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This ad is great. Here’s why:

Given that my most recent Creative Review column suggests that there is no objective way of measuring advertising quality, I thought I might take this opportunity to ironically explain why one particular ad is unarguably, totally and utterly ’great’.

The ad in question is this one for Communion from Uncommon:

So why is it good?

  1. It stands out. As old Mr. Bernbach used to say, if nobody notices your advertising, everything else is immaterial. I’ll just repeat that: if nobody notices your advertising, everything else is immaterial. I mean, sure, that’s obvious, but you wouldn’t think so from watching most of the ads that slide past your consciousness as if they never happened. This stands out and it does it in two ways: it’s different to the other ads in the break (or LinkedIn/Twitter/Facebook feed), and it’s different to other financial services advertising. And with that grinding rock guitar and grimy black-and-white aesthetic, it’s literally made to be noticed. Big tick.
  2. It’s constantly engaging. There’s a V-sign, which is intriguing, but there’s also a list of things to which you might like to apply that gesture. What’s this all about? What’s next? Whose fingers are they? Do I agree? Who is running this ad? Is it an ad? Why is it black-and-white? So many unanswered questions to keep you interested. And those unanswered questions will provide the depth that will make people pay attention to it again the next time it appears.
  3. It has a satisfying conclusion, by which I mean you don’t feel the preceding 50 seconds were gratuitous. The answer is a good one, and it makes sense. You can’t really disagree because you think about this kind of thing all the time: ‘If only I had X amount of money, I could living in a better place, and I wouldn’t have to listen to that arsehole, or get up at that time of the morning etc.’. This is ‘If only I could win the lottery’ but in a way that is attainable. Money IS freedom, and this is what that freedom will get you. You don’t open a savings account; you open the chance to move out of your parents’ house.
  4. It has a great strategy. Financial services strategies are usually along the lines of ‘save for a rainy day’ or ‘feel secure with a blah blah pension’. Both of those are negative and dull. This is positive and inspiring. And great strategies are rare these days. They usually say things like ‘Live your best life with X’ or ‘Unleash your potential with Y’. Generic, forgettable, easy to ignore. Not like this, which is the opposite of those three things.
  5. The branding is excellent. It’s all irreverent attitude and block capital letters. You are not going to confuse it with Prudential or Aviva. And if you’re young, and not even thinking of this category, this will be the financial services company for you. Sure, it will put some people off, but this isn’t for them, and that stance will get them bigger, more devoted fans. They’re not growing the category; they’re growing themselves, and as a challenger brand, that is an essential distinction.
  6. It’s topical. People are brassic. The mismanagement of Britain’s finances by the current government has left millions tightening their belts. Fuel prices, inflation, mortgage rates… fuck all that. But what’s the solution? Communion. ‘Save Enough To Save Yourself’? Damn right. 

And that’s why this ad is great.

Rank Insecurity

When I was maybe three years into my first job, a question popped into my head: ‘Am I now a middleweight?’ 

For those of you who are a little younger than me, that term is probably one you’ve only heard applied to boxing, but in the early 2000s it was the next stage up the creative ladder from ‘junior’. The stage after that was ‘senior’, then, if your agency was large enough, ‘Group Head’, then came the final level: CD.

We’ll get to the change of job titles in a second, but let’s first address that status uncertainty: the transition from junior to middleweight was not a formal promotion. You could literally declare it, and it would then be so. In practice it was only relevant if you moved jobs and you or your headhunter wanted to frame you in a more substantial way, but it felt like a big-ish deal back then.

Even when I became an agency founder in 2005, junior/middleweight creatives would regularly ask me when they would be allowed to shed the former title and emerge from a kind of creative chrysalis to become the latter. They were delighted when I told them their boss probably couldn’t care less, so they might was well just declare it there and then.

The change to ‘senior’ was harder. You’d probably need at least seven years’ experience, but as it was a slightly more substantial title, you’d also need a decent bit of work behind you. It was also a vaguely formal promotion, so it was usually up to someone else to declare it for you (again, this made more sense if you moved jobs).

Then you became the boss of some sort, with a proper job title, and that was it.

Now we obviously have many, many creative job titles, each of which requires a formal promotion. The journey from placement to junior to copywriter/art director to ACD to CD to GCD to ECD to CCO (or whatever the ladder is like in your country/agency) is a bit of a nightmare because there are no universal criteria for passing each threshold. When you’re a cub scout you know exactly what you have to do to get a Gold Arrow; when you’re a creative there is no such clarity, and it will vary from agency to agency and country to country.

I’d also suggest that the question of whether or not Pete and Mike are now ready to move from ‘copywriter and art director’ to ‘ACD’ is so ridiculously low on a CCO’s list of priorities that they probably care more about the colour of their tea. But now that each ‘band’ does have a set of duties and a suggested salary range, it’s a big deal to anyone wanting make that jump.

Talking of a set of duties, I recently received the following message from an ECD:

A CD used to be the head of the department, now they’re a senior creative, an ECD is kinda head but not really because now we have the CCOs. What next I ponder? And I also feel like my timing has been so shit, when I finally reach that elusive title that I think will see me running things, they invent another one.

Interesting point. 

When I was that aforementioned agency founder, my job title was ‘CD’, but I had friends at bigger agencies who were also CDs, despite doing a quite different job to mine. I had to deal with network relationships, P&Ls, shadow P&Ls, hiring, firing, raises, budgets, decisions about whether or not to take on an account etc. They just had to deal with the creative output of one account, and they had a boss of some sort to take any real responsibility off their hands if required.

But now the fragmentation of media means the ‘Big Agency CD’ job has changed. For a start it is now called ‘ECD’, but there are so many pieces of work in so many media to wrangle that one person can’t functionally be across everything. So you have to allow yourself to be subsumed into a team whose leader might not be readily apparent, and that can undermine any authority you might have thought you had. On top of that, there are no universal rules for how this happens, and personalities and agendas might shunt certain people forward, while others shrink back into the shadows.

