Giants’ Shoulders and (sort of) rules

Advertising is an odd industry. Unlike, say, law or engineering, we’ve declined to build any kind of a canon of rules or guidelines that are universally accepted.

This is probably because advertising is closer to an art than a science. For every precedent-setting case that contributes to the law, or proven hypothesis that contributes to science, there’s nothing along the same lines that exists for painting, literature or music.

However, there are principles in those disciplines that lead to better work. Not only that, anyone who wants to progress within them will almost certainly have studied the greats of the past. Imagine trying to compose some classical music without an intimate knowledge of Mozart, or pop music without listening to the Beatles; imagine trying to write a book without reading at least something from Dickens, Faulkner or Delillo. Maybe your taste doesn’t extend to the greats in your field; perhaps instead of Lennon and McCartney you’ll have a look at Duran Duran, and you might skip Dostoevsky for Nick Hornby, but unless you’re a massive idiot you’ll take a good hard look at those who have trodden the path before you.

It’s called Standing On The Shoulders Of Giants, and if it was good enough for Isaac Newton, it should be good enough for anyone. In fact I have my own, 100%, solid gold, ocean-going advertising version of it: the great copywriter Nigel Roberts once wrote this line:

It encapsulates that ethos in a way that is so brilliant it should be tattooed to the inside of everyone’s eyelids. People have already done a wonderful version of what you’re doing. Use it as a springboard. Start with the above ad and drink in its peerless writing and art direction, then, if you have yet to do so, find the work of Godfrey, Brignull, Abbott, Brown, Krone, Levenson, Lowther, Marcantonio, Saatchi, Sinclair, Dicketts, Sullivan, Wieden, Wear, Trott, Hoffman (Bob and Susan), Reichenthal, Vitrone, Clow, French, Davidson, Dye, Papworth, Flintham, Souter, Foster, Barry, French, Briginshaw, Duffy, McCabe, Kennedy, Lubars, Gorse, Worthington, Brazier, Fallon (Pat and Victoria), Hudson, McElligott, Rice, Koenig, Doyle, Carty, Campbell, Morris, Webster, Cozens, Waldie, Denton, Palmer, Budgen, Cox, Holmes, Collins (Ron and Damon), Henry (Steve and Susie), Hegarty, Nokes, Jaume, Chaldecott, Cabral, Silburn, Stanners, Belford, Roberts, Beattie and many many others. If you’re not standing on their shoulders you are shooting yourself in the foot. It’s free. It’s fairly easy. It’s actually enjoyable. Go and do it now!

Right, I’ll assume you’ve done that and are now back on this blog.

Beyond the shoulder standing, it often feels as if we all start from scratch every single time we do anything. There’s no set of principles by which we all steer. No essential text that sits in the office of all copywriters, art directors, planners, account people and clients. No definitive rules that each of us can point to in order to settle a difference of opinion once and for all.

And that’s kind of odd, because a few such rules do exist. But despite their incontrovertability (not sure that’s a word, but it should be) many people in the business have either never heard them, or are happy to ignore them, to the detriment or peril of their work. So here, to facilitate all your future presentations and for the ultimate betterment of the work, here are the rules (kind of):

If your advertising goes unnoticed everything else is immaterial (Bill Bernbach). Of course this should be obvious. It is obvious. You have to make ads people notice, because if you don’t, it doesn’t matter what they say. Now, there’s a secondary rule which is almost as solid, but always more open to debate:

Ads should not look like ads. People ignore ads. As soon as they know something is an ad they are usually disinclined to look at it, to take it in, to give a toss about it. But to be fair, this isn’t 100% the case. We’ve all looked at ads that look like ads. We might have even read them or cared about their messages. And the extent to which an ad doesn’t look like an ad is somewhat subjective. Ads have looked like pretty much everything over the years, so sticking to that rule requires what Krone referred to as a ‘new page’: utter originality. Very difficult. You may not have the time, budget or ability to do that, but it should be your aim. Good luck!

Smaller logos, or non-existent ones are best. See the rule above. BUT! Sorry, but there are lots of ads that turn the logo thing on its head to great effect by making it massive. So that’s another half rule. Just make sure the result doesn’t look like an ad.

Treat your audience with intelligence. Again, this works most of the time, but we’ve also seen less brainy work that has appealed to the drooling caveman within us all. Is this intelligent?

Not really. Is it brilliant? Yes. The problem with this is that ‘treat someone with intelligence’ is a subjective matter. Do you go full Wittgenstein, or ease off to the level of Bertrand Russell? Or Russell Brand? Or a Jack Russell?

The purpose of advertising is to sell. Bill Bernbach also said that (really, just read his stuff). We often forget it. Despite the fact that creatives’ raises comes from impressing juries of their peers, the point of making an ad is to sell something, be that a product, a service or an idea. Showing off and wanking about do you and the industry a disservice. This leads on to another Bernbach quote/rule: Getting your product known isn’t the answer. Getting it WANTED is the answer.

You are also a consumer. The tendency of people in advertising to behave as if we are not also human consumers is constantly amazing. If you loathe pre-roll, Instagram interruptions, stupid jingles, dumb headlines, endless repetition etc., why do you create them, recommend them or pay for them?

Finally, (also from BB): Rules are what the artist breaks; the memorable never emerged from a formula. Coming back full circle, we produce art, not science. That is a great excuse to eschew living by rules, but it is not, I repeat not, I repeat again: not an excuse to avoid the shoulders of giants.

Climb aboard those suckers, learn some rules, break them and create new ones for the rest of us.