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David Abbott: The Podcast Series

About a year ago I was listening to a podcast called The Plot Thickens. The subject was the messy production of the movie The Bonfire of the Vanities. As the story unfolded I realised that the format – a documentary of a subject told over several episodes, with interviews featuring the participants – might lend itself to something in the world of advertising.

About ten seconds later I knew that ‘something’ ought to be David Abbott.

For those of you unfamiliar with his work and legacy, David was arguably the greatest advertising person the UK has ever produced. He is without doubt the greatest British copywriter of all time, and that achievement alone would make him a worthy subject of a retrospective, but he was also one of the founders (and subsequent Chairman) of one of Britain’s best ad agencies, which is still going strong. He’s a former President of D&AD, and the recipient of its President’s Award, and he managed to produce a ridiculous 247 pieces of work worthy of inclusion in its annuals. He gave us JR Hartley looking for his book on fly fishing, Bob Hoskins reminding us that it’s good to talk, and The Economist poster campaign, still the gold standard for both copywriting and billboard advertising, despite ending in 2005.

But if you listen to these episodes, you’ll discover that he was also a brilliant account person, strategist, leader, friend, and, improbably, comedian.

He really deserves a biography, and if anyone reading this would like to take the subject on, perhaps here is a good place to start. However, in the absence of a 500-page book, I suppose this podcast series is the next best thing.

My plan was to speak to people as possible who had worked with him and build up a portrait of David over a few episodes, so I started with my version of the ‘low hanging fruit’, by which I mean people whose email addresses I had to hand: Peter Souter, Dave Dye and Paul Burke. I hadn’t really intended to go much beyond them, but as they offered their thoughts, feelings and opinions of David, I soon realised I’d have to find others.

Next was Mike Griffin, a friend of mine who worked for David for many years. He mentioned other possible interviewees and the ball was well and truly rolling: Brian Byfield (David’s former art director); John Field (David’s head of production for over twenty-five years); John O’Driscoll (a creative who worked for David at both DDB and AMV, and the co-creator of the website David Abbott Said, from which I took the first two episodes); John Kelley (John O’Driscoll’s former creative partner, who worked at AMV through most of the 1980s); Cathy Heng (a great art director who began as a junior under David at French Gold Abbott); Jeremy Miles (former Vice-Chairman as AMV, who started there as a junior account person on Sainsbury’s); Mary Wear (a senior creative hired by David in the mid-1990s); Ken New (head of media at AMV and a close friend of David’s); Alfredo Marcantonio (former client, then creative colleague and friend) and Tim Delaney (another of the UK’s greatest copywriters and creative directors, who was almost contemporaneous with David).

I also spoke to Peter Mead and Adrian Vickers, the M and the V of AMV. Their telling of the early days of the UK’s best agency is worth the non-existent ticket price alone.

I’d like to thank them all for the kind gift of their time.

We begin with two episodes of David in his own words, all taken from Davidabbotsaid.com, a site I urge you to visit because it contains exactly the same interview, but alongside footage of David. I hadn’t planned to include it, after all, it already exists and is easily accessible, but during the edit I felt that there was an enormous David-shaped hole amongst all the excellent testimony. That hole has been filled, and you can now hear David’s voice in convenient podcast form.

Although I started this in December 2021, the process of tracking people down and interviewing them, along with lots and lots of editing, all while spending a great deal of time on my day job, took longer than I expected. I tried to collect the words into themes, giving us the opportunity to spot threads and patterns that might inspire further impressions. They are loose and imperfect, but they basically hang together to form discrete narratives.

I added my own thoughts in one episode because I crossed over with David for six months as a very junior copywriter back in 1998. I won’t repeat here what I said there, but I just wanted to make one thing clear: no matter how completely I managed to do this, I could never really convey the totality of David Abbott. Next month my Creative Review column will act as a companion piece to this post and the podcast episodes, offering a 900-word primer for the uninitiated, but it still won’t be enough.

Mary Wear said it best when she pointed out that the truly wonderful thing that David did was to encourage us to aspire, but not in the current advertising sense of wishing you had the latest phone or a six-pack beach body. Instead David gently, intelligently and brilliantly encouraged us to aspire to be better people. Better spouses, better parents, better kids, better pet owners, better cooks, better friends… and all in the service of improving our own lives and the lives of those around us. It was purpose-based advertising before that became an excuse for chocolate bars to save whales, and every word he wrote was linked to the commercial improvement of a product or service.

But just because it’s impossible to entirely capture David, that doesn’t mean it’s not worth trying. If you listen to these episodes you should get a much greater sense of who he was and how he contributed to us all, especially those of us who have worked in advertising.

If you’ve ever felt The Economist could make you a bit more interesting, BT could help you stay in touch with an old friend, or Sainsbury’s could provide the ingredients and inspiration to create an excellent meal, you now know who to thank.

I hope you enjoy listening to the episodes as much as I enjoyed putting them together.

I have done my best to add them in chronological order, so here’s the last of the seven, called Final Thoughts. If you have trouble with iTunes or this site, you can also find the whole series on Soundcloud.

If This Is A Blog Then What's Christmas?
If This Is A Blog Then What's Christmas?
David Abbott: The Podcast Series
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David Abbott Podcast Episode 6

This is the sixth episode of my series of podcasts about the great David Abbott.

This one is called ‘David’s Department’ and explores what it was like to be a creative working under David.

I’ll link to the episode here, but you can also find the whole series on Soundcloud.

If This Is A Blog Then What's Christmas?
If This Is A Blog Then What's Christmas?
David Abbott Podcast Episode 6
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Which Ideas To Offer, And When To Offer Them.

If you’ve worked in advertising for longer than five minutes, you’ve come across the dilemma of which ideas to present to your partner/CD/Client.

The choice tends to come down to three elements: quality, quantity and time. Do you ever show anything you don’t 100% believe in? Sure, if the audience is your copywriter; not if the audience is your client. Do you offer a pile of ideas? Maybe for a single headline, maybe not for a fully fleshed-out 360-degree campaign. What do you do when the deadline is approaching but the Brilliant Idea Fairy has yet to pay you a visit?

