Monthly Archives: February 2012

Why Digital made advertising fun again

David Bernstein

David Bernstein, founder of 'The Creative Business'

I once heard a great London adman, David Bernstein, describe a TV ad for a paint.

He was on an awards jury in the 1970s, watching a reel of commercials.  There was one commercial called ‘Bowling Alley’.  The spot showed the pins in a bowling alley as the ball came whizzing in towards them.  All hell broke loose.  Crash, bang, wallop.  At the end of the 30 seconds, the camera closed in on a single pin.  Not a mark, not a ding, not a scuff.  The jury shortlisted the ad, and gave it top marks in the final viewing.

Then, one jury member (modesty forbids, according to Mr Bernstein) said “What was the name of the paint?”  They stopped and thought, and nobody could remember.  Apparently, it was ‘Jellipax’ (yes, I’ve looked it up and can’t find it either but don’t forget this is a creative telling the story)

He then went on to say that he could imagine the scene where the TV spot was first presented by the creative team (Jeff and Spike) to the account guy (Jeremy).  The account man voices a concern about the branding and the creative team says everyone will know what brand it’s for because it’s like nothing else (Mr Bernstein pointed out, quite rightly, that this is a fallacy).

Then Jeremy suggests that perhaps a simple solution would be to spell out the name, J-E-L-L-I-P-A-X on the pins, to which a horrified Jeff replies “But that’ll make it look like a commercial!”

A charming story I’m sure you’ll agree, and while probably embroidered by Mr Bernstein, most people who have worked in big agencies would admit there is probably a grain of truth to it.

Which brings me, at long last, to my point.

Agency people want the public to like their work.  They don’t want to be at a dinner party with their friends and, when they say which client they work for, hear that their friends don’t like their advertising.  They want to be loved.  They want to entertain.

Some of my earliest ad industry memories are an agency that embodied the ‘sell by engaging’ ethos – Collett Dickenson Pearce.  CDP’s work had the “WOW” factor.  By “wow”, I don’t mean via use of explosions, special effects and celebrities famous for being famous.  I mean “WOW” in terms of a simple but powerful creative idea, grounded in the product, and executed with wit and style.  In their work for Parker Pens, Bird’s Eye and Fiat, to name but a few, Colletts took the view that your first responsibility as advertisers was to entertain well, and that if you entertain well then you will engage your consumers and that, provided the product advertised is good enough, that you will sell well.

It is a view that sits firmly on the shoulders of two mighty forebears:  First, possibly the most prescient book on advertising ever written, Vance Packard’s ‘The Hidden Persuaders’ and second, Bill Bernbach’s 1949 manifesto for the creative revolution:  “Let us prove to the world that good taste, good art and good writing can be good selling.”

The digital age has given advertisers, like never before, the tools to engage with consumers in a compelling, entertaining and stylish manner.  With a plethora of venues via which to communicate with their target audience, advertisers for the first time have the opportunity to truly use media selection as part of the creative process.

In Korea, Tesco used an innovative QR code approach to become #1 in the market without increasing number of stores by defining a clear and attainable goal that solved a consumer problem.

Marvel Little Thor

Marvel's 'Little Thor'. 2.5 million views.

In the US, Marvel capitalized on the VW Jetta ‘Vader Kid’ commercial to help the movie ‘Thor’ stand out.  They didn’t even use an agency, produced the spot very cheaply and scored a direct hit by being fleet of foot and having a desire to genuinely entertain.

Not only does digital, in the myriad forms it now takes, allow far greater flexibility and innovation than what is sometimes called ‘traditional’ advertising, it is also principally about engagement, about creating a dialog with the consumer.

This of course was always true, but the difference today is that the dialog does not have to be complete in 30 seconds.  The brand identity doesn’t have to embed itself within a driver’s subconscious as he or she whizzes past at 60 miles an hour.  This is a dialog that is genuinely two-way.  Something with which one can interact, play, have fun.  This is a dialog in which, more often than not, the ability to entertain is of greater importance than ever.

If you worked at an ad agency in the eighties, it was a genuine thrill to be standing next to someone in a bar on Saturday night and hear them say, “Did you see that ad on TV last night?  Absolutely brilliant!” and realize that this stranger was talking about your work.

25 years later, this happens in a different way.  People share the stuff they think is cool or funny or worthy but, better still, you get to see them doing it.  They post YouTube videos to their Facebook pages, tweet about it, submit it to stumbleupon, pin it or post it to tumblr and, joy of joys, most of this modern version of the conversation in the bar can be tracked, and quantified, and used to inform further work.

