Category: Uncategorized

What gets lost in the current design of D&AD

Last year’s Spotify poster campaign from Who Wot Why was widely appreciated as the best of the year.

It gave us lines like ‘1983, UB40 Red Red Wine/2019, You be forty. Red red wine.’ and ‘1998, Into Britpop. Loves Garbage/2019, Into Britpop. Loves Recycling’, combined with the endline ‘Listen like you used to’.

This brought out the truth of ageing yet tenacious musical tastes and attached them to one of the companies that could cater for whatever they happened to be. You might be reminded that you used to be moved by the music of twenty years ago, and, despite the changes in your life, those tunes still hold a place somewhere deep inside you that might enjoy a revisit. If you’ve binned your old CDs, it’s all free and easy to find on Spotify. Job done.

It was certainly refreshing to see a properly visible billboard campaign using witty, quotable copywriting in service of a big, juicy idea. So I fully expected it to wipe the floor with all-comers at this year’s D&AD awards. How many Silver Pencils would it pick up? Maybe one for the campaign, but another one for the writing was a distinct possibility, plus a raft of Graphites (what they call nominations these days. They also have shortlistings now so at least it’s a bit more like Cannes, eh?).

It was eventually awarded just two ‘Wooden’ Pencils (that’s what they now call In-Book). How odd. I mean, I know the standards of D&AD are supposed to be high but that seemed a little harsh.

Then I saw the jury and all became clear: of the eight jurors, two were from South Africa (one of whom works in London), one is an Australian working in Indonesia, one is Japanese, one Colombian, one Spanish and one English. (I should mention that one of those jurors, Masaya Asai, is a friend and former colleague.) 

I’m going to say this very clearly lest my point gets misinterpreted: of course those people are brilliant at advertising, and fully capable of assessing a great campaign idea. But they will have their own cultural backgrounds and references that mean the pop songs that they heard in 1998 Bogota or Sydney might not be the ones that the people of London were dancing to. Will they get a joke about Nasty Nick? A reference to the 2003 march against the war in Iraq? A sly dig at how Ed Milliband eats bacon sandwiches? The chances are slim.

But, equally, will the English juror, when faced with a reference to Ay, Dios Mio by Karol G (Colombia’s current number one) appreciate it enough to know why it makes an ad great rather than good? What about a nod to Laskar Pelangi, Riri Rizar’s movie that went down so well in 2008 Indonesia?

See what I mean? Everyone gets a shot, but no one really wins, and that’s before I point out that you can only have eight nationalities on a jury, so tough luck if your ad is French, Chilean or Kenyan, or from one of the other 185 countries on this delightful planet of ours.

This point is in no way to lay any blame at the feet of those esteemed and highly-qualified professionals, but more to point out that D&AD’s inclusivity has inadvertently led to an exclusivity of great but localised advertising.

Which brings me back to the Spotify campaign and the reasons why it will always be under-awarded by an international jury. How many of them understood that ‘Garbage’ was a band, allowing the ‘recycling’ pun to make sense? Did they get the subtle yet essential difference between ‘Red Red Wine’ and ‘Red red wine’? (To be fair, this might also be an age thing, but that’s a matter for another post.)

Unlike the broader international-friendly ideas that were more highly awarded in the category, Who Wot Why couldn’t use the case study video to explain every pun and reference, leaving the ads to succeed and fail on their own merits. And even if they did explain them, getting across the way a fortysomething UK music fan might really feel those lines in their (funny) bones would be an almost impossible task.

Yes, I understand that D&AD can’t possibly cover the explanation of every comma, syllable and shade of mauve in every entry, and I’m sure some ads fell by the wayside in years when it was British-only. But by expanding so far into Cannes’ territory the problem has only worsened.

I also know that this is not a new problem and others (myself included) have had a pop at it before. However, here were are in 2020, with far more international companies producing far more work intended to run in many markets, with only cursory adaptation. That work, as you’ll agree if you spend any time in an international airport, is almost entirely bland: a picture of the product with a logo, or a meaningless easily translated, inoffensive platitude in the place of some copywriting that might actually engage through well-observed relevance.

