How a brand can punch above its weight.

Back in the 90s I was fortunate to do a fair amount of international jet setting due to being the jammiest git alive and working on a car account.

The ads were popular somewhat but never that great –  which was always unsatisfactory, but the trips were the consolation prize.

We used to go to LA quite a bit and stay at the Sunset Marquee hotel. The names I could drop, if I had a mind to.

Which I do.

The infamous ‘Whisky bar’ within the hotel, was where every night Slash would set up his table and be surrounded by hangers on. Jeff Beck, would usually be hanging around in his cap sleeve T-shirt, we were there on the night the Sex Pistols played LA on their reunion tour and were politely drinking in the foyet. We’d come from a schmancy restaurant in Beverly Hills where we sat next to Densel Washington while Elle McPherson was talking with Joe Pesci at the bar.

I once noticed an old man dining alone at the Sunset’s small restaurant but resisted the urge to ask if he wanted a chat. It was Paul Newman.

Super models roamed the corridors and I remember one afternoon we shared some late sun with Billy Ray Cyrus, Mylie’s old man.

All of these encounters and sightings should have prepared me for what happened one evening in the Whisky bar.

I tell this story as no more or no less than a story about branding and how a brand speaks and behaves and how important it can be.

The name dropping is purely gratuitous.

But we’ll get to that.

Now: Whisky.

(In this ‘dry month’ of January it seems appropriate to talk about the hazards of the demon drink.)

So anyway, whisky has an effect on me like no other drink.

While I have never been an aggressive person, it does slightly give me a false sense of my own macho-ness, let’s say.

Wine, makes me fall asleep at the table and Tequila can lead to all sorts of mischief. I’m sure your experiences are similar.

But the night in question, it was whisky at the Whisky bar.

We had returned to the hotel after casting or shooting or location hunting or some such production based pastime.

A very good friend and colleague of mine at the time was an assistant producer named Liza, she has since grown up and had babies but at the time she was an attractive young woman in her twenties ( and obviously still is!) and as an agency team we felt protective of our assistant producer, she was like a kid sister.

As we sat outside on the small patio she wafted through the doors in to the evening LA fug, if not exactly like a goddess, certainly like an attractive assistant producer.

Oh alright, a goddess sounds better.

I then heard a cockney voice shout out something like ‘Oi. you…over ‘ere!’

It was the mating call of the lesser spotted London geezer and Liza had caught his eye.

Although quite innocuos in retrospect I took affront to this indelicate language addressed at our assistant producer….as if she was some parlour maid.

I stood up and approached this braggard.

Yes, braggard.

I should say that at this point I was more than a little sozzled and words like braggard and parlour maid were frothing to the top of my internal vocabulary, turning me in to some sort of psychotic Lord Melchett.

I approached this bounder who was sat delicately perched on the low brick wall. One push would have done it.

He looked me up and down, unimpressed.

What followed was a strange sort of conversation, there was a lot of ‘don’t speak to women like that’ and a lot of ‘who the fuck are you, her dad?’ type replies.

Then a few “yeahs??? and a few “whatchagonnadoaboutits”.

You know how stupid people (ok men) can get when this sort of thing happens.

But for the first time in my life, and thankfully the last, I felt like I was the guy in charge here.

I didn’t waver, for all intents and purposes I was a hard nut.

Not because I looked hard, or spoke hard. But because I believed it. Yes, it was mostly Glen and his merry band of fiddichs, Morangies and Livets backing me up, but there I was – being macho.

There was a sort of stand off. To be fair this guy wasn’t backing down either.

But neither did he make a ‘move’.

There was an awkward sort of ‘yeah..well mind your language’ kind of unsatisfactory ending to the ‘face-off’ but I at least walked away with my dignity.

And it was over. I couldn’t believe that was even me.

We made our exit to the bar where Mark my boss and Nick the account director were standing laughing their heads off.

I assumed at my idiotic behaviour.

And they were of course, but I had had no idea quite how idiotic I had been.

And frankly you may be thinking that there’s nothing special about this sort of loutish behaviour, men square up to each other the world over every night of the week. It’s embarrassing and nothing to be proud of.

Well, here is where we get to the advertising insight part.

How a brand behaves and acts IS THE BRAND. You don’t need to work your way up to be a brand leader in terms of how you conduct your brand personality, you can just start behaving like a brand leader and so long as you stay faithful to that tone, you can fool pretty much anyone. Even yourself.

Product is what it does, Brand is how it behaves.

“Do you know who that was?” My chums said as I returned to the warm safety of the agency huddle, expecting at least a small degree of newly discovered respect.