There are many variations on those choices, so let’s check out a few, starting with what you should consider when it comes to sharing ideas with your partner…

  1. Show them everything. Just put your brain on loudspeaker and chuck it all out there under the truism that there are no bad ideas, and that anything, no matter how crappy, might spark off a better thought from your AD or CW. In many ways this is a good path to take, especially in those desperate hours when you’re on the third round of the same brief and the well has run dry. In these situations you should both be at your most charitable/receptive, and be willing to listen to any old shite because it’s probably more useful than silence (although, if memory serves, I have heard and offered some ideas that were actually worse than silence).
  2. Show them the stuff you think has some proper merit. This doesn’t just mean only telling them the ideas you think could end up with a Cannes Grand Prix (or some increased sales. Crazy idea, I know!); it means explaining the idea along with some reasons why it might be good, and some extra ways in which the scope of the concept might expand. If you think an idea is good then you need to present it in such a way that it is both understandable and exciting (just like the final ad), so maybe think it through somewhere quiet first (eg: lav, park, lav in a park), and mention it when your other half is in a receptive frame of mind, and not when they’ve just told you their beloved puppy has been run over.
  3. Show them stuff that you don’t like, but you know others will. Sometimes, when the clock is ticking and you know your CD is a talentless idiot with no taste, you might be tempted to please him or her by offering that crass, dull, unoriginal rip off of an old One Show winner. It’ll make the boss happy, and by extension it might make your partner happy, but then you might have to make it, and watch it go on air, and explain to your disappointed family that you wrote it. When you get through round one, there are many other rounds to follow, and when every good director turns it down, every other team in the agency avoids asking what you’re up to, and everyone in the country hates you for making them watch something awful, you might start to wish you’d kept your mouth shut three months earlier.

For the CD we have another few categories:

  1. Show them loads of ideas. There are pros and cons to this, as it kind of implies that you have no ability to sort your own wheat from your own chaff. Then again, most teams aren’t supposed to have that ability; if they did they’d be the CD. So err on the side of volume, as long as the ads you show are defensible in some way. When your CD says “What do you mean by X?” Or “Isn’t this just like that other thing you did?”, you’ll need a decent answer, one that prevents you looking stupid in front of the person who decides whether or not you should have a raise. In my CDing days I’ve certainly found gems in ideas that teams weren’t particularly proud of, and I’ve failed to see the excellence in ideas they’ve clearly thought were brilliant. Let’s accept that tastes differ and a little wiggle room in the decision-making process can go a long way.
  2. Show them only the best of the best. There are pros and cons to this, as it implies you are the proper arbiter of quality and your boss isn’t. Also, if the great idea you show fails to impress, then you look like a tit who has failed in terms of both quality and quantity. Then again (see above), you don’t want to show things you don’t want to make, so don’t make up the numbers with rubbish. I remember an ECD I used to work for who invented something he called ‘The Wheel’. It was like a Trivial Pursuit pie with eight segments, all of which had to be filled with an idea. Yes – you were supposed to come up with eight good ideas for each brief. Eight! Five properly good ideas for a full-on 360 campaign is hard; eight is/was a bit of a joke. Top tip: coming up with ideas like The Wheel and putting them into practice is a GREAT way to lose the respect of your entire department.
  3. Show them half-formed stuff. There are also pros and cons to this method. Most embryonic ideas could end up being good or bad, so it helps to have a bit of proof to understand how the concept comes to life. If I were to say ‘A guy waits for a wave, and when it arrives it’s pretty amazing’, you might now imagine Guinness Surfer, but if I’d said that in 1998, you’d have no idea how good it could be. Your presentation could therefore benefit from some further explanation, or from you being the best TV creatives in the world. That said, unless you’re super senior, you might want to leave room for the CD to add some thoughts that could make yours better. Don’t make it seem like they should do a lot of the work required to make the improvements, but maybe frame it as more of a conversation than a presentation.

Talking of presentations, next is the client.

  1. Only show them what you want to make. I know I’ve mentioned this above, but it’s different when you show the client. It’s possible they have no creative ability, so if you show them the shit one to make the good one look good YOU WILL DEFINITELY END UP MAKING THE SHIT ONE. And it’s almost impossible to take an ad back, so if you show it, be prepared for them to like it and buy it, at which point you are going to spend a lot of time making it. The only flipside to this is the fact that you have meetings and deadlines, and sometimes you don’t have three insanely good ads at the appointed hour. So do you show that ‘quite good’ third campaign that you don’t really love? There might be pressure from account management to do that because they know the client will adore your less good ad (“It features Ant and Dec riding horses? The client loves Ant, Dec and horses! Nice one”), but you must resist. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen someone wrongly second-guess a client, so showing only work you want to make is a very good policy, even if it means being one idea light at the meeting.
  2. Show them lots of stuff in the spirit of collaboration. Sure, if you feel confident in the client’s taste, and you can push back against any shitty suggestions they might make. But if you are missing one of those elements, don’t ask the client to join your creative team. That’s not what they’re good at, and they probably don’t like having their ideas rejected by people they think they are in charge of. If you want to collaborate, it helps to set a policy of not trying to solve everything there and then. Take the ‘collaboration’ on board and fix it back at the agency, away from a situation where you have to let them down gently when they suggest building an entire ad campaign around a Diplo remix of Shania Twain’s That Don’t Impress Me Much.
  3. Only show them one idea. Why would you show them anything else? Just look decisive and show, no, tell them what they’re going to be buying. In 2022 that does sound kind of ker-azee because we are now deep into the worlds of multiple routes and the aforementioned ‘collaboration’, but back the day, when agencies had the pimp hand, they would present just one idea, and the client would buy it (or reject it, I guess. Then another one would be written, ruining the whole ‘one idea’ thing, and effectively stretching a three-idea presentation over three separate meetings. Anyway, I never witnessed this, and I digress…). In some ways that makes sense: if you’re buying something from an expert, you probably just want what they think is best, but these days that seems like you’re backing the client into a corner, and making them choose without giving them any choices. In 2022 it would be a bold move, but if you REALLY believe in your one idea then stand behind it, and let me know how it goes.

As you can see from the above, there are different versions of the same practices, and they tend to depend on your audience. The closer you get to the client, the greater the consequences, so make sure you improve your ideas as they continue up the chain.

And don’t forget that the ultimate audience is the actual, y’know, audience, ie: the general public. They only get to see the final version of the concept that made it through all those gatekeepers, and if they like it, everything else is academic.



Conflict Cuts Both Ways

When I helped to start Lunar BBDO, it was created to be a ‘conflict shop’ for AMV BBDO. They had the account for The Phone Book, but also Yellow Pages, two broadly identical products, so we handled the former, allowing them to keep the latter.


The idea is that an agency shouldn’t have advertise two products in the same category because that will create conflict regarding which insights and ideas they might use for each one. In addition, the research and competitive knowledge they would have on each of the businesses could potentially be quite damaging for one or the other. For example, if the Phone Book’s account team knew that Yellow Pages was about to go entirely digital, that would give them a massive advantage over their biggest competitor.


So whether it’s cars, chocolate bars or travel agents, companies tend not to choose an agency that helps their competitors.


That said, when I worked at AMV, they were the biggest agency in the country, which meant they already had an account in most categories, limiting their potential for growth. This is where some enterprising thinking could suggest that similar products were in fact different. Perhaps one chocolate bar was aimed at the premium market, while the other was more everyday, and thus not a true competitor. I don’t know how many companies accepted such sub-differentiating, but it was worth a try.


I was thinking about this the other day, when it occurred to me that we never really consider this issue from the other side: clients often use several advertising/marketing/PR agencies, whose skills overlap. That would suggest that they are in competition with each other, and that often means problematic consequences.