What a fascinating and exciting age of opportunity we live in.  Quite what Bill Bernbach and Colin Millward would have made of it all I have no idea, but I like to think they would have approved.


Posted by on February 23, 2012 in Advertising, Marketing, Social Media


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When is the BBC not the BBC? When it’s BBC America.

As a British expat living in the USA, I feel a warm sense of family whenever I see or hear the term ‘British Broadcasting Corporation’.

"BBC logo"

Dear old Auntie Beeb, as she is known affectionately by us Brits.  Rather like that slightly embarrassing older relative who occasionally tries to shun her natural station in life in order to appear more hip, more with it, more modern.  Sometimes she gets it hopelessly wrong and when she does, she is genuinely cringeworthy.

But when she gets it right (and more often than not, she does) she is worth listening to.  Plays, chat shows, light entertainment, news, events, sports, unbiased (arguably) political discussion, original dramas…..the list goes on and on, and all immaculately produced (well, most of the time, given the limitations of budget).  And of course if you don’t like what’s on one BBC channel then maybe there’s something better on another – there are several.

Funded by the annual ‘License Fee’ in Britain (a fee of roughly $250 payable – by law – every year by every household in Britain that has a TV), Auntie is commercial free, has no sponsors to please, no favors to pay back and has only one overriding remit: to produce quality programming that has something for everyone.

As such, the Beeb has for generations been a bastion of high quality content across multiple genres.  OK, she loses her way every now and again, but she always finds her way back, and when she does she usually comes back stronger than ever.

I grew up watching the BBC.  Some of my very fondest memories are of BBC Children’s programs when I was young, watching Liverpool on ‘Match of the Day’ with my father, snorting with laughter at ‘Morecambe and Wise’ on Christmas evening as the entire family, replete after a giant turkey, collapsed onto sofas, armchairs and anything else with padding.

When you move to another country, it is those sentimental ties that are the hardest to sever and it was therefore with delight that I discovered BBC America.  That familiar logo, an icon as recognizable to me as the Chevy bow-tie or the yellow school bus are to Americans, instantly told at me that I had found a home away from home.

Over the last four years however, I have become increasingly aware that this foreign relative, despite the familiar family name, is a pale imitation of the original.  She is Danny de Vito’s Vincent to Schwarzenegger’s Julius, she is Odile rather than Odette.

I understand completely that some shows that run on the Beeb in Britain would not draw large audiences in the US.  British politics or current events are unlikely to resonate, for example.  But what I do wonder is why BBC America seems to be slanting so much of its programming towards the genuinely shallow end of the gene pool.

What do I mean by that?  I mean that, of all the quality programming produced monthly by the BBC in Britain, BBC America chooses to offer up, broadly speaking, the most vacuous.

For instance, on the day of writing, the BBC is devoting a third if its 24 hours of programming to…Gordon Ramsay.  I know its not a bad show.  Some parts in fact can be quite funny.  But 8 hours of cooking related programming (or 9 if you include an hour of Jamie Oliver’s American Road Trip)?  Seriously?

Then there’s period drama The Tudors, a show that BBC America chooses to promote as an exploration of how much shagging went on in the Royal Court of 16th century England.

There’s Doctor Who.  OK, I don’t mind Doctor Who but on Christmas Day, if I recall correctly, BBC America scheduled 24 hours straight of Doctor Who, presumably thinking that if people were slaving over the range for much of the day anyway that they wouldn’t want to watch Gordon and Jamie on TV, and that no other BBC show was sufficiently ‘festive’.

There’s Top Gear.  Nope, can’t fault that.  Excellent show.  On the other hand, even the best programming can become tired when repeated for the dozenth time.

"Graham Norton"

And finally, panel quiz shows.  But rather than using an existing show (such as the award winning and already popular Stephen Fry’s ‘Qi’ for instance), BBC America decided to go with a new panel show hosted by Graham Norton – a show incidentally that is not actually running on the BBC in Britain.  Presumably the reasoning for this choice is that his face is already known to BBC America viewers so, as if hour after hour of his chat show were not enough, we were recently introduced to his new panel game show ‘Would You Rather’.  To whet our appetites for this, the BBC America trailer tantalized us with such game questions as “Would you rather your daughter had no friends, or was as slut”.  Or (even better), “Would you rather watch your parents have sex every day for a year, or join in once to make it stop”.

I’m not making this up.

