Advertising. Don’t believe the hype.

“I believe that truth only has one face: that of a violent contradiction.”

Georges Bataille

Over the years I have met many snake oil salesmen. They do well in advertising and marketing because it is a weird land of contradictions. Anything might be true because we are often talking about the future. We live in a jungle of opinions. That is why certainty is so attractive. It is in fact so attractive that it makes us want to ignore the ugly contradictions staring us in the face. And who can blame us, they can be very unpleasant.In short, we like to believe what is easiest or what everybody is saying.

So, I thought I would use two examples to show how we often believe our own crap. One is about popular advertising wisdom meeting commercial reality. The second is about ridiculous labels and titles facing the inherent value of a creative. For me, both are massive contradictions that are worth looking at.

The first one happened over Xmas

I am watching festive season television. Amongst the infinite amount of tinsel infused retail I begin to notice an ad that kept playing over and over. It was for Game of War a mobile gaming app. In the very next break, there is another for Clash of Clans and Mobile Strike featuring Arnold Schwarzenegger. These very expensive commercials are played over and over like a brainwashing experiment for the CIA.

They are television commercials for digital products that you can download from the app store. There is huge media spend behind these commercials. So, they must be having an impact in terms of sales.

The reason I mention this is if you look at what gets said and has been said in our business every day by many so called experts about television and the power of digital it doesn’t really make sense. And don’t even get me started on the wisdom of banner ads or the definition of content. A mobile app spending millions of dollars on television is just one more contradiction in our business.

Here is another.

Claire Beale the editor of Campaign Magazine recently wrote an excellent article called ‘Time to remind ourselves creativity is special.’

Here is what she said.

Apparently, being a creative thinker is a very good thing, but being “a creative” is increasingly seen as a limited and limiting tag.

It seems that if you’re a creative now, a lot of other people think you might be sitting around having a nice time doing soft things like doodling or looking at YouTube and not actually contributing very much.

Maybe people always thought that about creatives. The trouble is, the word creativity is increasingly being demystified and commoditised. Creativity has become so democratised that it’s applied – sometimes fairly, often ridiculously – to everything from database management to procurement; anyone who actually calls themselves a creative is assumed to be doing only half the job.

Bullshit, of course. You might very well be sitting around doing soft things such as doodling or looking at YouTube, but that’s probably because such pursuits might help you actually do the one thing all those other people are unlikely to ever do: come up with brilliant ideas that change culture and businesses. Sometimes.

Anyway, the good news is that people who sit around doodling and coming up with great ideas that get made into movies or West End shows or handbags or ads for price-comparison websites contributed a record amount to the UK economy in 2014.

Our creative industry sector is growing three times faster than any other, up almost 9 per cent last year, and is currently worth £84.1 billion to the UK economy or – to put it another way – £9.6 million an hour. Of course, all sorts of specialist skills – not just creative genius – contribute to this success story. Yet there’s a disconnect between this economic performance and the way genuine creativity is valued within many businesses and within the wider system, from education to taxation. A new report from BOP Consulting shows that while the UK tops the rankings for the value of creative exports per capita (£248 per head), the government’s annual investment in culture languishes at just £52 per head.

Back, then, to my researcher and the demise he identified in the status of creativity as a pursuit. In the ad industry, we have people actually called “creatives” and a wealth of evidence for the value of their work in growing businesses. So why do more and more agencies now seem hell-bent on finding ways to imply that their creatives and creative departments are nothing special: just another function and not always the defining one? If we need reasons to enshrine creativity as something precious and special(ist), then the latest growth figures do a fine job. But anyone in our business who needs convincing of that might be better off working for a management consultant. 

So, it would seem many believe being a creative thinker is a good thing but being a creative is not. Figure that one out.

In the same week this article was written Andrew Keller was hired as hired as Global Creative Director of Facebook. He used to be a lowly creative in a creative department. I would call that a contradiction.

Both these examples for me illustrate the gulf between what is often being said about our industry and what is actually happening.

There are the theories and a lot of noise about media and what actually works. This is why during Xmas we see gaming apps relentlessly advertising on television.

We have experts that endlessly segment people that have ideas. This has devalued the word creative. In reality however, these creatives are the ones being hired for billion dollar corporations because they have ideas. No matter what you call them. Actually, if these so called experts really understood what creatives did, the title creative would be said with far more pride. It would also have far more value.

The truth is, as an industry, we really do believe our own bullshit sometimes. And, when it comes to bullshit we should know better. We are in advertising.