So that ECD who wrote to me is right: she’s an old-fashioned ‘senior creative’ or ‘group head’, but the title of ECD – Executive Creative Director – sounds very important, and used to describe what is now the CCO (around 2002-2010 the CD title became ECD, before morphing to CCO, although in some agencies/countries the CCO is quite a different position to ECD, carrying more responsibility as a true member of the ‘C-Suite’). So the expectations for anyone in that position should be great, but again the reality depends on the agency and any arrangements that might change from account to account or project to project.

In one situation you might be the boss of bosses; in another, a cog in the machine. That’s quite a whiplash-inducing change, especially as it can happen several times in the same day, but that’s the 2023 reality, and nobody will be coming to sort it out.

In the freelance part of my career I’ve done every creative job, from copywriter to CCO, sometimes writing social lines; sometimes running and presenting major nationwide pitches. At the same time as I was covering those possibilities, I also founded an agency, wrote a blog, produced a series of podcasts, wrote a column for Creative Review and emptied the cat litter. 

To me it’s very much the current reality, and if that means occasionally biting my tongue while a less experienced CD rejects my suggestions on the way to a disastrous outcome, then so be it. It’s another skill to know when to push things and when to stand back, and that really only comes with experience. Sometimes people need to make their own mistakes because that’s the best way to learn.

It also helps to avoid being precious. If the ECD that wrote to me can gain anything useful from these circumstances it might be the understanding that losing a battle can help you win a war, and, as the old movie-making cliché goes, Nobody Knows Anything, so chasing a definitive ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ is futile. Just try to help make things as good as they can be but wear your beliefs lightly.

That means that the question of ‘Am I a middleweight?’ might now apply to all of us. Depending on the circumstances the answer can be ‘yes’, ‘no’, or ‘maybe’, and that answer might only be valid for a single response in a single moment.

Greet all that uncertainty with a winning smile, and you’ll have a much better chance of staying sane.

Good luck!

Flying In The Face Of The Climate Crisis

Creatively speaking this campaign is excellent:

It does everything right. It’s insightful, original, memorable, able to support hundreds of executions in any media, and could continue for years.

That’s why I’d rather it didn’t exist.

The whole premise seems to be based on pointing out reasons to fly that go beyond the usual pair of business and leisure. There’s ‘It’s not you, London, it’s me’, ‘Head meet sand’, ‘Detox of the century’, ‘Tour de French cheese’ and hundreds of others.

The problem is, it’s 2023 and finding new reasons to take a flight that you might not otherwise have taken is very much Not A Good Thing.

This article explains why, but here’s just one paragraph to make things a little clearer:

A return flight from London to San Francisco emits around 5.5 tonnes of CO2 equivalent (CO2e) per person – more than twice the emissions produced by a family car in a year, and about half of the average carbon footprint of someone living in Britain. Even a return flight from London to Berlin emits around 0.6 tonnes CO2e – three times the emissions saved from a year of recycling.

More flights means more fuel burned, which means more carbon in the atmosphere, which means a hotter planet, which means we are fucked, and the people who will be most fucked most immediately are the people in the poorer parts of the world, the ones who are least prepared to bear the brunt of a UK resident’s decision to Tour de French cheese.

Like I said, the campaign is brilliant, but the better it gets, the worse it will be for all of us, including everyone who works for BA and everyone who works for the agency.

We need to stop holding up this kind of work as something to aspire to and call it out for the damage it is going to cause to life on earth. If Cannes is going to award Lions for Sustainable Development Goals while also awarding a Grand Prix for this campaign, what’s the point of any of it?

We had many years of awards for cigarette advertising, then banned it. Perhaps we should now do the same for airlines, fossil fuel companies and anyone else whose financial success jeopardises our collective future.

(Sorry, Uncommon. I generally love everything you do, but when you’re this brilliant at mass communication you should think twice before creating something that will cause so much harm to so many of us.)

While I’m on the subject of the Climate Crisis, I also wrote the following on behalf of Green The Bid, an organisation co-founded by my wife.

They are committed to bringing sustainability to advertising production, and reducing flights to shoots is a big part of that.

If you’d like to see how you can help, read on…

I remember the first time I flew for a shoot. It was back in 1998, and for some strange reason we were going to recreate a someone in a deckchair on Brighton beach by heading to Miami. I’m not sure it made sense but I was not going to argue. As a junior creative on £12000 a year, any opportunity to take a free trip abroad felt like a minor lottery win.

We ended up getting upgraded, so it was also my first experience of business class. In those pre 9/11 days, Virgin Atlantic offered on-board massage, a spacious bar area and mini personal movie players. When we landed in Miami I was in no hurry to disembark.

So I get it. Flying can be fun. Maybe not always as fun as that first trip, but certainly a lot more fun than sitting at your desk for four hours then heading out into the rain for an underwhelming lunchtime sandwich.

In the following twenty years, I flew a lot for work, and was delighted to do so, even when the departure time was early and the destination was a day’s conference in Berlin. I think that’s because everyone’s early experience of flying always starts as a vacation, so it’s hard to deprogram those endorphin-loosening cues of pleasure and excitement: airports, passports, boarding, take off, your own food, drink and endless movies… When you’re a kid that seems like the most fun you can possibly have, and then it all leads to further fun at your destination: hotels and sunshine and no homework.

So when it happens in your working life, it’s hard to ignore all that, especially when you add free booze to the situation. Sure, you’re ‘working’, but you’re also staying in a hotel, meeting interesting people and being taken for free lunches and dinners in a foreign city. Traveling is generally considered to be one of the best experiences a person can have, but the one thing that makes it even better is having some faceless corporate sugar daddy pick up the entire tab while a producer organizes everything for you.