Here’s an example how it works on the surface: client A has three roster agencies, X, Y and Z, providing help in publicising what they do. X, Y and Z have different core abilities (eg, social, direct, events), so they are briefed on different tasks, but when a big campaign needs to knit that work together, they are expected to be very mature about it and play nice with a good old handshake and a friendly pint after it’s all over.


In reality, as almost all of you know, it does not work anything like that. Advertising offerings are now so disparate and amorphous, and agencies are now so desperate to gain and retain any part of the pie, that everyone claims to be able to do everything. Digital agencies do design; design agencies do PR; PR agencies do brand audits etc. 


If you’re a client, not only do you now find it difficult to truly separate your roster of publicity vendors, you probably don’t want to. The competition leads to desperation, which leads to more work produced for less money, just on the off-chance that agency X can be given some of the budget and work that would have gone to agency Z. In many instances, it’s survival of the cheapest and most craven, accelerating a race to the bottom. 


Clients don’t really want to stop their agencies trying to one-up each other, and even if they did, no self-respecting agency would stay in their lane if they happened to have a good idea that belonged in someone else’s. 


And this isn’t even a new situation. In 1999 I worked on a Millennium Bug campaign (Google it, kids), which we were to present alongside complementary work from our direct marketing agency. When we turned up to the meeting with them, they had also come up with some TV ads, the very thing we were supposed to contribute. In those days you could ask them what on earth they thought they were doing; these days, colouring outside your lines is almost expected.


So now competing agencies have to decide who is leading a joint presentation, designing the deck, choosing which work lives or dies and what order it all comes in. This obviously adds extra stress, work and time to the process, particularly as there is often no definitive right or wrong. Eventually a decision must be made, and when the meeting arrives, one agency might try to undercut the work of another, while always looking as if they are actually best pals.


It’s the very definition of the conflict clients seek to avoid. One agency’s endline might now be the backbone of another agency’s TV campaign, but how does the first agency claim its credit for the contribution without looking petty and grasping? If agency X has an amazing insight that leads to fantastic work from agency Y, is it fair to just use that work for free? The clients would say, ‘Sure, one team one dream’. The agencies might ostensibly agree, while thinking, ‘There’s no ‘I’ in team, but there is a ‘me’’. 


At the end of the process, does it make the work better? One on side the sharing of insights and ideas should improve the overall end product, with everyone allowed to select from the best ingredients. On the other, no agency wants to make the other one look good as it could genuinely cost them the whole account. So they might push their own lesser idea that much harder, giving it lots of expensive craft to lift it above the others. Worse work? Perhaps, but at least it’ll be our worse work.


In the end, it becomes a kind of frenemy situation that must be managed with kid gloves. Each agency knows the other has a direct line to the client, so they must be on their guard 24/7. 


How can this be avoided? Well, you’d be asking a client to turn down the extra effort that is born of competition, which is basically free work. Better for them that agencies live with the conflict, no matter how serious the injuries that result.



The evolution of the portfolio.

It’s now the essential collection of anyone creative’s work and achievements, along with a little ‘about’ section that gives you a delightful window into their career, but also explains that they collect ceramic frogs or enjoy traveling to Chad.

Portfolios weren’t always so elaborate. For a start, they used to be made of paper and contained nothing but the work. They almost always came in a faux-leather case, complete with ring binders that never quite worked, and filling them up required finding laminated proofs of your ads, while TV and radio could be collected on additional cassettes that you shoved into a sleeve at the back.

There might have been a short step that involved putting the work on DVDs, but that was kind of complicated, so the hard copy portfolio was king until maybe 2010, when you pretty much had to have a website of some sort. 

Before Squarespace made life a bit easier, getting that site together was difficult and expensive. They tended to look a bit crap, and updating them to add your new work was a tedious and annoying process. But sending a link around was much easier than lugging a portfolio case across town, and ECDs were much happier viewing ten books via the convenience of their laptop.

Now that a spiffy-looking site is within the reach of us all, a few fundamentals have changed. Instead of simply letting the work speak for itself (and in this brave new world of mandatory case studies), additional explanations are expected. You can give strategic context, production information and results, if you’re so inclined. 

And as with those case studies, that seems to mean finding the most positive possible lens through which to present yourself. A minor pair of social posts can become ‘Client X’s first-ever Instagram campaign, which used the illustrations of sneaker influencer PJQ to set the brand off in an entirely new direction. It gained 341,867 media impressions in the first ten days, on its way to becoming the most-watched carousel for the FMCG market in the month of July’. 

A recent LinkedIn post from an ECD suggested that, ‘If you didn’t write it, go through a dozen iterations, and attend rounds of meetings where it was discussed. If you didn’t pick the director, nor flew to the shoot and fought for that take you thought you needed. If you didn’t spend days in an edit suite, painstakingly moving frames, undecided between V.63 or V.64 while trying 100 tracks on your laptop. If you were not there… THEN DON’T PUT IT IN YOUR PORTFOLIO.

I can see where he’s coming from, but I’ve witnessed enough inside stories of great work to know that the division of labour between members of a creative team is rarely equal enough to ensure that the above would apply to both. One copywriter might have slaved away at the concept, only for their AD to dominate the executional elements. Does that mean neither can claim the finished piece as their own? 

That ECD’s point is that you need to be able to use a portfolio to accurately evaluate its owner’s abilities. What if you’ve been fooled into hiring a CW who will not be great at the post-production stage? Or an AD who can’t come up with a concept to save their life?

But that’s always going to be tricky. For some teams and creatives the degree of contribution can ebb and flow, and sometimes the editor or sound engineer ends up suggesting a better endline, which is then used in the final ad. Does that mean the creatives shouldn’t claim full credit? Where does an ad cross the line between ‘yours’ and ‘someone else’s’?

And what about creative directors? When it comes to their portfolios, some of them clearly delineate between their CD work and their work as a creative foot soldier, but even then, there are CDs who transform base metal into gold, while others make little difference, or even make things worse. If that happens it’s unlikely the CD will honestly cop to a lack of contribution; after all, everyone is the hero of their own story.

Advertising is full of misattributed credit, fluffed-up CVs and rose-tinted glasses. Positive takes are what we create for a living, so it’s no surprise that people use them for themselves. That probably means we should take portfolios with a pinch of salt, perhaps downgrading claims by 10-20% (as I do when I watch a case study).

This is especially true as portfolios are now out there for everyone to find and pore over. Just Google the name of the creative alongside the word ‘advertising’ and you should find what you’re looking for. Then you can see if they list every single award, whether huge or tiny, or just use the low-key, but suspiciously non-specific self-endorsement, ‘I’ve been recognised by all major international award schemes’.

You can also check out the window to their soul: the ‘about’ section, which can be po-faced and self-important, or humorously self-deprecating. I find that it’s often surprisingly revealing, as much for what is omitted as what is included. 

Last is the style. 90% seem to be Squarespace sites, with a fairly neutral and functional design – the closest thing you can get to letting the work speak for itself. But I feel the ADs often want to demonstrate their visual chops more obviously. They are usually the ones that get a proper site done, bringing the design flex with a bit of parallax scrolling.