Eating the Pack Shot.


This story may or may not be true. Or, may or may not have been altered slightly, to protect the innocent.

Many years ago I worked on a breakfast cereal client. The client was very keen on marketing speak. She loved marketing theory and could talk for hours about it. The only problem was when it came to actually buying something tangible she didn’t have a clue. She had no gut feel. Trying to sell something emotive to her, which was the brief, was like doing stand-up comedy in English in Warsaw.

To be fair to her, the organisation she worked for was part of the problem. They had trained her in the ways of the jargon. What this did was create structure without purpose. It was a blueprint that created confusion and killed time.

The company’s number one number stated ambition was to create a bond with mothers and families. Emotion and feeling were words they used over and over. These words were simple and easy to understand. The problem was they were encased in a process so long with so many steps that if there was any feeling at the beginning it had died after months of analysis.

Tell the best story in the world. Then explain why it’s the best story in the world. Now do it over and over and see what happens. After a while it’s not so good. Repetition can kill feeling. This is how ideas with merit often die.

It is one of the great mysteries of our business. There are many that believe that layer upon layer of logic and ticking boxes will end up in an emotive piece of work that will make somebody laugh or cry. If we just have enough process and logic we will create the correct emotion.

Logic creates emotion. Madness.

But I digress.

After almost a year we ended up on the shoot early one morning. In those days, before the wizardry of post and computer graphics we had to get very gifted model builders to make the final hero pack shot. The packs had to be perfect. They took a lot of time and cost a lot of money to create. This ad totally depended on this pack shot for the concept to work. It was quite large and it had to have real product (muesli bars) inside of it. And because of cost we could only afford one. It had to be pristine for it to work.

And then it happened.

While we were discussing the shot outside one of the runners called the director and I. The client had walked onto set and peeled back one of the corners of the pack shot and eaten one of the muesli bars. I asked her why and she told me she was quite hungry. After 12 very long months the shoot was screwed. It is the only time I think I have felt like laughing and crying at the same time.

And at that moment the phrase, eating the pack shot, was born.

To me, eating the pack shot means focussing on what is truly important.

In our business, there are many abstract discussions. There are a lot of words and concepts. There is ego, opinion and endless theories. And, through this forest of process we often forget that something has to be made at the end of it.

We forget that the length of a process impacts on the product. They are not separate. Bad process, bad product. We also forget that words are not things. You can have thousands of meetings and not one of them will help you if you eat your own pack shot. Words are not things.

In the last 20 years I have watched advertising seemingly get more complex.

However, when you get right down to it what hasn’t changed is there are only four reasons the consumer is going to notice your communication.

You give them an unbelievable deal they can’t ignore.

You reveal an important piece of information they can’t ignore.

You give them a service or experience they can’t ignore.

You create a feeling or story they can’t ignore.

When you do this, you give the consumer something of value. And they give you something even more valuable. Their time.

For advertising to be great it needs to be this simple.

So, my fervent prayer for this this year is to make things that are worthy of people’s time. And to keep it simple. For me, that always begins with the lesson of this story.

Focus on what matters. Forget what doesn’t.

Don’t eat the pack shot.






employment graph

And now a strange graph from a creative. Merry Xmas.


“The truth is rarely pure and never simple.” Oscar Wilde

It is almost the end of what for many in our business has been a tough year. In the last month I have read countless blogs about the death of advertising. It has become fashionable to write about this. There is the talk of technology and how the business is changing. I have read the sentence advertising is facing its Kodak moment in at least 6 articles.

Added to this, I have had creatives from different parts of the world writing to my blog asking for advice on their career. They ask me if there is a future in advertising. Could they use their talents in another industry. They all tell me they are understaffed and had one in particular telling me he had worked Saturday and Sunday of every weekend for 6 months. I think we can agree no matter how masochistic you are this is not enjoyable or normal.

It was because of all of these swirling opinions, I started to wonder what the truth was. Is our business shrinking? Is it disappearing? Was there any evidence?

On top of this, I wanted to write something positive for my last blog of the year. A little Xmas cheer for those that have been naughty and nice. And, I wanted it to be the truth not an opinion. We have too many of those already.

That’s when I found this graph. It is a graph from the department of labour that was published recently in Ad Age. It shows that in 2010 the ad business in America employed 160 000 people. Today, 5 years later, there are close to 200 000 people that are employed. So, you have an increase of almost 40 000 employees. And we are talking about just ad agencies. This is the highest it has been in 15 years when the American ad business had 207 400 employees in the middle of the dot com frenzy.