Yes indeed: flying is very, very good, but it’s also very, very bad.

Allow me to explain why…

Picture the scene: your script has been approved, bids are in, and production suggests you’re going to be shooting in Brazil (if you’re reading this from Brazil, picture Los Angeles instead). Do you:

  1. Wonder if you can buy Havaianas at the airport, look for that tube of SPF 30 and dream of your first in-flight margarita?
  2. Prep yourself for the to-ing and fro-ing with finance about whether or not you’ll be flying business or premium economy?
  3. Fret about the additional impact your script will now be having on the climate crisis?

I imagine 90% of you will choose some version of a), but that might be because you’re not aware that flying creates 60-90% of the emissions produced by the average advertising shoot.

So unless more people answer c), we’re going to continue doing a lot of harm, all while our minds are on casting, Cannes and yes, the occasional Cuba Libre.

‘But,’ you’re probably wondering, ‘what am I supposed to do about it? All I did was start my script with ‘Open on Ipanema at sunset…’ How can I be to blame?’ Well, joking aside, it does actually start with the locations you add to your ideas. 

Sure, you can find yourself shooting in a Prague studio because the labor rate is cheaper, or South Africa because it’s February and your commercial will appear in June, which means rainy London is out of the question. But actions have consequences, and the selection of a faraway destination over one that’s nearby might give you a chance to add to your air miles, but it will also add to the PPM of atmospheric carbon.

As this article explains, if air travel were a country it would be the sixth-biggest CO2 producer in the world, so when a casual ‘Ipanema’ on a script suddenly adds fifteen business class flights (creatives, CDs, clients, account people, production, assorted people who ‘have’ to go on what looks like it might be a quasi vacation etc.) to the planet’s emissions, it might be worth considering another destination.

And yes: I understand that life is hard and annoying, and a little business class trip to Brazil could really take the edge off some of those stresses. I also understand that this specific location might be critical to the success of your script, and that, after all, is your primary responsibility. Finally, I understand that your single excursion will only be 0.0000000003% of the final total of all global emissions, so what’s the big deal?

Let’s take those one by one: yes, life is difficult, and addressing the need to make it feel less so is something we do every day, in ways both big and small. But many of those ways fall in to the category of ‘short-term gain; long-term pain’, where the immediate pleasure creates a larger problem at some point in the future. And that’s exactly what any unnecessary air travel does. The carbon cost will be borne by everyone, long after the shoot has faded into a distant memory. Will it be worth it? That’s a subjective matter for your own conscience, but at least you can now approach that quandary from an informed position.

Then there’s the question of whether or not a flight (or fifteen) is necessary to make your commercial as good as it can be. Will the journey improve it enough to make it more effective? More impactful? More awarded? It might be impossible to know for sure, but maybe we can reframe it for you: if you agree the flights are problematic, where do you draw the line in adding something problematic to improve the commercial communication you are making on behalf of a corporation? Is promoting negative body imagery too much? What about causing depression in teenagers? Or increasing the power of a retail giant to crush a mom-and-pop competitor? Any of those might or might not be the result of your the script that comes out of your MacBook. So how far is ‘too far’ for you?

Last is the question of how much difference your flights will make in the grand old scheme of things. Well, it’s only a grand old scheme of things because it’s made up of millions and millions of smaller old schemes of things. Will setting your spot closer to home make much of a difference to the overall rise in the global temperature that will cause financial hardship, migration and death? No, but if we all think that way, the human race disappears. And besides, one action can inspire others. If you’re the only person deciding not to fly, you might feel a little exposed, but if others take your lead, and flying to shoots takes on the same stigma as, say, racism, your choice could make a real, significant, positive difference.

It’s an easy decision and very complicated one.

It could make a huge difference or a tiny one.

It’s could be a problem or an opportunity.

But the good news is that you’re an intelligent, committed person who is now armed with some useful facts. Maybe you can’t prevent this shoot, but if you bring it up this time, or talk to your CSR person, or your holding company’s CSR person, you might find that you start the ball rolling into all sorts of unexpected areas. (Pro tip: companies don’t like spending money. This is a great way to avoid spending money.)

So that’s your run-down of flights and flying and the climate and cash and your need for pleasure rubbing up against your responsibility to avert the heat-death of the world. 

I hope it hasn’t been too guilt-inducing.

If you want any advice, Green The Bid has spent a ridiculous amount of time thinking, writing and talking about this. It’s their thing, and they like nothing more than spreading the word to expand the effect. Get in touch at and find out all the fantastic ways in which we can make the advertising industry more sustainable.

Patience, patience.

I once read a story about John Hegarty, or rather one of his employees. This junior creative came to see John to ask for a raise. When John questioned why he was asking for more money so early in his career he replied that he wanted to be out of advertising within ten years. John’s response was to laugh and explain that it took him ten years to finally come up with his first good ad.

If it took a legend like John a decade to produce a decent piece of work, what hope do the rest of us have?

Well, no need to despair. Instead you should accept the amount of time it takes to become someone who can create work of quality, and understand that patience is not only a virtue, but also a necessary element of the process.

Sure, it’s possible to create something ‘great’ in the early years of your career, but the ad industry is littered with examples of people who needed quite a while to reach any kind of a peak.

Another Hegarty-adjacent story of patience can be found in his book, Hegarty on Creativity. In it he explains that Saatchi and Saatchi spent eight years being unsuccessful and unknown before finally reaching the formula which allowed them to launch into the stratosphere of the advertising world. And that was with Charles Saatchi at the helm, a proven creative genius.

