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Remembering Peter Marsh

Remembering Peter Marsh

Screen Shot 2016-04-04 at 9.32.58 PMI was saddened to read today about the death of Peter Marsh, co-founder of Allen Brady & Marsh, one of London’s most respected/despised/admired/talked-about ad agencies of the 1970s and 1980s.

Peter was a man that was easy to like and not hard to dislike. The only thing bigger than his ego was his reputation. Or maybe I’ve got that the wrong way round. Whatever, everyone either knew Peter, or had heard something about Peter, or had something to say about Peter. Quite frequently Peter was the one talking about Peter.

His heyday was before I started in the ad business, but even when I was cutting my teeth in the industry the stories about him (some true, some doubtless not true) circulated frequently. And so, as my way of remembering him, I’ll share one of the stories I was told about him that I think sums up the kind of man he was, or at least the kind of man he wanted you to think he was. It is probably the best known of the numerous stories about him.

His agency, ABM, were pitching for the advertising account of British Rail which, at the time, had a truly terrible reputation.

The client arrived in reception at the agency at the appointed time, but Peter was nowhere to be found. Sincere apologies were offered and every effort was made to find the absent supremo. While they waited, the clients sat with increasing impatience in a noisy, crowded and rather messy lobby, full of dirty coffee cups and even dirtier ashtrays.

Eventually, when it appeared that their very existence had been forgotten, Sir Peter Parker (the senior member of the client entourage) stormed over to the receptionist and announced that no company that valued its customers so little deserved to have his business. The entire group strode towards the door.

Screen Shot 2016-04-04 at 9.39.30 PMAs if by magic, Marsh appeared. He introduced himself and the client remarked acidly that he was an hour late, the reception area was a pigsty, his staff had been unhelpful, and why on earth would they consider spending any more time to hear what he had to say?

Marsh smiled and said “Now that you know what your customers think about British Rail, why don’t we go and see what we can do to fix it?”

There are few individuals for whom the terms chutzpah is truly apt, but Peter Marsh was most certainly one of them.

Oh, of course, they won the British Rail pitch.

 

 
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Posted by on April 4, 2016 in Advertising, Marketing, Uncategorized

 

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When does ‘Taking Inspiration’ become ‘Taking Liberties’?

Andrew Lloyd Webber

Andrew Lloyd Webber

There’s a very amusing and thought-provoking video on YouTube that questions how closely related the original compositions of Andrew Lloyd-Webber are to other pre-existing original compositions.

The author very wisely steers a wide course around making a direct accusation, merely presenting what he considers to be the similarities and leaving viewers to make up their own minds.

I’ve seen it several times before and it always makes me laugh, but I watched it again over the weekend and it was while I was mulling over the questions raised that I saw an Allstate ad on TV, and noticed a striking similarity between the payoff gag at the end and a similar one in a Hanes commercial from 2010, though in the Allstate ad it’s less well executed. It’s the kind of similarity that, while perhaps less evident at script stage, becomes glaringly obvious in the final execution.

And there are, of course, many other examples. An ad for the ‘Mail on Sunday’ national newspaper in the UK comes to mind, bearing as it does a striking resemblance to one for Argentine brewer ‘Quilmes’ that debuted in late 2011. On the other hand, the term ‘Battle of the Sexes’ is one in common parlance and, being for different products, in different market sectors and indeed different hemispheres, perhaps it is unsurprising that the similarities only came to light as a result of a YouTube search for “Battle of the Sexes ad”.

Of all the other ‘coincidences’ available however, perhaps none is as striking as the commercials for Renault and Nissan that broke during the middle of 2011. Nobody (seriously, NOBODY) can fail to notice the similarities between Nissan’s ‘Leaf’ spot through TBWA and Renault’s ZE through Publicis Conseil.

When the story first broke, there were reports of accusation and counter-accusation between the two agencies. Even more interesting was the fact that in 1999 the two automakers became strategic partners and took ownership stakes in each other. Clearly there would be some economies of scale from this, but marketing and sales were two areas that were apparently considered sacrosanct. So, who did the dirty deed?

Then the news broke that perhaps neither had a right to the creative high ground for their respective executions. If the Leaf and EZ spots seemed closely related, then the DNA trail was further extended to a speculative spot produced by some German film students the year before for Mutsubishi’s i-Miev which, while it seems to have had very little if any airtime, did garner several ad industry awards.

“How despicable that the ad was stolen from some German students” I thought. “I know they were pushing green technology but this was probably not the kind of recycling they had in mind.”

All went quiet in the industry press (hardly surprising – the marketing news publications always prefer to lick the hand that feeds them rather than bite it), and I had pretty much forgotten about it until recently, when I stumbled across this spot on YouTube; a Public Service Announcement from ‘Plug In America’, an advocacy group for electric powered vehicles. It was uploaded in the fall of 2010, which kinda predates the Mitsubishi execution. As if the whole scenario were not bizarre enough already, the PSA is executed in the well-trodden Mac vs PC style, which led one of the viewers on YouTube to comment “Get your own idea!”, with no concept of how ironic this would prove to be.

The album art for Talking Heads’ 1981 release ‘Stop Making Sense’ offered the opinion that there are a finite number of jokes in the universe. Maybe the same is true of advertising and musical creation too.

 

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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.

 
4 Comments

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

 

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