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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.”


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’?”. 


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.

Where Did The Time Go?

Have a listen to Dave Dye’s interview with Malcolm Venville. It’s full of great stuff, but there’s a particular detail that caught my ear: they met on a shoot that required three still images of a motorbike. That shoot lasted four weeks.

Which reminded me that advertising creativity used to be given so much time. Maybe a month for three photographs was a little extravagant, but maybe it wasn’t. It sounds like it was, but I wasn’t there, so I can’t say for sure (of course it was).

I never spent a month on one shot (I did go to Miami to take a picture of a woman who was supposed to be on a British beach. Another story for another time) but I do remember getting longer to work on briefs than I generally get today.

In 2022 everything is needed for some kind of review in two or three days, and that’s not great for great creativity.

Here’s an absolute truth about coming up with ideas: the longer you have to do it, the more ideas you can come up with, and the more ideas you come up with, the greater the chance that your best idea will improve.

Your best idea can still end up being the first one you had, but the extra time you spent trying to improve it won’t do any harm; in fact, you might come up with lots more lesser ideas that either help you hone the good one, or give you the confidence to know that, having explored other ground, the first one is still the winner.

On the side of that, you need time to develop ideas. If you come up with a cool central concept (or ‘platform’ as the uber uber ideas are now called), time will give you the opportunity to then come up with the best executional expressions of that concept. The more headlines you write, the greater the chance of your best five being great, and that goes for every executional element: stories, casting, direction, layouts, typography etc. 

And in this time of needing dozens of executions in many media, that need for time is even more pressing. You ought to multiply the time requirement by the number of executions, but instead we tend to divide it, exacerbating the problem.

The other reason you need time is that it is essential to give your subconscious a while to try to solve the problem. As Don Draper explains, when you work on an ad you have to think about the brief deeply, then forget it, then an idea will jump up in your face:

And that takes time – both the thinking deeply and the forgetting, but also watching the idea jump up, then writing it down, then talking to your partner about it, then taking on their improvement suggestions etc. Shrink those days and you don’t even give creatives enough time to do that bare minimum process. Of course we can come up with something in the truncated time frame, but McDonald’s can also come up with an entire lunch in the time it takes Le Gavroche to whip up a marinade. Speed rarely leads to quality, unless you are Usain Bolt.

Some of you may be thinking that extra days or weeks might lead to stewing on an idea, thus corrupting its original novelty value with overthinking. Or you might get bored of something good, sending it to the bottom of your list of favourites, perhaps even killing it. But I don’t think that happens much, and even if it did, you then have to show your ideas to other people, and they’ll be seeing them for the first time, replenishing the novelty value all over again. And you’d need quite a while to get bored of a really good idea/headline etc. We all like great ads from the past that we’ve seen many, many times.

I’d guess there’s a limit, and we all know that deadlines can really get your juices flowing, but as a rule, more time=better work.

Counter to this truism, the timeframe has been shrinking for decades. What used to be a week became three days, then two days, then one. Even on a big brief, a review is almost always expected within 72 hours, and you now have to spend time getting your work in presentable form, which always means a motherfucking deck, complete with some good imagery that you have to spend time finding. Add that time to the review itself and you’ve used up half a day or more prepping instead of thinking (sure, some of the prepping is executional thinking, but it’s still an overall interruption).

We’re also aware that it sometimes takes three months to write a brief, leaving just three days to answer it, and that seems insane, especially when 90% of briefs these days hardly appear to be the result of three months of stellar thinking. I was once told to hold on briefing my department while the strategy director went back and forth with her boss, improving the brief almost imperceptibly. I chose to ignore that and immediately gave my creatives what I was sure the brief would end up being. That added three valuable days to their thinking time.

Strategy departments… We want just half of one of your three months to do justice to your superlative thinking. You know it makes sense!

So why don’t we give that incredibly important part of the process the time it needs to produce excellence? You know the answer! Come on… altogether now… Money! Time is money, so a reduction to the number of chargeable hours makes the agency management happy because it makes the client happy. You charge less and, well, you get less: less time, which leads to lesser ideas. As I pointed out above, that’s a rock-solid, ocean-going, unfuckwithable, 24-carat-platinum rule.

In summary, time has been reduced and ads have become worse. Are there other reasons for the lowering of standards? Absolutely (just check this forensic dissection of client briefing from the great Mark Ritson) Does that mean the time thing isn’t a big deal? Absolutely not.