Talking of proven creative geniuses and eight years, that was roughly the amount of time that elapsed between the inception of Doyle Dane Bernbach, and the iconic VW Lemon campaign that made its name. Yes, another creative genius took the best part of a decade to deliver a piece of work commensurate with his current reputation.

Back in the 70s, it took David Abbott around eight years, and a failed attempt at a start-up, to go from being the CD of DDB London to one of the founding partners of Abbott Mead Vickers. Of course he produced some very good work in that time, but he needed a particular set of circumstances, and several further years to progress to the status of legend.

As a keen reader of music biographies, I can also tell you that success did not simply fall into the laps of many of your idols. From the Beatles, to the Stones, to Stevie Wonder, to Quincy Jones, to David Bowie, each faced rejection, line-up changes, years in the wilderness and several false starts before becoming the Hall-of-Famers we know today.

I bring these stories to your attention for two reasons: the first is to allay any fears you might have about the speed of your progress or the success of your start-up. If the greats needed time to practice the age-old process of trial and error, chances are you will too. Creative brilliance is a marathon, not a sprint, so settle in for the long haul.

The second reason is to be aware of other people going through the same set of circumstances. If it takes time to be really good, that time is going to be spent being various shades of so-so. A team might skip their way to a Cannes Lion in their first couple of years then win nothing for the next five. That doesn’t necessarily mean the early award was a fluke, or that the wilderness years were a truer reflection of their talent. It means that experience is hard-won, and often arrives more quickly through failure than success.

You’re not born good or bad at creativity. You have to learn it to earn it, and it might take a while to arrive at the agency or boss that brings the best out of you. If your sense of humour doesn’t chime with that of the person assessing your work, you’re going to be treading water while he or she throws your scripts in the bin.

Sometimes an appropriate boss or agency arrives to meet your greatness, but sometimes it’s the circumstances. Perhaps the 1950s were not ready for Bill Bernbach, but the creative leap of the 1960s laid the welcome mat for his work. In retrospect, the grim 1970s didn’t feel quite in tune with the glossy, financially focussed Saatchi brothers, but when Thatcher ushered in the individualism of the 1980s, they fit that decade like a glove.

You might find yourself feeling as if the world of social media, programmatic and SEO isn’t for you, but if you hang on, you might find that AI creates a new context that is exactly what you need. Someone is going to make that breakthrough. It could be the team in the next office (or at the next open-plan desk), a kid entering the industry from a couple of unproductive years in video game design, or you.

So take heart from the wilderness years and wrong turns of the very best of our industry. If you want to go far, it’s going to take a while.

How Do We Feel About Fake?

This morning I have been deluged by a series of articles about fake stuff. Some of it, like this Nike fashion shoot is based in AI:

While others are old favourites, like fake handbags, which have now reached a new level of apparent authenticity.

Then there’s plastic surgery. We all know about the Kylie Jenners of this world, who have clearly had a lot of ‘work’ done, while no one seems to mind. In the old days people seemed to want surgery that was somewhat unknown or invisible. No more.

In fact, we now live in a world where people are having plastic surgery that looks as if they have had plastic surgery. Here in LA I often see people with obvious ‘duck lips’ etc. It’s a thing!

We’ve also had the AI Drake/The Weeknd song, which spread across the planet before anyone even knew it was fake.

And that fake picture of the Pope in a white puffer jacket that fooled millions:

And this photo, which won a prestigious photography contest before the ‘creator’ revealed that it was generated by AI:

Are we about to enter a new era of humanity where ‘fake’ and ‘real’ become interchangeable? And, perhaps more importantly, how much do we care?

Returning to that Nike fashion show, if you weren’t told it was AI, would you enjoy it more? How much, if anything, does it lose through being ‘fake’?

That contest-winning photo is beautiful, but when you know it’s just a computer-generated image of nobody, does the story behind it simply disappear? Can we appreciate its aesthetics without the additional element that has enhanced every other photo taken before 2022: the fact that it was really capturing a moment of life?

Will we simply get used to all this and not mind?

Will it be like bodybuilding, where they have shows for the steroid-enhanced, and other shows for ‘clean’ bodybuilders? (It’s worth mentioning that the steroid shows are far more popular.)

I think we’ve always had an antipathy towards the ‘fake’ versions of things, but I feel as if that is now being eroded. Fakes used to be very much the exception; if they become the norm, our resistance to them will surely dissipate until we neither know nor care what is real and what is not.

The online world already allows us to buy digital real estate, dress our avatars in expensive digital clothing, and purchase NFTs, whose non-fakeness is so arbitrary that their values have plummeted by hundreds of millions of dollars. And that’s before we get into the reality or otherwise of crypto currencies.

Have we been slowly prepared to accept the fake, which now exists in its own reality? Will ‘real’ things become an expensive niche, enjoyed only by the rich and privileged?

Right now, nobody knows, but it seems to be heading in that direction, and I’m not sure how I feel about it.

An AI for ‘creative advertising ideas’!

Sorry! It’s another AI post, but this is the one I was waiting for: something specifically and deliberately designed for creating advertising ideas! (AND strategies!)

When I say I was waiting for it, I don’t mean from a sense of delight that my job would now become much easier, or from a sense of dread that my job would no longer exist; I mean that I have been keen to see how an AI would go beyond the more general abilities of Chat GPT to attempt to replicate what we do.

First some background:

According to this article, “The team over at uses an AI tool to help advertising creatives become unstuck and experiment with new creative directions. Aaron Adler developed Adler is a former agency Creative Director who is now a front-end Software Engineer and UX Designer. This AI tool generates creative advertising ideas.”

I looked up Aaron’s site, hoping to find his portfolio of work, but no such luck. He appears to have pivoted exclusively to UX design-type stuff, and bills himself as a ‘front-end software engineer’. There are a couple of other ‘Aaron Adler Advertising’ results that appear in a Google search, but I can’t tell if they’re him.