Part of D&AD’s original remit was to stimulate, not congratulate; to fire people up to produce greater work which would then pull the whole industry along by inspiring its practitioners to greater heights. By sanding off the locally-brilliant edges, more and more of the work is rooted in the one-size-fits all territory of global blancmange. Not necessarily ‘bad’ ads, but generally corralled into the accepted template called ‘more likely to be understood by an international award jury by using minimal words and no local cultural references’.

So we now have a kind of format for awarded creativity that feeds into the style of the work produced in the real world, which then feeds into what people think advertising should be, which then shapes what is made, run, entered and awarded, and so the circle continues.

I get why D&AD did this (kind of): I assume the lure of more entry fees from across the world was too tempting to turn down. But this is clearly not a move that helps more people see a wider range of excellent creative solutions by which to be stimulated. There’s very little difference between the current winners of Cannes, Clios and D&AD, so why do we need all three? Even the One Show has gone some way down the same path, robbing us of some of those fascinating ads for Wyoming bike shops that might present a different method for tackling a London homeless shelter brief.

In the end, Spotify was awarded for its idea and its writing, so D&AD fans will get to see the campaign and learn from its craft. So, does any of this matter? Well, the problem isn’t so much the reduced awarding of the ads we’re aware of; it’s the invisibility of the ones that might have bitten the dust because of all the reasons I’ve mentioned above.

We don’t know what we’re missing, but I suspect it’s more than we might think.

Soak it in ’cause it’s the last you’ll ever see, c’est la vie, mon ami. I’m so shiny, now I’ll eat you so prepare your final plea, just for the weekend.

How people remember popular music (thanks, Popbitch).

The story of Cactus Plant Flea Market.

Aykroyd and Landis on making The Blues Brothers.

A travel time radius for any location.

All drinking games ever.

Help stop sex trafficking by uploading pictures of hotel rooms.

Learn morse code in 15 minutes.

Offensive dinner plates (thanks, J).

Charlie Kaufman discusses his excellent new book:

If you turn a critical eye he’ll drill you through the middle and cry. It’s just Tonton. It’s just Tonton. It’s just Tonton Macoute. Just the weekend.

How flexible work just became 24/7 work.

Amazing fluid simulation.

And a lovely rain simulator.

Abandoned America.

Enter the ingredients in your kitchen and find a recipe.

Learn to be a butler with Graham Fink’s dad:

The art of composition:

Mind The Generation Gap

Some facts:

1: Advertising likes new things.

2. Advertising does not like old things (staff, consumers, media channels etc.)

3. Advertising is now run by the money people.

4. Older members of staff are usually more expensive than young ones.

5. Most people in charge of advertising aren’t that good at it.

The eagle-eyed amongst you will have noticed that some of those five facts are interrelated. The facts that advertising is now run by the money people, and that older members of staff tend to be more expensive than young ones kind of lead to the fact that advertising does not like old things (staff). The fact that most people in charge of advertising aren’t that good at it (by which I mean good at producing excellent work) is not unrelated to the money people and not liking old things facts.

It’s not so much a vicious circle as a vicious vortex, with winds coming in from several different directions to destroy what was once substantially more attractive, respected and enjoyed.

But there’s one central breakdown, fueled by the above, that multiplies all those effects simultaneously: a removal of senior staff in service of financial savings has led to a gap of talent and experience, which is currently filled, more often than not, by the victims of that gap. The fact that advertising in general prefers new things to old has helped to accelerate that process, but it’s the generation gap that represents the biggest, darkest, most problematic hole in the health of the industry.

When I were but an AMV junior copywriter, I could come up with a fairly mediocre ad, then go upstairs to show it to Steve Hudson, Victoria Fallon, Paul Briginshaw, Malcolm Duffy, John Gorse, Jeremy Carr, Peter Souter, Sean Doyle, Dave Dye, David Abbott, Tony Cox, Tom Carty, Walter Campbell, Guy Moore, Tony Malcolm, Tim Riley, David Newton, Richard Foster, John Horton, Mary Wear, Damon Collins, Andy McKay, Rob Oliver, Dave Hieatt, Paul Belford, Nigel Roberts, Ron Brown, Tony Strong and Mike Durban (apologies to anyone I’ve forgotten). They would then improve said ad, and I would learn from their suggestions. This made the ad better, but it also made me better. It was like being paid to spend eight years at the greatest advertising school in the world. 

