Throwing money at a problem

Everyone has a story they tell when they dine out or meet new people. Mine is about the time I found myself in the lift with all of the members of U2 and was greeted by Elton John.

But that’s for another time.

My brother-in-law Dermot has a story that he used to tell a lot, but these days he will only bring out if you insist. So I tell it here instead, with his kind permission, mainly because it illustrates a reasonable point about creativity but it’s also a pretty good tale in itself.

It happened back when Mullets ruled the hairdressers and band names sounded like the ramblings of an eight month old baby (Kajagoogoo? no? oh please yourselves) and the internet was just a twinkle in Tim Berners-lee’s eye.

Our story starts on a fine spring day in a ski resort somewhere in the Alps when Dermot and two friends, Henric and Mike went off for an afternoon’s skiing. Such a fine day in fact that he decided, as people often do, that a jacket was surplus to requirements.

It was one of those afternoons where the sun reflects off the slopes and turns the whole mountain in to a giant reflector, the sky was a pastel blue and the snow was powdery and perfect. Bliss.

The other two cursed him as they sweated in their jackets and the three friends, all pretty good skiers, decided to take a detour and go ‘off piste’.

It must have been an hour or so later when they realised they had taken a wrong turn, missed a marker or sign and now were completely lost.

It was getting darker, but they carried on down the mountain anyway, thinking they were sure to find a route somewhere.

They chopped through the trees, weaving their way down when they abruptly came to a cliff and all three narrowly avoided going over the edge. That was close, they thought, but things were about to get a lot worse.

By now it was now almost totally dark and now it was getting freezing. They were properly in the shit.

And Dermot only had a sweater on.

They couldn’t risk walking in the dark and going over another ledge, so they reasoned they would have to make a camp there and spend the night on the mountain.

This was before mobile phones, and they hadn’t thought to tell anyone of their plans. Nobody would miss three guys in their twenties who didn’t come home all night.

They tried to make a fire. They had a cigarette lighter, no cigarettes of course, but nothing would burn.

They destroyed their skiis trying to use them as axes on the pine tree branches but no luck.

They would have to survive with no fire and no food.

If only they had some paper!

They dug a hole out of the snow with what was left of their skiis and cuddled up.

Stupidly they tried to sleep, which you shouldn’t do if you are in sub zero temperatures as you can quickly sink in to a coma.

Nevertheless Henric and Mike sandwiched Dermot between them to share body heat.

Dermot usually says at this point ‘I told them that if one of them needed to pee to just do it on me’ because the cold was so intense.

It was a long night, during which they all genuinely thought that they were done for.

As the first light appeared around 4am they were relieved to discover that they were still alive, if a little urine sodden. Slowly they made their way back up the mountain, (in 1980’s ski boots) trying to find a route down.

By 3pm that afternoon they eventually made it back to some kind of civilisation. A town that wasn’t where they were staying but had a taxi that would take them back to their village.

Exhausted, hungry and grateful for their lives they arrived back at their hotel.

Now, you may be wondering what all this has to do with finding a simple obvious answer.

The story would have ended there, a lucky escape and cautionary tale about the perils of mountain conditions. But as they entered the chalet, Henric, nonchalantly produced some money to pay the cab.

He has been sitting on a thick wedge of cash.

Paper.

Paper that they could have burned to start a fire.

But it never crossed his mind. Money wasn’t paper to him. It was money.

Sometimes the best ideas aren’t that hard to find, you just need to know where to look. You just need to think a bit differently about the familiar. What good creatives are able to do, rather like good comedians, is take the ordinary and twist it in to new shapes and present it back to you in new ways.

So it’s not always about new media, or new techniques.

Sometimes it’s just about looking afresh at something you’ve seen a million times before.

And setting light to it.

 

 

 

 

 

When you avoid offending anyone, you offend everyone.

One of the things that separates creatives from mere mortals, (I jest) is the ability to finally accept that your idea didn’t fly with good grace and resilience.

Nobody understood it.

Nobody liked it.

You could never afford to do it.

It had been done before.

”Don’t worry I’ll think of something else.”

All those things are hard to accept but they pale in comparison to having got your idea through and produced and then hating it.