The reason I wanted to see his work is that these days ‘former agency Creative Director’ doesn’t tell us much. He could have made lots of award-winning ads, or zero. He could be a CD in a design department, or front-and-centre in TV production. But I want someone who creates this kind of AI to prove their bona fides about knowing what a good advertising concept is, otherwise how good can the AI’s ideas be? For me, the fact that he’s now a ‘front-end software engineer’ is a bit of a red flag. It’s an odd pivot for an advertising creative to make, especially one good enough to generate an AI offering that provides executional concepts in various media.

Also, most of the links for this AI come from around the same time Chat GPT launched, so it doesn’t appear to use that technology, and was presumably created a good deal earlier, at a time when none of us were impressed with the creative abilities of AI in general.

But all that aside, how good is

So far, not very. I know you’re supposed to hone briefs to give an AI the ability to improve, but the results were pretty disappointing.

For example, I offered the brief, ‘The Economist can make you informed and successful’ and asked for a ‘viral film’. Here’s the result:

Description: In this viral film to promote The Economist, we reveal the ultimate secret to success: being informed. The film will show people from all walks of life, from politicians to entrepreneurs to students, reading The Economist and becoming more informed and successful. We’ll see politicians making better decisions, entrepreneurs spotting market opportunities, and students getting the grades they need to succeed. The Economist will be shown as being informative, insightful, and engaging. It will be a must-read for anyone who wants to be successful. The film will end with a call to action, urging viewers to subscribe to The Economist and join the ranks of the informed and successful.

Perhaps I’m not giving it a fair chance, after all, it offers tips to imptove output, the third of which is ‘Get a little weird. A great output can be sparked by unexpected inputs, so try different approaches. Drop unusual references like “a Johnny Cash song”, “a Seinfeld episode”, or other variations you might like to see in an output.’

Right you are! I now change the brief to ‘The Economist can make you informed and successful, tarantino movie, led zeppelin’, and receive the following updated script:

In this viral film to promote The Economist, we present a journey of a person who gets inspired by The Economist’s content. We’ll watch how reading The Economist transforms them from being ordinary to being extraordinary. We’ll watch as they become more knowledgeable about the world and develop a deeper understanding of complex issues. We’ll see them discussing topics at dinner parties with friends, impressing their colleagues at work, sharing fascinating trivia with family members, and even winning a game show. The film will end with a call to action, urging viewers to subscribe to The Economist. Along the way, we’ll hear music and see clips of Quentin Tarantino movies and Led Zeppelin, emphasizing the importance of being a well-rounded and informed individual. With The Economist by your side, there’s no limit to what you can achieve.

Er… OK. New brief! ‘The Economist can make you informed and successful. Let’s see something groundbreaking and original, as if written by someone at Wieden and Kennedy in its prime’.

In this viral film to promote The Economist, we celebrate the power of intelligence and knowledge. We see a man and a woman, both on their first date, talking about topics ranging from politics to science to philosophy. Instead of talking about the weather or their jobs, they’re engaging in stimulating conversation about what’s happening in the world. We see them getting turned on by each other’s intellect and wit. They exchange numbers and start dating. We watch as they both continue to read The Economist, become more informed and successful people, and eventually become power couple in their fields. The message is clear: intelligence is sexy. The Economist can make you informed and successful, and that makes you sexy. Smart is the new sexy.

I don’t really know where to go from here. Should I keep trying? One more! ‘The Economist can make you informed and successful. Let’s see something groundbreaking and original, as if written by Hunter S Thompson on a particularly crazy acid trip’

In this viral film to promote The Economist, we enter the mind of a Hunter S. Thompson-esque character on a crazy acid trip. The character reads The Economist and suddenly finds themselves transported to a wild and surreal world, where news and economics come to life. We see characters made out of graphs and charts, surreal landscapes populated by political figures, and a rollercoaster ride through the economic trends and upheavals of the last 20 years. It’s a chaotic ride, but the character emerges at the end with a newfound clarity and understanding of how the world works. The message is clear: The Economist can make you informed and successful, even in the wildest of times. The film will end with a call to action, urging viewers to subscribe to The Economist and get on board for the wildest ride of their lives.

I give up.

Maybe Aaron would justify all this by saying that it’s a jumping off point rather than a polished finished article. Maybe he’d say that it’s still in Beta (although he’s charging for it, so…). Maybe he’d say that I need to spend longer chucking different briefs at it. But the above ‘scripts’ (let’s face it: they’re still miles away from being usable scripts, even at a conceptual stage) don’t seem to deserve the further effort.

You can give it a free trial, and I’d be interested to know how strategists feel about its creations. But from a creative point of view it’s basically useless.

Maybe it will improve, maybe it won’t, but it’s not worth paying for, and you’ll get better ‘jumping off points’ from Chat GPT for free.

I’ll leave the last word to Aaron’s most recent tweet:

Amen to that.

Execution vs Campaign

Have advertising standards fallen over recent years? Obviously, by which I mean it’s clear that Bronzes of the past are now Silvers and even Golds. So far, so blah, but I feel I need to poop the current party just a little further.

There’s been a spate of highly-awarded, or at least LinkedIn-wanked-over, campaigns that have a glaring fault. See if you can spot what it is:

That’s right: these campaigns are simply the same execution multiple times (one of them might also be a scam campaign, but that’s another point for another post that I’ve already written several hundred times). Sure, they’re slightly different, in that they are set in slightly different places, but that’s not really enough, is it?

I grew up at a time when ‘It’s the same ad three times’ was a withering, campaign-killing insult. If someone said that to you, and you possessed any self respect, you would pop back to the drawing board and add a fresh element to differentiate each one.

