of an idea for an ad, then came back without one (until he jumped in the cab back from Victoria). And why he chose ‘Can I Kick It‘ for that Nike ad (spoiler alert: they’re both based around kicking things).
Anyway, he’s as entertaining as usual.
But don’t forget to buy his book.
My favourite ad of the decade made me think the exact opposite of what I had thought before I saw it. An opinion I’d held for decades disappeared in the space of 90 seconds, replaced by a better one; one that was more inclusive, compassionate and wise.
You see, I used to think ‘handicapped’ people were actually handicapped. I remember when the ‘PC’ phrase ‘differently abled’ popped up in the 1990s, only to be dismissed with laughter: these people weren’t different abled; they were disabled. They were lesser. Disadvantaged. Worthy of not much more than sympathy and pity.
Well, in 2012 an incredible piece of strategic reframing, married to a fucking brilliant piece of film, said bollocks to all that:
The message is perfect, and it’s the ultimate case of ‘show don’t tell’, so you have to accept that these people are just amazing, more amazing than the athletes you’ve admiring for years.
You can’t do any of that stuff with your four working limbs, but they can, no matter what ‘disadvantage’ they might be dealing with. I’ll admit that I feel like a bit of a failure when I watch this, but weirdly enough, I also feel utterly inspired and invigorated.
Great strategy, great message, but also great craft. To convey the right tone here takes superlative direction, impeccable photography, smart editing, a brilliant track, and little moments of witty sound design that keep you transfixed from the first second to the last (I particularly love the five seconds in the middle that show three ways people end up in the Paralympics: a car crash, a bomb and a pregnancy, but with no undercutting sentimentality).
The campaign was accompanied by this excellent poster:
And of course that all led to another classic ad four years later:
Also fantastic, but as it could never have the strategic surprise of 2012, for me it didn’t quite have the same power. However, the fact that they expanded the whole message with so much fun, verve and creativity meant that it was a worthy successor.
So that’s my number one ad/campaign of the decade. Thanks to everyone who made it, and the other eight on my list. You all showed us just what the industry is capable of: entertaining, thought-provoking, behaviour-changing, funny, touching, emotional, transcendent brilliance.
My thirteen-year-old son thinks Old Spice is cool. He’s too young to remember the old days when it was a cheesy joke. He just knows it as that body spray stuff with the really, really, really funny ads:
So many classics, and they’re all part of why I love this campaign, but I’m mainly talking about The Man Your Man Could Smell Like:
I don’t know how many times I’ve seen that ad, but like Skittles Touch and Guinness Surfer, it’s one I could happily watch again and again. Maybe it’s the writing; I’d never heard anyone put English words together like that before, and I still haven’t. Maybe it’s the performance; listen to the way he says ‘The tickets are now diamonds!’. Funny every time. But it’s probably the in-camera special effects; even though I know how they’re done, I still can’t quite grasp them:
OK, so it’s funny and endlessly rewatchable, but look at what it did: in 30-seconds it took a pathetic, laughable, dead old brand, and made it strong, cool and alive. There’s nothing logical about body spray ads – they’re offering a smell, and you can’t smell through the TV. And even when you go to shops and take a sniff, one person’s Old Spice is another person’s Lynx/Axe Apollo. The scent doesn’t really matter. You just need to be able to justify your choice if someone asks what that smell is, or sees a can in your bathroom. This ad made that easy.
And it’s Proctor and Gamble. I know they’ve done some great stuff recently (see It’s A Tide Ad), but before TMYMCSL that entire company was known for scientifically making the worst, dullest, most detestable ads on the planet. I once did two days freelancing at Grey London (before it was cool), where I learned of the P&G formula for ad structure. It was fucking depressing.
So this is a perfect example of the power of advertising. It showed us what great creativity could do for a nothing product. It showed a massive, boring company how to resurrect a massive, boring brand. It showed our industry that there were no bad briefs; only bad answers to them. And it showed us all, that in the midsts of the digital confusion that began to grow around our feet like weeds, that a 30-second piece of brilliance was capable of making something famous, successful and, yes: cool.
It’s what we’re all supposed to be aiming for, every day.
They hit the bullseye.