“No, who?”

“Have you ever heard of Gary Stretch?”

Hmm..the name rang a bell.

“What the WBC International Light Middleweight title holding Gary Stretch?”

“The now living in LA as an actor Gary Stretch”

“You just nearly got the shit kicked out of you”.

To be frank, it wouldn’t take an ex-professional boxer to kick the shit out of me, but yes – they had a point.

The one time I decide to be a macho idiot and I pick the best pound for pound fighter of his generation.

And lived to tell the tale.

Tone of voice really is everything.






Being funny without telling a joke.

I once did a freelance stint in a German office of JWT and the CEO there was quite the cliche ‘American’ ad-man, not a German.
An ex-creative director himself, he had a good sense of the process and was no fool.

But we differed on some points, one of which was that he thought the whole ‘don’t tell me you’re funny make me laugh’ thing was in his words ‘horseshit’.

Just tell me you are funny and do it several times, loudly.

It’s an approach that can work if you have enough budget and the audacity.

Remind you of anyone?

If you look at the orange-groper-elect himself, he has had a platform where he can tell everyone he is brilliant, day in day out without any real evidence to support him.

People believed him and his ‘winner’ positioning, even when, despite his obvious personal wealth, the evidence of his many failures is everywhere. Atlantic City Casinos, Trump University. Trump Mortgages et al.

His repeated claim to be awesome and the answer to America’s prayers is largely based on his claim to be the awesome and the answer to America’s prayers.

Maybe we have all been wrong about the whole funny comedian thing.

It can be done, if nobody stops you from claiming it. And that’s the one thing nobody realises about political advertising, you can say whatever bollocks you like and there is no organisation who can stop you or pull you up on it.

But in Pharmaland (or indeed consumer advertising if its something like alcohol) we can’t make claims to be funny or amazing if we ain’t.

All we can do is be funny or amazing.

How many times have you had a client ask you to ‘imply’ superiority?

So how does a brand claim something without claiming it?

The best way to find out is to study how some brands have managed it.

One of my favourite campaigns of all time was the UK campaign for Stella Artois which ran from 1982 to 2007 created by CDP and imported to the then Lowe Howard Spink by Frank Lowe when he left to set up his own agency.

‘Reassuringly expensive’ reinforced what we all secretly think. That the more expensive something is, the better the quality.

But did it actually say it was superior quality?

Not so much.

I use this example knowing full well that this type of advertising is now almost extinct.

But what we have in its place are the type of ideas that use the same device, saying things without saying them. A personal favourite is The gun shop by Grey New York for States United to prevent gun violence that purports to be selling perfectly innocent second hand guns until you realise all the guns on sale have been used to kill someone either in a mass killing or in a tragic accident, like the five year old that shot his nine month baby sister.

Needless to say people left the shop without buying a gun.

Because the concept lets you draw your own conclusions.

And that is the secret to a really powerful connection with your consumer.

That’s what changes behaviour.

I’ve always believed that anyone can tell you they’re funny but the ones we remember are the people who actually make us laugh.

It’s still the best policy if you’re not allowed to make claims you can’t support.

Unless of course you’re running for President, obviously.






1.Your concepts stinks 2.they loved it.3 Now what?

One of the curious things about Pharmaland is, given the greatest drug ever, say the cure for all Cancer, the cure for Alzheimer’s or Diabetes, you could literally run a picture of a pig in a pair of knickers and as long as the headline still said “IT CURES ALL CANCER” nobody would care, the campaign would research really well and the agency and marketing people could all slap their colleagues backs in a hearty fashion in the certain knowledge their ‘pig in knickers’ campaign was a wowzer.

Why? well, and this may shock you because all the figures aren’t quite in yet and some of the biometric tests were unclear but….


Okay, so nice problem to have. I think if there was such a drug you might not have to piss around with big red arrows in the sand or couples on the beach or in fact any creative at all.

So everything between that and say….lemon sherbert is a case of selling versus telling on a sliding creative scale.

How do you actually get a clean read from respondants when researching concepts on a drug that changes the market significantly or a treatment that finally gives some hope for people where there was none.

How do we expect a doctor to concentrate (or indeed give a shit) on whether he likes the concept of the guy hanging upside down from a tree dressed as a lemon or the one with the dolphin that can sing?

You mean this shit cures Diabetes? I love every concept!

So the reverse is also true. The worse the efficacy or differentiation of the drug, the more creative we have to be.

In consumer they rarely get the life changing briefs. It’s all incremental, it’s attitude, it’s about having a fucking conversation with a brand.