It might be a new visual, a new line, or an entirely new angle to the concept, but it would not be a slight change of location. The point of creating and paying for a new execution should be to add a further dimension to the campaign; a new point that can express additional information or entertainment.

You might love the above campaigns, but you’d be hard pressed to argue that each subsequent execution adds any more than a soupçon of further enjoyment to any you’ve already experienced. I would in fact wager a great deal of money that unless these executions ran next to each other, no member of the public would think there was any difference between them at all.

I have a feeling some of you might want to point out that the McDonald’s executions show that you can deliver to an office as well as a home, but big deal: that’s information anyone with an IQ over three would already know, so it doesn’t count. 

‘Ooooooh look! I saw that they delivered to houses but I had no idea they delivered to places of work!’ said nobody, ever.

You might ask about the reasons behind doing a second or third utterly pointless execution, or, on the flip side, the reasons behind stopping at three or four. Why not do eight? Fifteen? Thirty? Is it the expense? Sure, but someone needessly paid for number two and number three. Where’s does their largesse end? I have a depressing feeling that the answer is that these can now be entered for campaign awards as well as those for single executions. And maybe when pitch time rolls around four basically identical executions on a creds slide might look better than just one.

And that’s what I mean by falling standards. The creative teams, CDs, ECDs etc., along with account people, clients, award juries and LinkedIn masturbators have all given these campaigns a mighty slap on the back. I’m out here as a lone voice in the wilderness, pointing out something that to me seems blindingly obvious: they are a really, really good ad (except maybe the suncream one, which smells strongly of scam), but a mediocre campaign.

I imagine some of you think I’m being a picky bastard who, like some sad Oasis fan, won’t shut up about how much better the old days were, but I don’t care. Come at me with a decent refutation of my point and I’ll get back in my box.

Until then, here are some campaigns that are proper, actual campaigns. If you can’t spot the difference between these and the others, then I’m afraid I don’t know what else to say.


The Greater Inclusivity Of An Industry That Usually Needs To Include As Many People As Possible

Every ten years The British Film Institute releases its survey of the greatest films of all time. 

For decades the number one film was Citizen Kane, although it dropped down to number two in 2012, replaced by Vertigo. However, last December something seismic happened: the 34th best film of 2012 became the top film of the latest survey.

For the uninitiated, Jeanne Dielman, 23 quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles is a three-hour-long feminist masterpiece about a housewife who also happens to be a prostitute. Is it better than Citizen Kane? Well, that’s where things get interesting.

For the 2022 survey the BFI widened their survey considerably, with 1,639 participating critics, programmers, curators, archivists and academics each submitting a top ten ballot, up from 846 in 2012. This meant many more women and a much wider range of nationalities contributed, and their choices angered many traditionalists.

Where was Raging Bull? Dr Strangelove? Wild Strawberries? And what was the 2019 upstart Portrait of a Lady on Fire doing at number 30, ahead of Some Like It Hot?

Well, all those maligned films were made by straight white men, and this snapshot of 2022 has less respect for their supposed greatness.

As I looked through the survey, full of films by women and people of colour, I couldn’t help wondering what would happen if a similar list was created for advertising. 

Thinking about the so-called greats of yesteryear, the vast majority were created by straight white men (interest declared: I am a straight white man). Did that make a difference to the extent to which they were appreciated? Straight white men on award juries voted for ads created by straight white men and, unsurprisingly, found that they liked them, but would they hold up today? Sure, some might seem dated, but we don’t excuse films on that basis; many cinematic greats hold up today, even though they were made a century ago.

Of course, there aren’t quite as many critics, programmers, curators, archivists and academics to ask, but we do have a society that appears to be having its say. We now have advertising that is far more inclusive, diverse and aware. Is it as good? That depends on who you ask and how you assess.

The more I think about older award winners, the more I wonder if there was a consideration of quality based on an unspoken collective standard that was dominated by the opinions of straight white men. That’s not to say they they were all bad, or that they all need to be reassessed in the context of 2023, but you can find plenty of knockabout violence, casual sexism, and life generally viewed from their point of view. 

If you didn’t like that kind of thing then you were, in one way or another, ‘wrong’. The sports, booze, video game and car ads were the best of the best, and if you found merit in something else, then you were less likely to win prizes or promotions.

We can never really know for sure, but the awards world has certainly changed. There’s certainly been a move away from the those attitudes, with John Lewis and its knock-offs, Channel 4 Paralympics, Like a Girl, Fearless Girl, Libresse, This Girl Can, Nothing Beats a Londoner (much more inclusive Nike advertising), globally inclusive work from Apple, and (for better and worse), much more social purpose.

A full-on allegory can be found in the output of Unilever, which went from the most sexist campaign of all time (Lynx) to the compassion of Dove’s Real Beauty work. That change happened in the late 2000s, and if you want to go into more detail, simply follow Lynx’s ads over the last twenty years and see how much less offensive they have become.

So something happened. Maybe juries became more diverse. Maybe society responded to Brexit and Trump. Maybe the new mouthpieces of social media strengthened marginalised voices. Maybe we evolved. But it’s now hard to imagine many of the ads of the 90s winning awards today. Straight white men are still in many leadership positions, but far fewer than there used to be. Many of that generation are aging out of the industry, and the ones that remain are having to get with the new programme. 

Corporations understand that one wrong move towards intolerance or sexism could provoke a twitter storm that might affect their share price, so they’re not going to accept that kind of work. The old guard might decry it as ‘woke’, but as we all know, anyone who uses the word woke in a pejorative sense is almost certainly not worth listening to.

I find myself watching TV ads from Britain and America, marveling at the fact that all-white casts are practically non-existent, in the same way that POC casting rarely happened in the 1990s. Even if you lament the disappearance of 1990s-style ads, you can probably appreciate that this is a good thing for society as a whole.