Although I fully admit to being something other than a genius, I have passed some of that wisdom on to people who then worked for me, who then went on to become ECDs, award-winners, and employees of some of the best agencies in London. 

However, some of the best of those best have now left the industry, weakening the chain of education. On top of that, many of the names I mentioned two paragraphs ago are either no longer in the industry, or they are freelancers, and not in a position to impose their creative greatness on a department that might really need it. Every one of them could improve literally any creative person working today, but it won’t happen. The industry has discarded most of that generation, and most of mine, leaving a younger group that could benefit from the kind of experience that is rarely available.

I’m not saying that advertising has an obligation to keep its best practitioners on in perpetuity, but the better people you attract and the better people you keep, the better the work, and the happier and more grateful the clients. Instead we have a situation where the standard has slipped, sending clients running to the arms of GoogleBook. Why would you pay top dollar for a product that is obviously worse than it was ten years ago, especially when there’s a measurable way of making up the shortfall of effectiveness? We’ve traded incredible engagement for incredible targeting, and the bottom line has improved. Sure, way more people (ourselves included) hate 99% of advertising, and it’s led to some little problems like the end of functioning democracies, but, hey, some rich people are richer, so what’s the problem?

Here’s the bit where I turn to the solutions, and the good news is a couple of them do exist. First, there is far more online education than there used to be (there was no ‘online’ when I started, so I had to save up for D&AD and One Show annuals). Anyone inclined to do so can visit Dave Dye’s imperious blog, and listen to his peerless podcasts. It’s a free starting and finishing school that still teaches me a thing or ten. You can also find all the great ads for nothing on D&AD’s online archive. Beyond that, even I’ve managed to record the wise words of some true greats on the ITIAPTWC podcast, and you’ll find similar excellent stuff at the A List podcast, Dave Trott’s blog and in books like Hey Whipple, Squeeze This and The Copy Book

I would also imagine that any enterprising young go-getter could track down any of the best practitioners of the past and present and work out how to flatter them into giving you whatever advice you need. If you’re polite and grateful and willing to work hard you can use that vehicle to travel a long way.

The other solution, which is more theoretical, is this: if advertising as an industry could get over its antipathy towards anyone older than 25, it could find ways to retain those great, slightly older people that would suit everybody. I understand that some older creatives are on their ninth divorce with six kids in public school, but in general, the older you get, at a certain point the more likely it is that your expenses go down. Perhaps advertising salaries could go in a kind of inverted V shape, where you earn the most in the middle of your career, but suck up ongoing pay cuts afterwards. So instead of being too expensive on £150k, you could be just right on £100k, then £75k and so on. Mortgages are going down, school fees are replaced by kids leaving home… Perhaps senior people on less senior salaries could retain proven talent, knowledge and experience without breaking the bank quite so substantially. Just a thought… And if you think that would be sad, it’s kind of what happens now anyway, only you have to keep looking for new jobs, which are often less enticing. At least this way you could have some more security and feel you’re contributing, in an additional mentor role, to an agency you’ve done great things for.

And if you’re an ECD or CEO reading this, feeling a bit icky about having people in their forties hanging around your ping-pong playing Millennials and Gen X-ers, consider this: at some point, we all find ourselves on the wrong end of a financial reshuffle (yes, I know some leave by choice, but a lot of them end up coming back, too). When it’s your turn in the woodshed, you might find things easier if you’ve already instilled a culture of valuing your older members of staff. You might then get to choose a 20% pay cut instead of a definite redundancy. It’s also worth remembering that older people have more spending power, consume more media and like to be spoken to be people of their own age, so older creatives might actually be something of an asset.

Your staff might win, your clients might win, your agency might win, and the whole darn industry might win. 

What have you got to lose?

When the night has come, and the land is dark, and the moon is the only light we’ll see. No, I won’t be afraid, oh, I won’t be afraid, just as long as you stand, stand by the weekend.

Two million free icons.

The internet arcade.

Vocal ranges of the world’s biggest singers.

Create a near-seamless playlist between two artists.

You may not know these 15 songs, but you’ve heard them.

How ‘premium’ orange juice is really made:

Cadbury’s Creme Eggs have been shrinking:

Cause I’m wanted in fifty, almost in fifty-one, states where the posse got me on the run. It’s a big wonder why I haven’t gone under. Dodgin’ the weekend.