The last decade has seen the weakening of all the struts that hold up the creative process: time, money, focus, mentorship, high standards, protection, talent etc., and we’ve all seen the work get worse. Night has followed day, and here we are. I guess the question is, how much further can things fall?

Only time will tell.

How all the Nicey-Nicey ads came to dominate the awards.

Last week I wrote that post about how 85% of the Cannes Grands Prix were awarded to for-good/purpose-based/public service/charity initiatives. Then I chucked it up on LinkedIn and received a comment that made the penny drop:

Richard Russell (one of the geniuses behind Honda Grrr) said, ‘Sobering, Ben. But I doubt there are too many in the industry front line that are especially bothered. Yes, it’s rampant now, but I am amused at how we were saying pretty much the same thing in the 80s when Brignull, Abbott, Fink, Singh, etc were scooping all the big UK awards with charity ads. ‘But it’s much easier to win the big gongs with a charity ad’, everyone bleated. And they were right. Then and now. Can’t see that changing much.’

To which, after a bit of back-and-forth, I replied ‘I think this has been a sneaky way of adding the award benefits of ‘charity’ stuff to the difficulty of corporate stuff. Yes, it’s an ad for Mars, or whatever, but now it’s all about saving whales.’

This phenomenon appears to be simply the latest in the timeline of how to game Cannes:

We started with Do your normal day job of trying to sell stuff, enter the best stuff and see if it wins.

Next was Do your normal day job of trying to sell stuff, but when you send the proof in, trim off the ugly things the client wanted, such as the phone number or the address of the local dealership.

Following that was the director’s cut era: Do your normal day job, but however good the 60” or the 30” might have been, get a nice 120” to run once at a friendly cinema, or at 3am on an obscure TV channel. Then you have your epic award entry in its most wonderful form.

Then, as the worm turned with people in the C-Suite taking the Gunn Report seriously for pitch creds, so we then had Do your normal day job, but also deliberately create of ads just for awards. We all remember the ads that were pulled after clients saw them in award books but had never approved them, or ads for clients the agency didn’t even have. But in general it was agencies deliberately taking time off from the day job to specifically create the award ads.

This was exacerbated by the new need for case study videos. No matter how small or insignificant your ‘ad’, you now need to wang on about it for two minutes, usually throwing in some added bullshit for good measure: ‘Sales increased 300%!’ Yes, they went all the way from two to eight. And what is a media impression, anyway? And who counts 1.2 billion of them?

Finally we have where we are today: Do your day job, but either make it a charity ad that is supposedly a non-charity ad, or just do a charity/non-charity ad on the side of your day job.

I’m sure everyone reading this is aware that it’s much easier to to make a charity ad that people care about than it is to make a washing powder ad that people care about. Dying children or disappearing rainforests are obviously much more interesting and persuasive topics than what temperature gets your socks whiter than white.

Back in the day (not that long ago, I think) Cannes did not allow charity ads to win Grands Prix. That, incidentally, is why my old boss, Peter Souter, did not get the biggest of all prizes, despite making this all-time great ad: 

Charity vs not-charity was thought to be unfair, so charity ads were in their own ‘product’ slot, but could not get higher than a Gold. But then they added Glass Lions and White Pencils and the whole ‘For Good’ section of Cannes, along with Titanium, which, judging by this year’s winner, also allows charity entries.

At some point during all this, some bright spark twigged that you can turn a corporate ad into a charity ad just by creating/paying for an initiative that might be somewhat related to the corporation, but also (see this year’s Sheba Grand Prix winner) might not.

Actually, as I think about it, even this little twist is not new. Back in 1996, the great Flintham and Macleod produced this excellent campaign to get people to vote:

Who was the client? That’s right: late-nineties nightclub du jour, the Ministry of Sound. I guess someone there cared a lot about voting.

But now everything seems to require that little ‘for good’ bit extra. I’ve been involved in a couple of pitches over the last twelve months and I’ve noticed that the client’s brief includes the criteria upon which the agencies will be judged. It says something like ’20% Strategy, 30% Chemistry, 50% Creative’. So that’s what ad award judging is now. They’d like to see 20% Originality, 30% Concept, 20% Craft and 30% Doing Something Nice No Matter How Much Of A Load Of Old Bollocks It Might Be. 