The worst disappointment is having spent a year on a project, done three rounds of pitching, two rounds of research, fought tooth and nail for the right budget and director, photographer or animator – tried to accommodate everyone’s opinions and then when you see it you just go, ‘oh crap’.

Your heart sinks, maybe not because its awful, maybe just because it’s okay. But mostly because it really wasn’t what you started out believing it could be.

You thought it would be funnier, you thought it would be cooler. You thought, you thought, you thought.

You just hope no one notices it and it passes without incident or damage to your career.

That’s why I just feel rather sorry for the makers of the now infamous Pepsi ad. Most of us in advertising have made a turkey, myself more than most but this one was the ‘Heavens gate’ of cock-ups.

This Saturday Night Live skit, summed it up perfectly. The initial enthusiasm of the creative ( here they lump the director and creatives in to one easy to digest character) being thumped down to earth when the reality of the purile concept and all the compromises he’s allowed to happen hits him.

Because making a good commercial is hard.  That’s why agencies fight to get the best talent. It’s why good creatives can be seemingly unreasonable. Contrary to popular sentiment that ‘everyone is a creative’  making a spot that captures the imagination of the public is about more than just heaping a bunch of lame socially current imagery in to a nicely shot film and hoping for the best.

I’m not really sure in this day and age of multiple research rounds etc how no one commented that this was a pile of shit?

Maybe in the concept stage it was easier to fudge and promise this arguably noble ambition of ‘bringing together of cultures and world peace’ in a storyboard.

A bit like when you have a really funny story in your head and when you start to tell it out loud to your friends they stare at you non plussed and all you have to offer is a meek ‘well…er…you had to be there’.

Being unreasonable stops this kind of disaster.

Maybe it even started out as a black lives matter script.

Maybe it featured a black woman, perhaps the real Leisha Evans from the Jonathan Bachman photo taken at the Baton Rouge protest, maybe they envisioned it as gritty and urban but also simple and genuine.

It would still have been on dodgy ground because appropriation of serious issues by a soft drink (and not even the one that is best placed to make this kind of ad) is a minefield, obviously.

Then, after the first presentation, all sorts of people from clients to consumers to consultants started commenting:

Does it have to be an angry march?

We think it’s too much black lives matter? 

Can’t we have smiley faces? make it about ‘the conversation’?

What about some cool dancers to appeal to the kids?

And we want to be inclusive, one of the heroins should be a muslim girl.

I think a Cello could add some class, it’s all rather street isn’t it?

Just so many deaths by a thousand cuts that it ended up being a long way from that first idea.

And no amount of money or celebrities could save it.

But the final film was just so fake, so contrived and emasculated to avoid offending anyone, it offended everyone.

In my experience being polarising can be a good thing, if you aren’t upsetting the applecart a little then you’re doing something wrong.

Just don’t destroy the whole orchard.

I’m being generous of course, it could have just been this God-awful crap from start to finish.

The only consolation is that there’s always another brief and a chance to redeem yourself.

You hope.

 

Survey this.

Frankly, I have had enough of survey requests.

Not the door to door type, just the incessant ‘how was buying that door knob for you’ type of survey.

I don’t want to be part of the big data I want to be small data, in my own house, leave me alone thank you very much.

The problem with surveys is (and by the way- how is your experience of the last sentence? can you take the time to fill in a form?)

When I just want to book some theatre tickets I don’t want to tell you how brilliant I found the experience of giving you my credit card details. I just want the tickets.

If I didn’t find this a reasonably good experience I would:

A: Not use your poxy site again

B: Complain

Actually, I probably wouldn’t even complain. I mean how bad would your website have to be?

You will find out if your website is crap because people will stop using it.

How’s that for a real life big data survey?

I recently have had some dealings with SKY. Yes they sorted the issue out, no I don’t want to rate your employee.

I’ve done it twice and the texts won’t go away.

It’s actively making me hate the SKY brand.

But that data isn’t captured because I keep giving them 10 out of 10 because it’s easier that way and it gets them off my back.

I recently joined the National Trust. Now I have a text sitting on my phone because they would ‘love to get my feedback on my experience’.

The guy on the phone was nice enough and I gave him my debit card details.

There, does that help?

What if agencies surveyed their clients as regularly as other companies think it’s OK to do? How was your last conference call? was it A: Too long B: Too short C: Waste of time D: Incoherent.