How black women helped to build House Music.

Find out what dyslexia is really like.

The CIA’s travel guide to every country.

Fascinating livecams from across the world.

Origami simulator.

The revolting hagfish:

Get your client to write a shitty ad

When someone wants to brief me on a piece of copy I find the shortest route to success is to ask them for the shit version of what they want to say. I can then take that shapeless, dull, muddled piece of writing, pick the sweetcorn out of it, and make it good.

Asking for that contribution also works because it comes across as collaborative and inclusive, two things that clients seem to really appreciate. In effect, all you’re doing is asking for a more complete brief, but in the process of coming up with and writing down that crappy first draft, a client is then forced to think a bit harder about about what they do and don’t want you to say.

I think they also feel a bit exposed. They’re about to show a professional writer a piece of writing, so they tend to put a bit of effort in, giving you something at least mediocre rather than complete toilet. That means you’re already much further along the process that you would otherwise be.

A further benefit is the commitment of thought to paper (or its electronic equivalent). You then have a document to refer to if the client asks why you have included or omitted anything. If they put it in, they can’t be annoyed if you followed suit.

Of course, you don’t have to just do a good version of what they wrote. You can expand your response by asking why they have/haven’t included certain things, which again gets them to explicitly explain and justify each decision. A little chat can bring out a lot of stuff that would otherwise have remained unspoken.

You also find out where their expectations sit. That doesn’t mean you have to meet them, but it’s helpful to know what kind of thing they have in mind

From the creative’s point of view this version of the ad or copy can be also be useful as a springboard for further thinking. I recall an old boss of mine explaining how he and his partner would approach a brief: the first thing they’d do is write down the most basic functional answer (eg: a scribbled sketch of a car with a line that says ‘the new Volvo 800 is fast’). That would then be the ad any other idea would have to beat. Sure, it was dull and low on craft, but it communicated the brief clearly, so any further attempts would have to do the same, only better.

So why not give the ‘Could you write me a shit version of the ad?’ (CYWMASVOTA) technique a go sometime? You have nothing to lose but… Actually, you just have nothing to lose.

ITIAPTC Episode 65 – Kenny Gravillis

I used to collect movie posters. I still have a few favourites, but in the end I ran out of wall space and it seemed a shame to keep so much great stuff rolled up in a cupboard, especially if someone, somewhere might really want that foiled Kill Bill One-Sheet I tracked down, or the UK Quad of Goodfellas.

Anyway, now that I live in LA, I can’t drive anywhere without seeing hundreds of them (fewer recently for obvious reasons), so I still keep an eye out for the good ones.

The very best tend to be done by my friend Kenny Gravillis at Gravillis Inc.:

See? He’s damn good.

So we ended up meeting because his daughter babysat for me a few years ago. We then realised that we had a lot in common – a love of music, movies and frustrating football teams (he supports West Ham) – and now we’re just two ex-Brit mates in LA.

But I always love his work, so I’m always keen to discuss it, hence this podcast.

The other reason to chat is his career story, which goes from the Isle of Dogs to late-80s New York, to designing record sleeves for some of Def Jam’s biggest artists…

…to expanding that role into other labels…

…to pivoting from music to movies, and the surprising hurdles of making that change.

There’s a lot to learn here, all told in Kenny’s East London, NY, LA accent. And if you want to know more, here’s a Creative Review profile (£/$), and a short documentary on how he collaborated with Black Panther designer Emory Douglas on the artwork for Da 5 Bloods:

iTunes link, Soundcloud link, direct link:

If you change your mind, I’m the first in line. Honey I’m still free, take a chance on the weekend.

The Walkman turns 40.

Stop doomscrolling.

Take a look through someone else’s window.

Books with literal titles (including ‘Learning to Play with a Lion’s Testicles’).

Have fun with your keyboard.

Check how drunk you are.

I’m sinking mad deep, no shorts and no sleep. I’m bugged like a tapped phone, hard like the weekend.

Skill is what you make of luck.

Why veterinarians have the highest suicide rate.

Andy Warhol on surviving isolation.

Motherfucking website.

Are you tone deaf?

A dictionary of analogies to explain complicated stuff.

Possibly interesting random information and stats.

The tricked-out vespas of Indonesia (thanks, J):