Just like the rest of the industry, the internet has provided your portfolio situation with many more tools, but also many more choices, so make sure you think though it all with the care you’d apply to your ads. As one wise person’s portfolio says, ‘Ah! The good old ‘about’ section. Time to decide whether to talk about myself in the first person or the third…



What Do We Mean By ‘Good’?

Art is a funny old game. Pretty much every form of it suffers from the same inability to measure its quality with any objectivity.

In books you’ll find millions who think War And Peace is a boring load of old crap, and millions who think it’s the best book ever written (and possibly millions who will claim they think it’s the best book ever written, even though they really think it’s a boring load of old crap). You’ll also find millions who love The Da Vinci Code and millions who think it’s utter trash (and millions more who claim to think it’s utter trash despite powering through it in a single afternoon).

When it comes to art you’ll find many who gaze in wonder at the work of Rothko and many others who gaze at it in equal wonder because they can’t comprehend why a few shapeless splodges came to be so highly praised. Is the Mona Lisa brilliant, or did it simply gain undeserved notoriety when it was stolen? Why can’t we all tell the difference between the splashes your child brings back from kindergarten and the average Jackson Pollock?

Cinema: some think Fellini captures the heart and soul of the human experience, while Dr Strange In The Multiverse Of Madness is formulaic CGI plop. Others think Fellini is boring, pretentious rubbish, while Dr Strange is the height of imagination, writ large through the gothic perspective of Sam Raimi. I love Bela Tarr’s Satantango, the seven-hour story of exploited Hungarian farm workers, and I also love Thor Ragnarok. Then again, I wasn’t keen on Tarr’s Werckmeister Harmonies, and I thought Thor: Love and Thunder was shit.

You get the picture.

But what about advertising?

I think it suffers from exactly the same vagaries of opinion, but the problem is that it’s halfway between art and commerce, in that it is unpredictably creative, but it tends to have has a specific and timely response goal. It can’t find its audience thirty years after it was relatively ignored just because it gets revived by a movie (like Tiny Dancer). It can’t create a hipster late-night audience to spread its success over decades (like The Rocky Horror Picture Show). And it can’t be successful if it’s loved by critics but basically ignored by the public (see: Hurt Locker, Satantango and about a billion other films, albums, songs, books, paintings, sculptures and TV shows).

But when it comes to being ‘good’, I think advertising falls into three categories:

1. I’ll call the first category Award Good. That doesn’t mean it’s only liked by award juries; just that awards are the one essential criterion for an ad to be considered ‘good’. 

Some of you probably read my post about this year’s Cannes Grand Prix winners. I would argue that some of them are only ‘award good’, while others won awards while also successfully achieving their intended goals of fame/sales/awareness. 

But many people (ECDs and CCOs very much included) fall back on this measure because there is supposed wisdom in crowds, and the fact that several jurors collectively chose the work to represent their opinions of what is ‘good’ is the closest we can get get to objectivity. The fact that one or more of the jurors might have considered the winning work to be crap is neither here nor there because no one will ever know. Like democracy, it’s the worst system we have except for all the others.

Does an award mean the work is good? Of course not. Some jurors were selected despite having poor taste and no knowledge of what has gone before. Some judging sessions get swept up in moods that give some ads an unexpected boost. Some people judge on different criteria to others, possibly because of cultural differences or, crucially, simple differences of opinion. Awards are just what some people think on a certain day, looking at the work out of context on a computer, then in a conference room, while quite keen to get it over with so they can go and find the nearest Pina Colada. 

Clearly that’s not an unimpeachable way to assess quality, so if you think that saving a coral reef has nothing to do with selling cat food, and thus an ad that tries to do that is not good, even though it has a Cannes Grand Prix, then you may well be a better judge than the senior creative types who held the opposite view.

2. Actual Good. This is where is gets tricky. In my infinitesimally humble opinion, any ad that achieves what it sets out to do can be considered ‘good’. It might be unoriginal, obtuse, irritating, boring, poorly-crafted and million other horrible things, but if it does what it’s supposed to do, that must surely be a mark of quality.

Before I go any further, I have to point out that we rarely know what the precise aims of any particular ad might be, so we’re going to have to be a bit open-minded about this, but let’s give it a go. 

Ads that bring fame to their clients, even the ones we think are crap, tend to fall into this category. But I’d like to include a sub-category of work that manages to persuade you to do something, even if it’s not as jaw-dropping as Guinness Surfer or as cool as the Levi’s ad where they run through walls. Here’s an example from my own viewing experience:

I’ve never seen that ad before, but it contains something I always love to see in a toothpaste ad: the bit at 0:07, where you get an animated representation of the  gunk being washed away by the magic toothpaste. Is that ‘good’? Not in a Cannes way, obviously, but that was the kind of thing that actually persuaded me to do something. It’s unoriginal, on the nose and a cliche of the genre, but it always pulled me in. The creatives and post people should be commended for doing their job in a way that achieved their desired result (I can’t remember if I bought the toothpaste in question, and you might suggest that I may have confused brands of toothpaste because all these ads are so similar, but at least I noticed and thought about the ad, which is more effectiveness than most. And maybe I did buy that brand of toothpaste).

In the UK this ad used to run during weekday afternoons:

Literally everyone in the country knew it, and could sing the song. Did it win awards? Of course not. Did it impart information in a clear and memorable way, conferring fame on its client? Yep.

On the flipside of those examples, I’m going to use Fearless Girl as an example of what does not fit under this definition of ‘good’. No one knows who it was for or what it was supposed to communicate, then it turned out that the company responsible acted in a way that was the opposite of the supposed message of their lovely sculpture, so even if anyone had known who was behind it, it ended up as a cynical exercise in subterfuge. Yes, it was famous, but if that were the only criterion for success, The Queen’s funeral queue should win all the awards going.

3. Finally we have Good That’s Been Graded On A Curve. For those unfamiliar with the American school system, ‘grading on a curve’ refers to the practice of finding a normal distribution of results (a few crap, a lot of mediocre and a few excellent), even if the work doesn’t accurately reflect that. Which is a long way of saying that we might well be praising work that isn’t so much ‘good’ as ‘good for an ad’, or even ‘good for the ads of a certain year’.

When we see a ‘really good’ headline, is it really good, or just a good ad headline? I understand that the two things have similar meanings for most people, but why are we OK with implying that ads are a worse art form, judged to a lower standard than books, films or music?

You might say that the very best advertising sits equal to the very best of other art forms. Unfortunately that is not the case. Dumb Ways To Die is not The Apartment. Honda Grrr is not Up or Inside Out. It’s harder to compare print advertising to other forms of the written word, but suffice to say, VW Lemon is easily surpassed by thousands of novels, magazine articles, newspaper headlines and political slogans. 

Yes, the best of advertising is a long way from the best of Other Things, but perhaps you think I’m unfairly pitting them against each other.