You recently had a presentation from our agency. Did you find the slides A: Tedious B: Colourful C: Interesting D: Helpful E: Stupid.

How do you view our recent award triumph at the PONCY AWARDS in Zurich? A: Don’t care B: Somewhat don’t care C: Massively cool D: I got drunk and embarrassed myself and have no recall of anything.

Would this help improve our services?

The only real data that matters is if you still have the account and if the work worked.

I do wonder whether this new obsession to gather trivial data at all costs is really a true reflection of real life or that helpful.

Me? I am all surveyed out.

How was this blog for you?

 

 

Dear Mr Hammer, your problem isn’t a nail.

Aren’t all branding ideas sort of advertising ideas and vice versa?

Well, sometimes, I guess, but not always.

In Pharmaland we can lean towards treating every problem as if it needs a good whack on the head. Give it a brand image that people will remember, plaster it all over the congress stand and the iPad and stand back.

Not you obviously, but you know…other agencies.

The most recent Mr Muscle campaign highlights the often subtle differences between what (I regard as an..) advertising idea and a brand idea. Both have found their way in to an adspace mind you.

Now, I am not saying that this is the greatest campaign of all time, but it provides a useful, albeit mediocre, example.

The old campaign featured, for years, a feeble nerd who took on super strength because of the product. Mr Muscle loves the jobs you hate.

screen-shot-2017-01-23-at-17-29-24 screen-shot-2017-01-23-at-17-29-46

Yes, irony folks. But it worked because people could see the role of the brand in their life.

Then after a 30 year successful run some sort of global adboard switches it around and makes the product a superhero (yawn), complete with muscles and a square chin. Not sure why he’s animated but never mind.

One shows the user having a clear benefit.

The other says the brand is great.

journal-mr-muscle

I can imagine the team somewhere deciding that the weedy guy was too negative, he didn’t embody the brand in a positive way.

“I think people might think the product is weedy too…I just feel it’s too negative”.

“Good point Gustav, what we need is a more positive image.”

“Yes, and we need a woman in there so housewives can relate to the user – because men don’t really do cleaning”

“Thanks Maria, good point.”

That Maria is a bit sexist if you ask me.

To my mind they fundamentally lost what makes a good advertising idea work.

The hero is all about the brand, the weedy guy is all about the benefit to you, the bathroom attendant and therefore the brand.

Truth is, clients can often miss the point and go straight to what the pictures in front of them appear to be saying purely on a visual level.

It’s the semiotic argument.

But to paraphrase Eric Morecombe, do all the right notes in the wrong order still add up to a concerto?

At one point in the third act of the film ‘Notting Hill’, you’ll remember that Hugh Grant and the gang all pile in to a small car with a lion in its logo. The cookie sister shouts to Rhys Evans as he squeezes in to the boot ‘You’re my hero’ and they whizz off to stop Julia Roberts from leaving town, to the tune of ‘Gimme some Lovin’.

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I only found out about this a couple of years ago that this was a secret sponsorship, product-placement kind of a deal, brokered by the the account director on the car account I used to work on.

Unsurprisingly, it bypassed our creative department entirely.

It showed the family car could take a lot of people (obviously) and the ‘hero’ line was spot on the branding strategy about heroes that that particular car brand was employing at the time.

The client loved it. They couldn’t sign up quick enough.

That little deal cost them about £150k and it went straight in to the pocket of Working Title films and became an iconic moment in a much loved movie.

But wait a bloody minute.

I’ve seen that film a dozen times and all I saw was a group of friends jumping in a car and driving though london.

And I worked on the brand!

All the right notes, not necessarily in the right order.

Maybe it had some semiotic effect that I don’t know about, but even with all those branding elements that the client held dear and spent millions on, it still didn’t add up to an actual message.

Pharmaland is full of images that capture the ‘brand essence’ or even the MOA without making a connection with the doctor or end user in any meaningful way. We mistake branding ideas for ideas that connect with our audience, the orange bridge, the blue apple, or I dunno….the red sodding banana all probably encapsulate their respective brands perfectly, without ever actually meaning a bloody thing.

What we need in Pharmaland, heck even adland in general, is less hammers looking for nails and more advertising ideas.

Or at the very least, to be able to know the difference.