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.

David Abbott: The Podcast Series

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

David Abbott Podcast Episode 6

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

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

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

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

Which Ideas To Offer, And When To Offer Them.

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

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

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

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

For the CD we have another few categories:

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

Talking of presentations, next is the client.

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

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

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

Conflict Cuts Both Ways

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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