They don’t have to answer to dozens of clients. 

Ever tried getting an original film through the studio system, or convincing a record label to release something edgy?

What about the budgets? 

Minute for minute some ads have more production money than Avatar. Radio and print work has far more money than its non-ad equivalents.

They’re not long form, so how can we judge them in the same way?

Michelangelo’s single-image art was effectively advertising for the Catholic Church, as were all the requiems and speeches that moved countless millions to believe in something that doesn’t even exist. 

Religion is far more compelling than soap powder.

Sure, but we make ads for charities all the time, and there’s nothing to stop us persuading people to reverse the Climate Crisis or stop the worst consequences of wealth inequality. We literally need no brief for those movements, so we have no excuses.

I once wrote a Creative Review column about my Weekend At Bernie’s theory. It states that it would be better to have been responsible for a mediocre film such as A Weekend At Bernie’s, than the very best advertising. More people care about the movie, it’s more famous, and has caused millions of people to part with money to experience it and spend hours to see it. What ad can make that claim?

So we don’t really create anything that’s world-class ‘good’. We do the best we can within our industry and media, but we are given plenty of money, the opportunity to work with great artists (eg: Jonathan Glazer, the director of Under The Skin, a work of art far better than any ad in history), and often work on compelling briefs.

So how good is our good? 

When we move three frames here or there, are we making an ad 2% better, but still miles below the standard of Wedding Crashers? 

When we celebrate our ‘best’ is it any better than the blah stuff we skim past on the Netflix menu?

Why isn’t our work on that same plane?

Is this why a TikTok or YouTube video can often be so much better and more culturally relevant than our best, even when it’s been done by a 15-year-old kid in their bedroom?

If you disagree with this point, name the most recent ad that has had the cultural impact of this zero-budget soundbite (IYKYK, IYDK that might be the problem): 

I’m not saying that the very best of advertising has not been impressive, but I wonder how out of whack our judgment has been. Do we unwittingly participate in a collective acceptance of the relatively so-so? What effect does that then have on the quality of the work, the people who are inclined to join the industry, and its standing in culture and society?

And what would happen if we demanded and only accepted much, much, much better?



I’ve Started A Free Ad School!

The other day this guy started appearing on my TikTok feed. He was explaining how to make great advertising, and the things he was saying made a lot of sense. So I looked him up and it turns out he’s called Jason Bagley and he’s made some amazing ads and has now started some kind of ad school. Here’s his introductory video:

Jason explains the format in this article: The first class, Creative Megamachine, will run for eight weeks. There will be two hour-long Zooms with Bagley each week—one being a lecture of sorts, and the other being a group discussion and Q&A.”So it’ll be between about 20 hours with me in a pretty small group over Zoom,” he says. “I’m hoping to be the Obi-Wan Kenobi to their Luke Skywalker.” Sounds great, but I can’t find how much it costs and don’t want to sign up for his emails, but let’s assume it’s not free.

The other other day this article (£/$) appeared in my daily Creative Review email. For those of you without a CR subscription, it is a profile of The Barn, a kind of Watford 2.0 based inside BBH London where aspiring creatives actually get paid to learn. The article then goes into why that is a better solution to creative advertising education than the current, relatively expensive options: “I think the ad school model is now being questioned and challenged, particularly if it costs a lot for those students to attend,” he (Tony Cullingham) says, “because, hey, it’s a big surprise – you get rich, privileged students on courses that charge 15 grand a year.”

True.

So those are two of the current options for aspiring creatives, neither of which existed when I was starting out. A third option would be somewhere like SCA in London, or Miami Ad School, which run for various lengths of time, but cost a fair bit of money. I’m not exactly sure where places like Bucks or St Martins fit in these days, but I assume they’re similar to SCA, but perhaps for a smaller fee.

If you want to be a copywriter or art director, I think those are your ‘formal’ education choices, but I wonder what I’d do if I were starting out today, and by extension, what would I suggest to someone who wanted to go down that path. 

I’ve written about advertising education before, but more for the benefit of people who are already in the industry but want to improve (something that might apply to the School of Astonishing Pursuits). However, call me deluded, but I still think you could go from a standing start to a job in good agency within a year, and for an outlay of £0, and in such a way that you could manage it around your current annoying job (the one you want to leave so you can work in advertising).

So, welcome to your first day at Ben’s Free In Your Spare Time Get A Great Job Within A Year Ad School.

Here’s the schedule:

  1. Listen to the podcasts. Fucking hell! They’re free! There are loads of them and they cost nothing. Nothing! Start with Dave Dye’s because they really get into the whole story of how people got into the business and he writes a post to go with each interview that is insanely detailed. Then have a look around at others such as Tagline, or even mine (I occasionally wrote a post to go with my chats, AND I spent five hours interviewing Dave Dye, so you won’t find that on his feed). There are probably others, but I assume you’re resourceful enough to find them. If you aren’t, give up now.
  2. Have a look at the Archive section of D&AD’s website. If a half-decent ad happened over the last thirty years, it’s there for you to look at and learn from FOR FREE. They’ve recently added the ‘shortlisted’ stuff, so the amount is large and the scope is wide. You could start with the Black Pencils and work your way down.
  3. Once you’ve done a month of that (or a day of it if you’re feeling inspired) have a go at coming up with some ads. It’s fun. No one can stop you writing whatever you want for whatever client you want. Now, I know I said the whole thing was free, but I assumed, like almost everyone on planet earth, you own a smartphone and can afford a pad of paper. That will allow you to do everything I’ve suggested so far. You can even take a pen from your local betting shop and write ads on receipts, or bits of newspaper that you’ve fished out of a bin. Or unused loo roll from the local swimming pool. What I’m saying is, there’s lots of free stuff around to write on.
  4. As an addendum to stage 3, find a partner as quickly as possible. If you like writing or are good at it (or both), find an art director, and vice versa. This will increase your chances of getting that great job by a factor of 10000000. Where do you find this partner? OK, I’m not going to do everything for you, but ask around. Advertising is a small business. Explain your predicament to headhunters, go for crits (see below) and ask people you meet there, go to advertising talks… It might take a while, but you’ll find someone eventually, and anyway, the longer it takes, the better you’ll be when you find someone, and the more inclined they’ll be to work with you.
  5. As another addendum to 3, set yourself a daily quota. Say… one campaign a day. That might mean you produce something shit, but a) The very process of forcing yourself to meet this quota will make you do creative things and b) If you come up with 300 campaigns in 300 days, ten of them will be good enough to put in your portfolio. And don’t stop there. The people who will do best on this course will set themselves a quota of two campaigns a day, or three. Or four (you get the idea).
  6. Crits. Start calling up/emailing creative teams in ad agencies. Start with the ones whose work you admire most. Tell them why you like their stuff. Do not fake it and do not lie. People love to know that people give a shit about the fact that they exist. Exploit that for your own ends. Find teams in agencies you like and admire. Nowadays you could even try an email crit with a team in another part of the world, then get a job there. This is about gaining knowledge, honing your craft via expert advice and (CRUCIALLY) making friends in the industry who can help you get that job. Aim high. There was a team whose work I loved. I saw them when I was shit, saw them again when I was a bit better, then saw them a third time when they loved my book and recommended it to the ECD of their agency, which happened to be AMV BBDO. Next week I was there on placement. Six months later I had a job at the best agency in the world. That’s why you do you crits. Did I mention they’re not only free, nice creative will give you pens and pads and other contacts in other agencies, which might be the ones that give you that brilliant job.
  7. Repeat the above until you have a job. The harder you work, the sooner it’ll happen. The less of an arsehole you are, the sooner it’ll happen, so be nice and grateful and humble because people like to have nice, grateful, humble people around. 