So here we are, standing side-by-side with Jeanne Dielman, casting a glance in the rear view mirror at the disappearance of a set of values that have had their time.

Of course, more change is on the way, but we should be optimistic about the future. As Martin Luther King, Jr. reminded us, ‘The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice’. 

As a straight white man, I can’t wait to see what happens next.

To orientate your details, or to not orientate your details. That is the question.

I have a confession to make: I am not detail orientated.

I have another confession to make: I am very detail orientated.

It’s an interesting trait, in that it’s part of almost all job descriptions I ever read, yet no one really discusses it, and it seems to now be some assumed skill that all managers should possess, but I think it’s not quite that simple.

Chris Rock has an interesting point (about 3:30 here) where he says he’s conservative on some issues and liberal on others:

That chimes with me because I feel like ‘detail orientated’ isn’t a single ability that covers everything. Some things, usually the ones that interest you most, can elicit a different level of attention. For me that usually happens when I’m writing, when a decision between a semi colon and a comma can cause me to fret for hours.

But for much of the rest of my career I have been non-D.O., and proud of it. That’s because I think the process of creativity requires both big picture perspective, and a certain degree of pixel fucking.

The advertising creative process can be seen as a kind of funnel, where there is room for your biggest, widest thoughts at the beginning, but also ‘move that VO a gnat’s to the left’ at the end. Concept vs execution, you might say. 

(It might also be copywriting vs art direction, where the former leans a bit more towards the front of the process, while the latter comes in more in the later parts of telecine colour shades and picking up all the minuscule errors that need to be covered up in post. A bit of a generalisation, but I think it holds.)

I’m not saying that I am less focused on detail by choice, but I’ve also seen much creativity strangled by the need/want to fixate on things no consumer will ever notice at the expense of the bigger picture.

Advertising creativity works in a very finite box of time, resources and money. You can’t do everything forever, so you must pick and choose your battles. Hours and hours on getting a cough exactly right might not be worth the sacrifice in other parts of the sound session.

Then again, I entirely get that a tiny detail can elevate an ad from B- to A+. The tricky thing is that there’s no right or wrong about any of those decisions, so maybe those three frames would be better on that take, but maybe it won’t make any difference. 

To illustrate that point, an anecdote: a while back I was involved in a wide-ranging project in which we decided to give a small budget to lots of creators instead of a big budget to one. In theory we would have a fascinating campaign that would approach the product from many different angles.

I worked on this project with the person I would describe at the biggest pixel-fucker I’ve ever met, and he wanted to control the process as much as possible (I should add that we worked for an agency that prided itself on fucking pixels till the cows came home, and he was the tip of that spear). I have to say that this project was probably his kryptonite, in that we had neither the time nor the money to address every single issue to his satisfaction. Anyway, he orientated his details while I tried to keep tabs on the overall communication. 

The funny thing was, we had so many projects on the go that one of them was simply forgotten. We literally never followed up with the directors while they got on with making their ad. Then it arrived unexpectedly one day and was absolutely brilliant. From the minimum of attention to detail (ie: zero) we allowed people to spread their wings and give us their best without sitting on their shoulders and criticising everything. It actually stood up to another film we were making at the same time for the same product, which had 100x the budget and twenty creative people fiddling about with every frame.

So you can skip the detail orientation and let the magic happen. In fact, sometimes, that’s exactly what you should do.

Another job I finished a while back involved my boss kind of taking over the edit. He saw our cut then spent hours moving frames here and there. Now, I get that he thought he was improving things, but after an hour or so I couldn’t see the difference he was making. Was it better? Maybe to him. Would any consumer notice? Almost certainly not. Was it worth the extra consequences where we then felt he didn’t like the job we had done, or resented his meddling? Dunno. In that second hour I began to think he was just insecure, and making these changes because he didn’t know what he was doing. In the end we had an ad that was broadly the same, but a reduced level of respect for the boss. #Consequences.

I’ve written before about how some of the greatest films of all time were made on the fly: Godard would literally write the script for A Bout De Souffle on the morning of filming, changing the plot as he went along; Fellini would direct as the actors were acting, shouting so many instructions that all the dialogue had to be replaced in post, compromising the authenticity of the sound; and many a film has been reworked in the edit to sort out an initial mess that happened despite so much D.O.

Then again, you have David Fincher’s method, where he will use post production to perfect the most mundane of shots. Stanley Kubrick would routinely demand 70+ takes to ensure a line of dialogue was correct. In Throne of Blood, Akira Kurosawa hired a team of professional archers to shoot real arrows at Toshiro Mifune so that his reactions would be authentic. Mifune had nightmares about it for months after filming.

So I guess there’s a case to be made for details vs non-details. Perhaps that’s why you need two or more creatives, some of whom sweat the small stuff while others focus on the bigger picture. 

The problem now is that the fragmentation of media means that there are so many more executions that need attention. I’ve done social campaigns where lines have been placed in illegible positions. Was the art director being lax, or did he just not have enough time to concentrate on 100+ shapes and sizes? Doing that requires yet another D.O. skill set, one that can apply attention to detail over and over again in a limited amount of time, but how many people are good at that?

Yes, someone is paying for us to make everything as perfect as possible, but now there is a much greater chance of things slipping between the cracks, partly because there are so many more cracks, but also because spotting those cracks can become exhausting, and it’s a very different art director ability to choosing the perfect photographer or shaping an edit.

Supposed detail orientation covers so many different skills and brain types, all working in a limited space, that it’s an irresponsible ask.

Then again, I just say I am very D.O. because sometimes I am, and if the person hiring isn’t detail orientated enough to pick me up on that, well that’s just the perfect lesson in why it’s not quite what it seems.