I looked at this graph for a long time. A long time. Advertising agencies in America have grown by 25 percent since the Global financial apocalypse. While Silicon Valley has really been taking its steroids for the last 5 years the advertising business has added 40 000 employees.

Now, I don’t have stats for the rest of the world which I am sure would be fascinating. Either the picture is completely different or with global financial reporting structures and salary ratios it’s quite similar. However, many of the ad people that have written to me are from New York, Chicago and Los Angeles. And they feel exactly the same as the people that have written to me from Sydney and London. And they sound remarkably similar to creatives from South Africa, Argentina and Brazil. So I guess for the purposes of this article we will use the numbers knowing they are true for America. I can only guess if they are true for the rest of the world.

Whatever the answer this graph has left me with two thoughts.

Perhaps, advertising is not shrinking. Perhaps, despite all the negative opinions and depressing e-mails and blogs advertising is growing.

This leads me to another thought.

Why does everybody who writes to me feel like they have less and less time if there are more and more people? Why are they working weekend after weekend if the industry has added 40 000 employees? Is the pie getting bigger? Or, are there more slices, more people and the same sized pie?

As Oscar Wilde said the truth is never simple. After staring at this graph for an hour, I know he was right.

So, Merry Xmas.

It would seem the future is no longer darkly certain but perhaps brighter than you think and definitely unclear.

Just the way us advertising folk have always liked it.












Advertising is a Science. It’s called Chemistry.

There is a prevailing belief at the moment. It is that we can turn advertising into a mathematical equation.

This way of thinking pushes forward this idea that the best way to reach people is to create millions of perfect frames and then simply fill them with the cheapest pictures we can find and call it an exhibition.

Another way of expressing this way of thinking is that if you are a restaurant you just need thousands of great, very fast waiters and you won’t really need a chef of any ability. I don’t believe that. And, if you go and look at what advertising consumers really loved watching this year you will see most pieces were between 2 and 3 minutes long and had the strong smell of quality about them.

Something doesn’t add up. What we’re being sold is not what we should be selling.

But I digress.

The reason I mentioned Science is because there seems to be a view that we can remove human error from marketing and advertising. My view on this is when this happens you begin to also lose the power to surprise and delight. Relevance and accuracy are very important. But not as important as the experience itself.

To use my restaurant analogy again, a waiter needs to get your order exactly right. But, if you already know what’s on the menu the best a restaurant can do is meet your expectations. Why do great restaurants change their menu fairly often? Because they want to exceed your expectations. They want to give you an experience you didn’t know you could have. This is advertising’s greatest dilemma because this way of thinking comes with risk.

And risk is ultimately solved with belief.

And for belief, you need people.

One of things I find so strange about our business is how little is written about the people in it. And why they matter.

I have been in this business for 20 years. In my time, I have met many types of people. From the great and the good to the mad, bad and dangerous to know.

I have met full blown psychopaths. They have done things like make me record 36 radio spots in 12 hours and deliver it to their house at 5 in the morning for no reason at all. I also once had a meeting with a client who I am fairly convinced had an erection when he told us some pretty bad news. He got off on our pain.

There were many sad cases too. Early in my career I had a meeting with a client who walked into a meeting and opened his brief case and 9 bottles of St. John’s wort rolled across the table. 8 of the bottles were empty.

I have also met Creative Directors that are bat-shit crazy. I have had Creative Directors who have set my lay outs on fire with a Zippo lighter. I had one who used to practice looking casual and relaxed. In the mirror. He would practice because he was the most OCD person I have ever met. But he didn’t want anyone to know. Everyone knew.

I have also met some of the nicest, kindest and smartest people in the world. People that have had ideas that made everybody in the room take a breath. People that have changed my life. People that have sacrificed so much and have pushed and surpassed themselves simply because they want something to be great. People who have helped strangers for no other reason than the fact that they are good people.


The good, the bad and the ugly. Apart from those first two examples I love them all. These are the people that believe and fight for ideas. And more importantly, it is the combination and chemistry of these people that get ideas across the line. It is the unique DNA strand that these people make together that creates trust which in turn creates possibility where none existed.

Or to put it another way, sometimes a Saint needs a sinner to create a bit of magic. This just is how creativity works.