The course starts in exactly fifty-three seconds and can last anywhere between a few months and the rest of your life, depending on how closely you follow the above, and how much of an arsehole you are. But it’s basically foolproof, so get on with it.

Finally, if you have any problems with how the course is run, you can have a full refund at any time. Good luck!



That Timex Billboard: I’m confused.

Last week’s LinkedIn was dominated by two things: a CEO who cried because he had to get someone on his staff to fire some other people on his staff, and that Timex billboard.

The reaction to the CEO thing was kind of fun, but it was the Timex billboard that inspired me to write this post. Actually, to be more accurate, it was the reaction to the Timex billboard that inspired me to write this post. 

I’m confused, but in a good way. It caught fire, but I’m not sure why, so exploring that might help educate me in some way.

(By the way, I’m very aware that writing hundreds of words about the fact that hundreds of words have been written about that billboard is also kind of weird, but here we are.)

Let’s start by talking about the ad itself. Fascinating thing number one is that lots of people were praising it to the heavens. Positive comments on LinkedIn, Instagram, Reddit and even in articles included, ‘Love this – very clever!’, ‘This is brilliant’, ‘Excellent billboard’, ‘I have serious respect for brands that commit to who they are rather than jumping on the latest trend’…

Fascinating thing number two is that lots of people were not praising it to the heavens: ‘Too wordy. Everybody knows what the brand is and what it does’, ‘Clever ad poor execution’, ‘The line feels like the prop the planner wrote’.

Many people went so far as to rewrite the line: ‘Love the sentiment but a bit long. Some quickfire alts: “Nothing but Time”, “Disconnect In Style”, “Sync With Simplicity”. ‘The line could have been something as simple as “Tells Time, looks timeless”.’ How about “It’s time’?

Many others actually re-art directed it:

(I have no idea who did the above, or the rewrites. I kind of like the last one, but I don’t think i’d understand it without the additional context of the original line.)

I actually wrote my own little post on LinkedIn expressing amazement at the time people spent discussing this ad because it’s actually (drumroll please…) fine. That’s it. Not great, not bad. Fine.

Look, I get it: it went viral. It touched a nerve. It captured a zeitgeist. It inspired 5000 comments on Reddit and hundreds more on LinkedIn. People engaged with it far more than they do with 99.9% of ads. And that means it’s good, right? And any criticism I’m about to offer is surely born of bitterness or jealousy or being out of touch, or having no taste.

Sorry. No. 

I don’t know if it was a slow news week (we are in August, after all. The newspapers call it ‘Silly Season’ because there’s so little to write about, silly stories end up running. Then again, in America it has been an insanely unslow news week, but we all have tiny attention spans these days, so…) but it rose to the top for reasons other than the quality of its strategy, concept, copywriting and art direction, which (see above) are not ‘excellent’.

Here’s a fundamental reason why: if you read any of Dave Trott’s wisdom you’ll know that one of his unarguable maxims is around binary briefing. In short, you’re either the market leader, in which case growing the market is a good idea, or you’re not, in which case growing market share is what you need to do. So if you’re not the biggest-selling watch brand, you need to say something about your watch that makes it different to the others. If you’re not doing that, you’re simply helping the top brand sell more. This billboard reminds you of a fact that applies to literally every non-smart watch on the planet (it only tells the time), so unless Timex is the market leader, this is not the right kind of advertising to create.

Here, for your illumination, are the top selling watch brands with over an estimated $1 Billion in US wholesale sales:

  1. Rolex $4.5 Bn USD
  2. Omega $3 Bn
  3. Apple $2.5 Bn
  4. Fossil $2.3 Bn
  5. Cartier $1.8 Bn
  6. Citizen $1.6 Bn
  7. Seiko $1.4 Bn
  8. Patek Philippe $1.2 Bn
  9. Longines $1.2 Bn
  10. Swatch $1.1 Bn

Quora also tells me that the top selling watch at a group level is Swatch Group, with annual revenues of around $10 billion, but that is split between several brands, including Blancpain, Omega, Longines, Tissot, Mido, Hamilton and Rado. The top seller in terms of number of watches is Citizen.

See? Education! I bet none of you knew all that.

However, I also bet all of you noticed the absence of Timex. It was harder to find comparable figures, but it seems to have annual revenue of $1.2bn wordwide, which explains why it’s not in that US-only top 10.

And that explains why it should grow its brand with something specific and not the category with something generic. You might argue that staking out this anti-smartphone territory will give it some specific brand attribution, but that would be very charitable. That billboard is not well branded (tiny, indistinct logo; a watch that looks like lots of other watches; a small line that’s positioned in a place that makes it hard to read; sharing the space with a co-brand called Adsum), and you might again be very charitable and say that it’s anti-branding, or more in keeping with the lo-fi vibe of Adsum, but this is also $1bn+ Timex, not some obscure little underdog. We’ve all heard of Timex, so why try to hide it when you’re trying to sell it?

So it’s technically not ‘excellent’ in positioning terms, and that positioning is not even original. Sekonda, a very reliable but inexpensive watch, has been using this strategy for years:

Also, the Timex typography is hard to read and the line is long for a billboard, and it indeed feels like it’s taken directly from the brief (although I kind of like the way it’s not ‘addy’, or trying too hard). I’d also argue that it’s not much of an insight: you can find out the time without being bothered by all the other stuff that’s on your smartwatch. But people like the other stuff on their smartwatches; that’s why that other stuff is there – you chose to put it there and pay a lot for the watch. Most people don’t have 1000+ unanswered emails, but if they didn’t like that situation, they’d answer some of them. It makes no sense.

So the strategy is generic, the copywriting is OK (funnily enough, all the people who had a go at improving it actually wrote worse lines), the art direction is either deliberately trying to look as if it’s not trying or it’s just not good. 

And no offence to whoever is responsible. It’s just another billboard. I could throw a stone in LA and hit ten others of the same kind of quality…

…but again, the billboard went viral and the watch has apparently sold out, but I’m not in the watch world enough to know if this is a big deal, or anything to do with the billboard. Limited edition watch collabs now have people queuing around the block, and you have to get on a waiting list to buy even the lowest-level Rolex, so did the ad help to create the hype, or was it unnecessary? Like all advertising ‘successes’ it’s hard to say. Advertising (promotion) is just one of the four P’s of marketing, so this might have been the sales driver, or it might have been the website, or the price, or something else entirely. People who love this billboard will say it was the billboard, but unless you work for Timex/Adsum you literally have no idea if that is the case.