The phrase that springs to mind is the tail wagging the dog, but it goes in both directions: juries like charity stuff, so let’s turn our corporate ads into charity ads, which then in turn get awarded by juries, so next year let’s make more of them… and the cycle continues.

I put together the following lists by looking up all the winners of the last decade then wrote down the ones I could still remember. Here are the corporate + Nice winners: Like A Girl, Womb Stories, Dumb Ways To Die, Palau Pledge, Fearless Girl, Mouldy Whopper, Meet The Superhumans, Sweetie, Lifepaint, Meet Graham, We’re The Superhumans, Boost Your Voice, The Talk, Trash Isles, Dream Crazy, New York Times (kind of fits in both lists, I think), The Tampon Book, This Is America and Courage Is Beautiful (man, Dove have been playing this card all along, haven’t they?).

On the Not Nice side we have: It’s A Tide Ad, Magic Of Flying Billboard, Epic Split, Shot On iPhone, Nothing Beats A Londoner, Next Exit McDonald’s, Whopper Detour, New York Times (kind of fits in both lists, I think), Wendy’s Keep Fortnite Fresh and You Can’t Stop Us.

(By the way: if you can be arsed to take a look back at the big winners from the last ten years you’ll see just how many of these Best of the Best awardees have faded into obscurity. It makes very clear just how ephemeral this whole enterprise really is.) 

(By the way part 2: I should really make clear that Nice ads aren’t a bad thing as such. Plenty (Meet The Superhumans etc.) are both utterly brilliant and solve a real-life client brief. The problem is the fact that this is starting become unofficially mandatory, whether that was the intention or not.)

So are we going to have to divide awards into Nice and Not Nice in future? If it seemed unfair for the washing powders to have to go up against the starving gorillas in the past, isn’t that the case now? And isn’t that especially so since this is just a little icing on the cake of what the industry really spends its time doing? 

The vast majority of ads are still ads, going about their business trying to get people to do part with their time and money for the benefit of some corporation’s bottom line. If we spend our time and attention on the Nice stuff on the side, then reward that as The Best We Can Do, then how will that make us feel about the real ads? They’ll just become a tedious interruption to our efforts to clean up the Pacific, or get senators to vote for Climate Crisis policies, or shame racists into being less racist. All noble aims, but it’s like giving the Premier League title to the team with the most Goal Of The Month winners. Defending a cross, breaking up an attack and passing to the left wing are also valuable skills.

So I’ll just put a little flag in the sand here on the 5th of July 2022 and hope I’ve just got my knickers into too much of a twist. Maybe I’m overstating the significance of a temporary fashion. Maybe the importance of the horse and pony shows that are advertising awards is not actually that big a deal. Maybe the giant glacier of Not Nice advertising will grind along regardless of who is having an angst party on top of it.

One last note on this subject that will hopefully save me having to write a whole other post: could we please just cheer the fuck up for a bit? Life’s a bit of a grind already without turning the entire industry into a ‘who can wear the least comfortable hair shirt’ contest. Even if you’re doing the Nice stuff, maybe do it with a smile, eh?

Here’s a purpose-based initiative. Where’s my award?

When I was younger there were occasional discussions about what kind of ads would win awards. You had the obvious elements of being original, simple, well-crafted, memorable and all that jazz, but as award schemes started to become more international, there seemed to be a bias towards the kind of things that would win at Cannes (ie, when judged by an international jury of people who may not speak immaculate English).

This led to a few years where people in the UK discussed the ‘Proster’ (sic) – a press ad that was simple enough to be a poster. If your ad had a single image, no words and a logo that often sat in the bottom right-hand corner, then it was more likely to be understood by people from across the globe.

I thought this was a bit of a shame (see my Press juror’s comment in the 2005 D&AD Annual, nerds), but it was just a continuation of a question as old as time: how do you make an ad that will win you a prize? (By ‘time’ I mean since the late 1990s, when ads really started to be made deliberately for awards, and scam began to take off.)

The stories of scam, homogenisation of global work, international jurors who need to have nuance explained to them (which of course course includes English-language natives, who will have no idea how to appreciate a reference to a Malaysian stand-up comedian or a Turkmenistani pun), proliferation of categories and a general lowering of standards over the fifteen years have been told many times, so I won’t repeat them here.