We Can’t Change Culture Like We Used To

When I worked at Media Arts Lab we had some sort of statement of intent about the advertisng we produced on behalf of Apple. I can’t recall the exact wording but one element of it was the promise that our work would aspire to change culture. And much of Apple’s advertising did just that: from Mac vs PC to Silhouettes to Shot On iPhone, that was what MAL and Apple aimed for on every brief.

It was ambitious, sure, but why aim lower? Advertising has spent much of its modern existence holding its own against the other stuff that has sought our attention. There are many American examples, such as Yo Quiero Taco Bell and The Pepsi Challenge, while the UK changed the public’s behaviour through many John Webster characters, GGT endlines and number one singles from Levi’s ads.

We still manage it now, with the aformentioned Shot On iPhone and the annual announcement of a new John Lewis Christmas ad, but the culture-shifters seem to be fewer and further between.

Which makes sense. Back in Webster’s day there was not nearly as much competition for our attention, so advertising made up a much larger slice of what might interest us. In the UK there were just four TV channels, so whatever happened on them was a much bigger deal, and more likely to be seen by a larger proportion of the public. 

Now we have everything from Facebook to TikTok competing for our attention, not to mention old favourites like books, music and films. Despite being able to exist alongside most other interesting things, advertising now feels more fragmented, and thus smaller and less significant than it used to. That means our ability to influence culture has been reduced.

You could say that we had it easy in the past, with less competition for eyeballs, but maybe the fact that we were all affected by advertising made creatives feel that cultural significance was both possible and what we should aim for. I recall a friend of mine writing a Tango ad with a silly action in it, with the express intention of getting kids to copy it in playgrounds. And I remember trying to create my own John Webster ad, featuring a cartoon dog. Both of us fell sadly short.

I’m not saying we don’t attempt that anymore; in fact this new McDonald’s commercial could achieve that very aim:

But I also think that one of the reasons it’s getting so much positive coverage from the online ad community is because of how unusual something like this has become. Office workers may well spend the next six months raising their eyebrows at each other, but that’ll be a rare moment of cultural influence for our industry.

The reasons why this has happened are obvious, but I’ll explain anyway:

In 2008, social media began its inexorable rise. That accelerated the expansion of digital advertising, which is a personal experience rather than a mass media one. If your work is shown mainly in the privacy of a phone or laptop, and no one knows if they’re seeing the same ads as anyone else, your ability to impact culture with that work becomes virtually non-existent.

The second thing it did was give a platform to millions more members of the public. Whether alone or via a Twitter pile-on, the voice of the public suddenly became much louder and more immediate, giving rise to what some call ‘cancel culture’. I think this increased chance of a problematically negative reaction made us retreat into our shells. Far safer to crank out a chest-beating-but-bland manifesto, or inoffensive dance-based ad. They may not have the impact, but at least they won’t require an apologetic tweet from the CEO.

The other thing about culture is that it’s a two-way street: it both influences and responds to the rest of life, so for the last fifteen years, advertising and the rest of public communication has had to read the room before working out what to say, and, alas, that room has been grim.

Here’s an interesting article on that very subject. It analyses the reduction in the number of funny ads that have appeared in the last fifteen years.

We’ve all noticed that situation, but this graph…

…clearly shows that it blew up in response to something specific, by which I mean the 2008 crash. Fascinatingly, although a decade and a half has passed since then, the funnies have yet to return.

As far as the UK goes, you could look at the societal conditions of 2008-2023 and concede that things have not improved: the governmental response to the crash was austerity, which has yet to end; Brexit followed, with the public either being sad that they lost or, oddly, angry that they won (possibly because they didn’t really ‘win’ anything, other than perhaps a xenophobic foot-shooting exercise that continues to this day); four years of Trump was stressful for most people across the world; the Climate Crisis reached a tipping point of depressing acceptance; there was that little pandemic thing; Liz Truss crashed the economy; fuel prices have risen; inflation looks like it’ll take us into a recession; everyone seems to be on strike.


Worrying about the future has become the default mind state for much of the public, so it makes sense that funny ads have taken a back seat: the ad industry looked around and decided that pratfalls and one-liners might have seemed like turning up at a funeral in a clown car.

Could lighthearted ads have lifted the mood? Perhaps, but instead we entered the heartwarming, laugh-free John Lewisification of advertising. I’m generalising a touch, but overall, the serious 60-second tear-jerker rose to prominence as the 30-second yukfest took a back seat. 

In addition, the empowerment of Channel 4’s Paralympics work, Nike’s Nothing Beats A Londoner and Sport England’s This Girl Can was brilliant, but not funny (yes, there were kind of funny moments, but ‘funny’ is not the first adjective you would use to describe those ads, or Womb Stories, or The Last Photo), and we all know about the millions of ever-so-serious purpose-based initiatives. 

I would argue that serious ads are, on average, less impactful. They require and elicit less obvious reactions, so a communal spread of approval can’t be kicked off with laughter. Instead we all sit with our own private version of being impressed, so the overall effect is always going to be smaller. Sure, that didn’t stop John Lewis changing the entire industry, but using one example to draw a conclusion about something enormous doesn’t really hold water.

So here we are: a smaller fish in a bigger, more complicated pond, surrounded by negative news coming at us through a firehose. Our response has been a little like what happens when you keep getting hit in the face: confusion, wondering what you did wrong, and working out how to avoid it happening again, when in truth you’re dealing with a brand new set of circumstances that has upturned most of what you thought you knew.

The digital revolution has impacted all of us in so many unforeseen ways, but the difference it has made to mass culture is the one that has changed advertising the most. We may have more sophisticated tools at our disposal, but they haven’t allowed us to better at our jobs.

Then again, that doesn’t mean that doesn’t mean improvement is impossible. That truncated period of change might have given us the illusion that the difficulties of the current circumstances are here to stay. In reality, the extent to which that is true is up to us.