Part of me wonders if we’ve just realigned our standards so much that this is seen as revolutionary/original/excellent. But it’s none of those things. It’s fine. It’s better than average, but so are millions of other ads. 

So here I am at the end, but I don’t feel I found the answer. In fact, I feel exactly how I did when I first saw the post: like I’ve just seen another decent ad that I’m going to forget as soon as I stop looking at it. But now that I’ve added 1200 words to the conversation I may not forget it for a while.



The Dubious Reliability of Case Studies

I was in Cannes in 2008. That year’s winner of the Outdoor Grand Prix was the game-changing, category-bending, convention-smashing HBO Voyeur. It was far too multi-layered to be self-explanatory, so it needed a case study, and here it is: 

TL/DR: HBO is all about telling stories so they did that as a live event projected onto the back of a New York building, then added another layer online.

Pretty much every entry for every award now has a case study (side note: judging these things is exhausting. I know you get two minutes to use, but a juror will be delighted if they’re asked to evaluate a concise 1:20 instead), but this was one of the earlier ones.

The reason I remember it is because I was standing around at some party, discussing it with a friend, and he said, ‘Have you watched any of the actual stories?’. I said that I hadn’t and he laughed. ‘They’re rubbish! Watch one. They’re complete crap’. 

I have no idea if they are good or bad or somewhere in between because even though he told me to have a look I simply couldn’t be bothered. Life was/is too short. But even now, fourteen years later, I remember that this event won awards all over the world, and yet there was a good chance the jurors didn’t even know what they were judging. If they just watched the case study, they experienced about 5% of the actual ‘ad’.

And what is a case study but an ad for an ad? It’s aimed squarely at a small audience of senior advertising creatives who are probably less than enthused at having to watch yet another little film about something they can never fully understand. Does it have that stat about ‘media impressions’? Tick. Does it have a (probably local) news anchor covering the story? Tick. Does it have a graphic of lots of Tweets? Tick. Does it have impressed passers-by taking a good look at the giant thingy hanging off the side of the building? Tick.

Of course there’s a good reason for all this: ads these days need to demonstrate their 360-ness in order to look good to a jury. Then they need to express the nice thing they did for the planet. Then they need to convey some stats to show how effective it was. And all of this because the juror almost certainly never saw it in the real world, because a) It probably ran in a country they don’t live in, and b) It probably ran in a relatively obscure digital/experiential media space. 

So the jurors have to rely on what the creatives decide to tell them through the medium of the video. But let’s not forget that those creatives work in – oh yes! – advertising, where they are paid and trained to present the best-case scenario of a product/service/situation all day, every day. Here’s their chance to make an ad about an ad, and that will inevitably mean spin upon spin.

I think jurors are starting to become more cynical and jaded about this, so the canny ones probably learn to screen out the more obvious bullshit, but they can never know for sure, so they probably let a lot of things slide.

Then again, I was prompted to write about this by a comment on my recent post about purpose-based Cannes Grand Prix winners:

Here’s that case study:

Jonas has kindly done the work that the jurors clearly decided not to, and discovered that this best of the best of the best initiative was actually a bit crap. But now and forever it is a CGP winner, so the bullshitting creatives achieved their goal.

Do I expect every juror to forensically examine everything they award? Of course not; it’s an arduous-enough task without making it ten times harder. But until people delve properly into case study claims, creatives will fluff up the excellence of their work as much as they think they can get away with. 

I’m also aware that the alternative would be kind of weird: ‘Shall we say all the best things we can about our campaign, adding the most positive interpretations of its effectiveness wherever possible?’ ‘Nah. Let’s be scrupulously honest, humble and self-deprecating and hope that wins the day’. This is now where we are, so you have to play the game like everyone else does, otherwise you’ll look poor by comparison.

That said, perhaps when the final Lions/Pencils are being decided, award organisers should check out the reality of certain claims, including the UX, the UI and the actual viewership of that TV news station in an obscure corner of the Balinese archipelago. 

Until that happens, it might be worth taking a look at that HBO case study to see where things might or might not be as they seem (I will emphasise here that I have no idea if these were on the level or not. This is just an exercise to show where unscrupulous case study makers might spin things. This is not any kind of suggestion that the HBO Voyeur team was anything less than 100% honest):

00:25: ‘Street teams passing out curious invitations’. We have no idea to what extent this really happened. You can assume that many people who feature in this kind of footage are agency/production company staff. Even if the ‘passing out’ is genuine you might get better takes with more appropriate (cool-looking) ‘passers-by’ when you use agency staff.

00:35: How long was that projection up for? You tend to need permission for these things, so an agency might get some quick footage (again with ‘members of the public’ who might not be members of the public) to suggest this went on for hours. And ‘two high-def projectors’? Weird flex, but OK.

00:45: ‘Viewers could hold up their invitations to discover clues’. Were those clues clever and interesting, or just a nice addition to the film that no one can check on? Impossible to say.

1:10: You can see trailer footage of the stories that makes them look as interesting as possible. Were they actually interesting? Who knows? And anything that ‘airs on TV’ (yeah, HBO is a TV channel) ‘and in cinemas’ (how many times?) is not a big deal.

1:20: The promo drove viewers to the website. How many viewers? 

1:25: Then we see the UI working perfectly. We have no idea if it really did that, or if the site crashed, or if this all just happened in the Mac room at the agency.

1:36: ‘We got the coolest musicians to compose original tracks’. No juror would have listened to those tracks. ‘Coolest’ is very subjective, but it sounds great, and nobody is going to check up because ‘cool’ and ‘obscure’ are often synonymous when it comes to music. Would it ‘fit the exact choreography’ of what you were watching? Again, who would be bothered enough to check that?

02:00: ‘Viewers are invited to…’ Did they do it? Did they care? Was the story engaging? Who knows?

02:22: There’s a link from the website to a blog called ‘The Story Gets Deeper’. Again, this all sounds so wonderfully multi-dimensional, particularly in 2008, but no juror would ever have checked that blog to see if it was well written etc.

02:35: More clues and cell phone footage that no one would check, and no one would know if any viewers were interested enough to follow them.

02:45: New York Magazine covered it. We all know how PR works, especially when it isn’t a real article. This is just a mention on their ‘approval matrix’ that might have been placed for a fee or favour (or maybe New York Magazine liked it for real!).

02:50: HBO fans shared their passion for it… in ways that are impossible to verify. How many times was it shared by real people? No idea.

03:00: Over a million unique viewers ‘sought it out’ in the first three weeks. ‘Sought it out’ could of course mean that they just Googled ‘HBO Voyeur’, but that does sound good. Not sure how many people constitue ‘half of all HBO On Demand viewers’. Why not use the stat of all HBO watchers? Were there many HBO On Demand subscribers? And how much HBO Voyeur did they have to watch for it to count as part of the stat?