Instead, I’m going to point out a relatively new development that has well and truly conquered the awards scene. 

If you want to win the highest advertising prizes you must, must, must create a piece of work that either contains, or simply is, a purpose-based initiative.

I direct you to the list of this year’s Cannes Grand Prix winners. Out of 27 winners in over 30 Grands Prix, I counted 4 (maybe 3 1/2) actual ads that just sold something produced by a corporation.

The others were either initiatives created by a corporation, or ‘for good’/charity communications/ideas. So that’s about 15% that were not purpose-based.

The lesson: next year, you’d better do something nice, because it ain’t Santa who’s making a list; it’s the world’s ad juries.

Here’s a rundown of the Grand Prix winners and the extent to which they tried to save the world:

The Brand Experience and Activation, Radio and Audio, and Influencer Grands Prix were won by Vice World News for their Unfiltered History Tour. It brilliantly highlights the fact that the British Museum should really give back all the stuff it has stolen from other countries. I’ve watched it a few times, but had no idea it had anything to do with Vice World News (11,813 views so far, by the way). Amazing initiative. Surely not a great ad. 

The Creative Strategy and PR Grands Prix were won by The Breakaway: the first ecycling team for prisoners. Ummm… so they put Pelotons in a jail? Not really – that would be too expensive, but that sums it up. I guess it must have had some great PR to have won the Grand Prix, but with 6,666 Youtube views, no one seems to have been directed to this film. I’ve now watched it twice, but have no idea who Decathlon (the client) is. I could Google a bit harder, but I think that misses the point somewhat. Another so-so ‘ad’. 

The Glass and Creative Data Grands Prix were won by Data Tienda from WeCapital. This initiative allowed Mexican women to build up a credit score based on the hitherto-irrelevant credit they had used in small, local shops. They could then get loans to build businesses. Great! 10,000 women and 50,000 shops got involved, so it seemed to be pretty substantial. On the ‘is it an ad?’ Question, I think the case study highlights an interesting point: if you take too much credit (pardon the pun) for these efforts you look like a shitty company making hay off the back of people’s misery. But you have to let people know who was behind it, or you won’t have any kind of an ad. I assume all the suggested newspaper headlines at the end went on to mention We Capital, so maybe it was a decent corporate communication to go with the great initiative. 

The Industry Craft and Media Grands Prix went to Hope Reef for Sheba cat food. As the Youtube description says, ‘The world’s coral reefs are at breaking point. But, there’s hope. We’ve launched the world’s largest coral reef restoration program, to preserve and restore the beauty in our oceans.’ 8.2m views are not to be sniffed at, but my question is, what does this have to do with cat food? There was a point when it mentioned that ‘more coral means more fish’, and I thought, ‘Yeah, for your cat food’. But it didn’t suggest that was the case, so I’m left wondering why a company that offers Tender Whitefish and Tuna flavours is trying to save fish. Why not just stop selling it as cat food? Is it a good ad? I honestly have no idea.

The first film Grand Prix went to Channel 4’s latest remarkable Paralympics ad. I’m going to make this down as a slight initiative, as the Paralympics have a sort of purpose-based vibe. I know it’s advertising Channel 4’s actual programming, but you know what I mean.  

The second film Grand Prix was a bloody ad! Yes it was! With no initiative stuff at all! How did it slip past the jury? Crazy stuff, full of moments that actually demonstrate the products’ benefits (check the credits at the end), and with 34m views! Well done, Apple!

The Titanium GP went to Long Live The Prince, for the Kiyan Prince Foundation/EA Sports/QPR/Match Attax. This reimagining of Kiyan’s life had he not been killed with a knife at 15 is an ad for the Kiyan Prince Foundation, so it’s not an initiative for something else, but it is a ‘for good’ communication. 

The Creative B2B Grand Prix went to Speaking in Color for Sherwin-Williams Coil Coatings, which allows you to use your voice to describe something, which they then interpret with AI to create a colour or palette for your paint. It does say, ‘Defined by human experience, it redefines how people connect with colour’. So I don’t think that’s an initiative, although I think they’re trying to make it sound like one. 

The Creative Business Transformation Grand Prix went to Piñatex, Dole/Ananas Anam, an initiative (Phew! We’re back to those) to create a sustainable leather substitute made from the cellulose fibres extracted from pineapple leaves. Seems like a good thing. Is it much of an ad for Dole? I don’t know, but it’s going to have to do more than this to compensate for its terrible crimes against humanity (financing death squads in Colombia etc.). 