One could say that, in Britain, the BBC lives a relatively secure life, propped up by the annual windfall of the License Fee and insulated from harsh commercial realities.

Not so BBC America.  With no publicly funded nourishment upon which to rely, BBC America at some point in its infancy decided that the road to commercial success in the New World was paved with innuendo, titillation and repetition, and is pursuing its chosen path with dogged determination.

Once every couple of years, the BBC comes under pressure from one group or another.  “The License Fee is unfair and outdated” goes the argument.  “The BBC should have its financial security blanket removed and be forced out into the big, bad world with everyone else.”

Well, having now seen how the BBC fares in this big bad world, I have to disagree.  Once the genie is out of the bottle it could never be forced back, and the BBC in Britain would begin the slow tailspin towards mediocrity, forced as it is in the US to chase ratings and pander to the desires of those who require nothing from their programming other than cheap thrills, vulgarity and empty celebrity.

A tragic prospect to be sure, and one that I have little doubt is probably far closer to being realized than at any time in the past.

As for my home away from home, the Atlantic seems a lot bigger than it did fours years ago.

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Posted by on February 10, 2012 in Entertainment, Media


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Why VW’s SuperBowl spot is an end-zone fumble.

Volkswagen’s new SuperBowl commercial went live on youtube over the last 24 hours.  Already, it has 3 million views.

I had already seen the teaser ad last week and loved it.  A bunch of dogs barking the ‘Darth Vader’ music from Star Wars.  Cute, amusing and endlessly watchable, so I’d been looking forward to the Gameday execution.

First, the good stuff.  Once again, it’s a cute ad.  Everyone knows that animals demonstrating human traits gets viewers, likes and retweets.  It’s funny.  It’s not great, but it’s still pretty good.  So well done, Deutsch.

And then, 45 seconds in, everything changes.  Suddenly, you are in the bar at Mos Eisley from Star Wars IV, the funky clarinet is playing, and patrons are debating whether the dog is better than the Vader Kid Passat ad from last year.  Darth, standing on the far side of the bar, uses the force to throttle one of the patrons who prefers the dog commercial.

I watched it once.  I smiled.  I watched it again, I smiled less.  I’m not going to bother with the third time.  The agency has made a mistake.  They’ve bent over a bit too far and showed their strategy.

It’s not so much the fact that the ‘Dog’ commercial isn’t as good as the ‘Vader Kid’ spot from last year (which it isn’t) as the fact that the entire execution has been compromised by the clear intention to spark Social Media debate about which is better and have the spot go viral.

I’m hugely surprised.  DDB handled VW since before I was born. Over that period, I don’t think there was a single advertiser/agency partnership globally that had done such a good job demonstrating product truths in such a creative, endearing and memorable manner, whether it be on TV or in print.

However, DDB is but a memory now, as VW have had numerous whirlwind romances in recent years.  From DDB they moved to Arnold, then Crispin, now Deutsch.  Clearly, VW have been in search of the perfect relationship – the one with the “kwan”.  In this commercial, that desire to check all the boxes has come across in the creative.  They have strayed from that well worn and successful path, and have produced a spot in which the requirement to produce something viral has trumped the need to produce good advertising.

Deutsch Group Creative Director Michael Kadin, interviewed by Adweek, said (of the challenges faced in capitalizing on the 2011 Star Wars ad): “To ignore it would have been glaringly obvious and strange”.  His creative partner, Matt Ian, said “It begged for a follow up”.

Ignoring it would not have been strange.  It’s not like the agency polled the general public, got a resounding “We want more” response, published the results of the poll and then blithely ignored them.  The problem is not that the public expected a follow up.  The problem is that the public wanted another great ad.  The bar had been set high.  Perhaps the only reason it “begged for a follow up” was because producing a different spot that was as good, or better, proved too difficult.  So a decision (a safe decision, a logical decision, and ultimately a cowardly decision) was made to produce a cutesy dog commercial and bolt 30 seconds of Star Wars onto the end.  Sheeeeeesh.

Maybe it will work.  Maybe water coolers around the US will be abuzz with conversation tomorrow.  Maybe tonight’s game-time tweeting will be as much about Dog vs Vader as it is about Giants vs Patriots.  But even if it is, I really don’t care.

Deutsch and VW have sacrificed their brand’s integrity.  With the exception of the Beetle driving down the street with the dog running next to it, there is no product in it.  And that’s OK.  But there is no product truth in the entire spot either, and that’s an end-zone fumble.

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Posted by on February 5, 2012 in Marketing, Social Media


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