As I said, all those elements could be as real as they were presented, but as they came from an ad agency, you can be fairly certain that they were at the absolute top end of that reality. Why wouldn’t they be? As I also said, it would be weird not to frame everything as positively as possible.

How have things changed in the ensuing fourteen years? Not much, but let’s have a quick look at this year’s big winner, ‘The Lost Class’: 

It is more sophisticated, with great shots and emotional music. They have some genuine big hitters on the news front (MSNBC and CNN, along with pull quotes from Fast Company, The Guardian and Rolling Stone), and that can’t be faked or exaggerated. The only part where it breaks down a little is 1.4 billion impression with zero dollars spent. What exactly is a ‘media impression’? And they clearly spent a bunch of dollars making this and, I would suggest, getting it out on social media. ’66% increase in background checks conversations’? What does that mean and how was it measured? 

The big claim is that it started another big gun control conversation without needing another tragedy. That is quite vague. The gun control situation in America is very complicated. Did the NRA double down as revenge for the humiliation of its leader? Did gun fans take offense? Gun tragedies always lead to people buying more guns because they fear theirs will soon be taken away; did this inspire more of that? Post Uvalde we’ve just had a piece of gun legislation finally pass the Senate. Was that aided or impeded by this? 

It is undeniable that they made a big, famous splash with a sneaky idea that liberal gun control fans would love (MSNBC, CNN, Fast Company, The Guardian and Rolling Stone could be said to be preaching to the choir. What did The Daily Wire and Fox News think?). Did it move the needle in the right direction? Hard to say, but the case study video did all the right things to bring home many big awards.

So now we have to be case study-vigilant, especially as portfolios are now full of case studies, and the people who hire creatives want to see evidence of big-ass case study-worthy campaigns. 

Perhaps we should just accept that the creation of the case study video is a skill in itself, one that every agency now needs to master to have any chance of a a big award. We can all take the claims and stats with a pinch of salt, then marvel at the editing and the use of music, but we should also know that bigger agencies have entire departments that have optimised case study video creation, and have more resources and favours to call in to make them even better. Unfair? Sure, but life isn’t fair.

As someone once said about democracy, case studies are the worst system we have, except for all the others. They are the best medium to explain campaigns that people have never seen, and give societal context for people who may not live in the country where the work ran. But let’s not pretend they are anything other than the sugar dusting on the cherry on the icing on the cake.

We should use our critical thinking to make sure the right questions are being asked about anything dubious, otherwise it’s going to be on us when a piece of work that wasn’t actually very good is held up as an example of the best we can do.

(By the way, 1.65 billion media impressions agree with this post, and it’s going to start at least one conversation between two people standing next to each other in the toilet of an ad agency in Turkmenistan.)



Crap is more difficult than good.

Around ten years ago I was freelancing for a company that wanted some headlines for the apps it was offering on its website. On the face of it the task was simple: take the theme of the app, find some kind of angle, then encapsulate that angle in a short headline.

But the task was actually too easy, which made it difficult.

Let me explain…

When I was an advertising nipper, I worked at the agency that produced the Economist poster campaign. In addition, the creative department sported about ten of the contributors to D&AD’s The Copy Book (basically the global copywriting Hall Of Fame). So what I’m saying is, the bar was high. In my first month I was asked to write a line for a small space ad for a push-up bra. I can’t remember how many I had to come up with before one was approved, but it was a lot, and the same went for Snickers, Sainsbury’s, The RSPCA and every other client that entrusted their advertising to AMV BBDO.

So I was never asked to write anything crap, and if I had done so, I would have faced the scorn or (worse) the disappointment of my CD. Of course I came up with plenty of rubbish, but it usually stayed on my ‘working out’ page, the one that eventually ended up in the bin.

Cut to ten years later: I’m working on this app brief and doing my best to crank out AMV-level headlines. Once I had managed to reach a standard I might refer to as B minus Economist, I turned them in and waited for the feedback. Alas, on this occasion, I was told that my lines were too good. I must have looked puzzled because the CD then gave me an example of what he was looking for: ‘This one’s about pianos,” he said. “How about ‘Tickle The Ivories’?”. 

Riiiiiight.

Now I was really confused. That’s just straightforward. And boring. And not good. But it was also what my temporary boss wanted, so I couldn’t give him my ‘good’ stuff as that would simply be rejected. I had to give him some crappy lines, but that was much easier said than done. How crap would be crap enough? How would I know? Where would I find these lines? I had been trained to write to a certain standard; maybe not quite to the level of The Copy Book, but definitely not ‘Tickle The Ivories’.

So I had a think, tried some more straightforward stuff, got maybe half right and ended that gig soon after. I then had a long stint of full time employment where I wasn’t asked to do that kind of thing, but in more recent years the same kind of request has occasionally popped up again, and I’m still lost.

I sometimes end up as the writer on the social media side of things and every time it happens I go back to trying to write ‘proper’ headlines with an idea, or a bit of wordplay; something that might adhere more firmly to the reader’s mind; something that might communicate a lot in as few words as possible. Then I discover that the CD wants a line like, ‘Find a Brighter Tomorrow’ or ‘Make sure you enjoy nothing but the best’, and I try to stop my face doing this:

I have a good go, but I’m just guessing at what kind of crap is the right kind for the brief. I have no idea if I’m hitting the right notes or playing the piano with a Wellington boot. So I get frustrated notes back from the CD, who doesn’t understand why I don’t understand. I really want to give each one what they need, but it can feel as if I’m learning a new language, one whose words are the exact opposite of the ones I’d been taught.

When CDs explain where my crappy lines have gone wrong, I take their advice with a nod and a smile, but it still leaves me none the wiser. How do you know if something is 3/10 or 4/10 (which in their mind is a 7 or 8)?

Let me be clear: I am not looking down my nose at this work, nor the people who want it – I understand that not every brief is seeking an Economist poster, circa 2003. But the general principle of trying to catch people’s attention and hold a piece of it until they decide to buy something in the category seems to be off the table. We are in blah blah land, and I have no compass. They are paying me, so I want to offer a good return on that payment (and I want the bloody task to come to an end), so there is no point in sticking to my highfalutin principles. I just have to give it my best worst shot.

Sometimes these tasks are the entire job; sometimes they’re just a small part of a larger whole, but they tend to be where my involvement comes to an end. To be good at that thing I’d have to retrain myself entirely, but the problem is that most places still want the ‘good’ work, so it’s like trying to ride two horses at once: a feisty thoroughbred and a flea-bitten old mare, bound for the glue factory.

Anyway, First World Problems and all that…

For anyone who pays my day rate but still wants rubbish, I hope I’m getting better at being worse. If I can master the art of the underwhelming headline I’ll save myself and some of my temporary bosses (and their clients) a lot of frustration. But before that happens I’ll always show them something better, then if they still want the turd, that’s up to them.