Next, another actual ad with no initiative! The Creative Ecommerce Grand Prix was won by Wingstop/Thighstop, a chicken wing shop that pivoted to selling thighs when wings ran out. Nothing else to say. 

The Creative Effectiveness Grand Prix was won by an initiative to help farmers grow organic crops. The Contract for Change was actually tied very tightly to Michelob Ultra, as they guaranteed to buy the organic barley that was a more risky choice for farmers to grow:

The Design Grand Prix was fully ‘initiatived’. Penguin Books’ ‘The Portuguese (Re)Constitution’ uses the ‘blackout poetry’ technique: several poets and illustrators passed the blue pencil over this constitution until some words were highlighted, celebrating the freedom of expression. Yeah… it’s all a bit complicated, but bottom line: it was the design of a purpose-based book.

The Digital Craft Grand Prix went to Backup Ukraine, from Polycam x Unesco. It’s an app created for Unesco which allows people to digitally scan architecture and monuments in Ukraine that are under threat of being destroyed in the war. Obviously purpose-based (and obviously a great cause).

The Direct Grand Prix was won by Coinbase for its lo-fi Superbowl ad. No purpose-based initiative there! 

The Entertainment Grand Prix was won by Eat A Swede, Ikea, which was – yes, you’ve guessed it – an initiative! Creative Review describes it as a ‘mockumentary for Ikea that appears to show Swedes eating lab grown human meat, in order to raise awareness of the impact climate change will have on the global food supply’, so who am I to argue?

Even the Entertainment Lion for Music was ‘for good’. This Is Not America ft. Ibeyi is all about protesting police brutality:

Entertainment Lions for Sport’s Grand Prix was an initiative to create a training system for those who are menstruating:

And the Film Craft Grand Prix was for a German supermarket called Penny. But was it about selling peas or Coke? Of course not! It was a purpose-based thingie with plinky music about dealing with the pandemic:

Of course the Grand Prix for Good was a ‘for good’ thing:

As was the Grand Prix for Good – Health:

As was the Sustainable Development Goals Grand Prix: 

Health and Wellness’s Grand Prix was a ‘for good’ initiative where a company made a mosquito repellant whose packaging killed mosquitos when chucked in a dumpster:

The Innovation Lions Grand Prix was an initiative to create a home that’s more resilient to extreme weather:

Mobile Lions’ Grand Prix was for Real Tone by Google, an initiative which captured darker skin more accurately on its Pixel phone’s camera.

The Outdoor Grand Prix went to Adidas’s Liquid Billboard, which created a swimming pool for women in Dubai, who could now wear Adidas’s more inclusive swimsuit range. Yes, It was a for-good initiative.

OK, we’re nearly at the end. The Pharma Lions Grand Prix went to an initiative called I Will Always Be Me, which allowed people with Motor Neurone Disease to save their voices before they lost the ability to speak (initiative!):

Finally, the Print and Publishing Grand Prix went to an initiative called The Elections Edition, from Annahar Newspaper, which skipped a day of publishing and donated the paper and ink to create election ballots:

Why Ads Aren’t Funny Anymore

I highly recommend the latest episode of Dave Dye’s podcast. It’s a chat with Orlando Wood, who has written two books on the links between psychology, creativity and advertising.

When I commented on it via Twitter, Dave said, ’It occurs to me that, although they seem different, all of our ad blogs, yours, mine, George’s, Dave T’s, Gregg Benedict’s, etc are essentially the same – Don’t forget this thing, it works.’

Yep. Or to put it another way, we like to point out where creative advertising could be better, while trying to offer solutions that often seem self-evident and easily accessed.

I wrote a post about this entire subject a while ago, so if you want to have a wallow in the weirdness of our collective insanity, go right ahead. 

In that post I explored some of the thinking behind the madness, but I didn’t really discuss humour, and the reasons why there’s not so much of it about. So here’s my attempt to do just that:

The Oscars Reason

Have you noticed that comedies very rarely win the Oscar for Best Film? Look at recent nominees: maybe CODA is a slight comedy, but it’s mainly a drama, and so is Licorice Pizza. Jojo Rabbit is a proper nominated comedy, albeit a black one. The Big Short is funny, but is it a ‘comedy’? Kind of. Ditto The Wolf Of Wall Street and Django Unchained. But that’s it: one proper comedy and a few funny dramas out of the last 100 nominees.