We need these strange fantastic people for one simple reason. They care when others don’t. Data doesn’t care about ideas, people do. They are the ones that are brave and crazy enough to try something new. And, when you have the right ones in the room, they can create impossible things.

Advertising people get a bad rap. They are an easy target. I think as an industry we have lost a bit of our confidence. I think it’s time we lifted our heads up again and remembered how special the people in our business are.

People on the outside may believe they can be replaced with a clean, pristine process that will use words like efficient, cost effective and accurate. It’s strange they never use words like creative, surprising and human do they? So let me ask you, what would you rather look at, a cost effective and accurate process or a human and surprising idea?

I believe this type of chemistry can never be a science.












The premature death of persuasion.

It was a Tuesday morning and as I walked into the creative department. Three or four creatives were huddled around a Mac.You know straight away if you have worked in a creative department that there are only two reasons for this. They have found something very funny or they have seen a piece of work they really like.

I walked over. They were watching believe it or not a television commercial. It was Nike’s new piece of work from Wieden and Kennedy where they celebrate a woman that finishes last in a Marathon. It is beautifully shot. The music is great and the voiceover makes the ad. It is a simple idea well executed. It is also 60 seconds long. You could tell it was a great piece of communication by one simple fact. The creatives were jealous.

Later that day, I read yet again that advertising was dead. This seems to be the blog everybody is writing these days. Invariably, there will be commentary about programmatic buying and the need to make communication no longer than 15 seconds. There is this demand for a new model of advertising. We have to find innovative solutions.

Here is my question. Will innovative tech and digital solutions work for brands and products that are not that innovative and perhaps have no need to be? Does what works for Airbnb work for every other brand?

Intention and vision are just as important as innovation.

 I have a lot of conversations with creative directors around the globe and many feel that their job is just to fill holes with content. Nobody seems that interested in the quality, just the quantity. You know 4000 pieces of content at 20 000 dollars a pop that will be perfectly curated by already overworked marketing departments. 

There is also one comment that has stuck with me. A friend of mine who is a creative director said his clients often feel that because something works for a cool tech brand it will work for their brand no matter what it is. It made me start to think about this new structure. 
I started to think about these ideas that are being thrown around. I also started to think about why advertising even exists. Its purpose has always been to persuade. Another reason it exists is to either magnify or often create a point of difference between a brand and its competitors. The Nike commercial is a good example of this. It connects with the consumer. The tone of the commercial is actually the main difference. You like that brand because it gets you. So, why is that important?

It’s important because there are many brands out there that are not very different from their competitors. In fact many are identical. So, how does that fact stack up against innovative and digital solutions that are being sold at the moment to these marketers as a panacea for all their brands challenges? In my opinion, not very well.

If you are a company like Uber or Airbnb this current environment works well because they are differentiated from their competitors. The truth is those products sell themselves. The new solutions in our brave new digital world rely not on persuasion but the brilliance of the product. If you don’t have a brilliant product these digital solutions will simply magnify that fact. The truth is there are about a billion products and services that will never be as sexy, different or new as Uber.

So, what happens to them?

Some are probably going to die. Some can innovate to a point, perhaps some can re-invent themselves but these are very expensive and risky undertakings. And, some might need to use the art of persuasion.

Here is another thought. There is this idea that you have to be everywhere in small 15 second bursts. As a creative, I can tell you a 15 second piece of communication in a crowded world essentially becomes the digital equivalent of a billboard on the side of a fast moving highway.

And, if you think that’s not that bad, let’s do an experiment. What billboards do you remember on the way to work this morning?

In fact, this kind of communication reminds me of advertising in the 50’s where you had a slogan and a pack shot. So, on the one hand there are many not really supporting their brands but at the same time hoping it does the job for them. Dangerous. 50’s advertising was never designed for 2015. 

A brand as tech savvy as Nike understands that you have to tell stories that set you apart. They understand they have to connect as well as serve. They created Nike Fuel Band almost 5 years ago but they are still making beautiful persuasive stories today. Why? I think the answer is simple. In a cluttered digital world full of brands shouting at you very quickly, this might be still what gets you noticed. And that doesn’t have to ever be a television commercial. But it does have to be something of value as opposed to just a fast moving logo. Red Bull is a good example.

My belief is that in a world that has become very fractured don’t try and be everywhere badly, try and be somewhere persuasively. If you do, you become the destination people look for, rather than the billboards they drive past without a second glance.

4 young creatives huddled around a laptop on a Tuesday morning watching a simple, insightful and very long Nike television commercial taught me this.