Why Digital made advertising fun again

23 Feb
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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4 responses to “Why Digital made advertising fun again

  1. Cynthia Edwards

    February 12, 2013 at 3:02 PM

    I used to work at The Creative Business in London, with David Bernstein, Laurence Isaacson, and so many other wonderful people. It’s rare fun to find a mention of this quirky “below the line” shop in today’s world. Thanks!

    • Robin Johnston

      February 15, 2013 at 7:11 AM

      Oh, that’s nice. I don’t think it’s a case of rose tinted spectacles when I say how much more integrity advertising had 30 years ago. Used to be run by men and women who were passionate about the creative product, and that genuinely made it fun (though of course some of them could be quite terrifying too!)

  2. Cynthia Edwards

    February 28, 2013 at 6:32 PM

    Admen were “Gentlemen with brains,” as my friend David Ogilvy used to say. Not very politically correct, any more, but he made a good point. 🙂

  3. Karen Hoisington

    September 12, 2014 at 12:56 AM

    Hi Cynthia. I used to work with the Creative Business too with he charismatic David Bernstein and Laurence Isaacson in 1979-1978 I believe. On the Guardian and Cadbury account. Not sure if you remember me. Karen Hoisington. I left London to work as Singapore’s top art director at Oglivy and Mather and made good here. Will always remember my first job at TCB. Fun time, and agree wonderful people and great location! Cheers Karen.


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