I think that’s because comedic artistic expression is both very hard, and not considered as positively as something serious. It’s thought to be trivial and silly, so you have to expend far more effort to do do it well, and you get much less credit for the result.

There are quite a lot of articles that go into the disappearance of the movie comedy (TL/DR: they are less profitable and Marvel-esque blockbusters have driven them out of cinemas and and onto streaming services), but I wonder if we have become a more serious planet in the last ten years. There’s a climate crisis, a pandemic, various wars and an explosion of political resentment and disagreement in many countries. Funny ads could help to alleviate all that, but they might appear out of step with the cultural vibe.

The Difficulty Reason

Very good comedy is a real craft that requires great writing, casting, editing and direction, and it’s harder to seem funny in the initial script, especially when it is now often passed around as a deck to be read rather than a presentation to be performed.

Maybe clients have seen many supposedly funny scripts fall flat, and subsequently found themselves drawn more towards a straight manifesto that’s read out over some stock footage. They’re hard to love, but they’re easy to visualise before they’re produced (you can knock them up in a ripomatic on a laptop these days), and you can easily swap out or alter lines right up until five minutes before you supply them to go on air. They can accommodate the wishes of all the client’s departments, which makes everyone’s life easier, but also makes the ad duller.

You can’t do that with a comedy. It’s impossible to pre-produce that magic alchemy of script, performance, timing and direction, so everyone has to take a leap of faith, and people (especially clients) don’t like doing that if there’s a cheap, easy non-leap of faith alternative.

Write a script with people dancing and everyone can imagine it because it’ll be like the other fifty dance scripts currently on air. The same with the serious purpose-based initiatives and the po-faced celebrations of how your chocolate bar or loo cleaner is changing the world.

The ‘Our Biscuits Are A Big Deal’ Reason

Dave and Orlando mentioned that clients probably prefer a script that says their crumpets are the best thing since sliced bread, rather than one which self-deprecatingly recognises the true insignificance of practically everything on the average supermarket shelf. They make fish fingers all day; fish fingers are very important to them; why wouldn’t they be important to the rest of the nation? Because they’re just bloody fish fingers, but try telling that to people who think about and talk about nothing but fish fingers, all day, every day. Good luck!

The Victim Reason

Comedy also needs a victim. In the past the Doofus Dad has often taken that role (idiot dad that we all roll our eyes at because he’s childish or irresponsible), but it might just as easily be a clichéd societal convention or a crappy musical genre. However, that means someone, somewhere might get offended, and then express that offence on Twitter or Instagram. No client wants that! It’s a PR disaster! Fiona in Basildon actually likes the music of Steps, thanks very much, and she’s mobilised eighteen Facebook friends to protest the pisstakey use of Tragedy in  your latest jam commercial. Quick! Pull the ad, and let us never speak of it again. And we must now apologise. Profusely.

That’s a situation best avoided, so instead let’s just be safe, and nice and not funny, because funny can be provocative, and ‘provoked’ people like causing a stink on social media to take revenge on the provokers.

The John Lewis Reason

Humour seemed to disappear around the same time as the rise of the serious/tear-jerky John Lewis ads. Some very talented people created an entirely new genre: the 60-second heart-warmer, and every client seemed to want one of their own. ‘That worked, so give us one’, is a common refrain from many clients (and many CDs), and the dominance of the John Lewis-alike may well have knocked the entire industry off its axis.

And if your biggest ad of the year is going to be one of those then you’re unlikely to spend the rest of the year being ha-ha funny; the two things would make your brand inconsistent, and many clients (and many CDs) do not like an inconsistent brand. So the tail kind of wagged the dog until it almost became weird to stand out with a throwaway gag (yes, standing out is a GOOD THING, but it also requires ‘BRAVERY’, and people don’t like being ‘BRAVE’ because it’s KINDA SCARY).

So it’s obvious why humour has fallen by the wayside: it’s difficult, expensive, hard to communicate in a deck, trivialising, guaranteed to annoy someone you want to sell things to, and not like a John Lewis ad.

That’s a pretty hard tide to swim against, but I would urge you to try because I like funny things, and, funnily enough, so does literally everyone else on earth.