In Pharmaland, we actually have something to say.


Of course usually we can’t actually say it. Can’t claim it will do anything that it doesn’t actually have an indication for.

“It may cure that big boil on the end of your knob but there’s no data to indicate this will improve your sex life or increase comfort while trampolining.”

“But surely….”


So on the plus side we have a head start in research for doctors to get excited about the message, providing doctors have an interest in curing knob-boils.

But folks, I am sorry to say that equally, we must draw the conclusion that just because your campaign researched well, it may – creatively speaking – have the aromatic qualities of a love child between Ricky the Racoon and Anne the Anchovy.

Sadly, research success is no guarantee of creativity.

And without creativity, what’s the point of an agency?



Your Conference stand isn’t an Advert.

It’s easy to see the conference stand as an extension of your Ad campaign.

In terms of marketing and image it might seem indivisible because you have to get them on the stand so you need loud messages to get their attention.

That’s how an ad works right?

Well, if you say so, but your stand isn’t an ad.

It’s a shop.

Think of all your favourite retail brands, those stylish department stores, or the fashion boutiques that entice you in with elegant window designs or places like the Apple store that just exude cool. Do you enter them because of the big messages in the window?

No, the retail seduction is a much more subtle dance.

People are are attracted to simplicity, cleanliness, boldness and yes – even creativity.

This is a place I could hang out for a while you think.

On a stand the dynamic is the same. Delegates step in to the client’s world for a few moments, attracted by the sparkly things and interesting gizmos.

And yet when it comes to a conference we are often asked by clients to put as much messaging and logos as we can to fit the space.

Hang the aesthetics, give me branding.

And that’s okay if you want to be as visible as one of those discount sportwear warehouses.

But do you?

When Steve Jobs decided to launch the apple shops everyone told him he was mad.


No device manufacturer had ever sold directly to the public, devices were sold via tech shops like Dixons or dept stores like John Lewis.

But Jobs knew that the shops would perform more than one function. Yes, a way to sell more phones and laptops without that third party bias towards their own products, but a shop was also to create a huge presence on the high street, a loud statement of brand and a way to interact with people on a human level via the genius bar.

The response should be: wow I want to go in there, not: look there’s that phone shop.

Remind you of anything in Pharmaland?

And Jobs was meticulous over every detail, sourcing the glass windows from all corners of the earth, making sure the steps flowed in just the right way through the store, making the whole shop an experience.

The shopping experience as a concept, not just a retail outlet.

I sometimes wonder, when the world’s most successful company does something globally successful why everyone else doesn’t just watch, learn and well – copy.

And yet still we stick with what we know, thinking more is more.

Perhaps it’s time for us all to think different.



It’s how we do it, so it must be right.

Take GM crops.

We all know they are bad for the future of the human race. The scary world of science is mutating our crops and causing us all to grow two heads and speak in squeaky voices.

Or something.

It’s what we call ‘received wisdom’.

Received wisdom can be a bit of a bugger though.

When something is decided by a group of people, the media or even the average advertising client and agency, it can be hard to change the way you do things subsequently.

We cling to our received wisdom like a granny on a zip-line.

Logos go bottom right. Doctors don’t like being told they’ve been doing it wrong by suggesting this drug is more right. You need a call to action. BOLD CAPS is the best way to hammer home your key points. Icons make your ad work harder. Don’t have anyone in the ad that isn’t the exact target patient. Always show the positive. Don’t anthropomorphize animals and never set anything in ten point for a diabetes patient. (Poor eyesight) and don’t have negative sounding words.

I could go on.

So what has this to do with GM crops?

Well it may surprise you to learn that an exhaustive study by a 20 strong committee of experts from the US National Academies of Science has scoured three decades worth of scientific papers and data for the evidence of GM crops being the closest thing to eating radioactive sewage on our health and it has proved to be……..almost non existent.

Indeed in some cases it has even improved the health of its customers. (Fewer insecticide poisonings through the use of insect resistant crops and the prevention of blindness through boosting vitamin A content in rice.)

What the fuck?

Obviously I am no GM crop expert, I only steal stuff from articles I read in The Times. (so send angry letters their way) and I am sure there are other concerns that could be raised. But the point is we do tend to, as an industry, approach our projects accepting a degree of that’s just the way it is.

Maybe we just need to all look closer at the many successful creative campaigns that keep things simple and rely on the concept to do the hard work.

Because it seems weirdly that for some Pharma brands you can break all the rules and the sky doesn’t cave in.

1: Always be positive.


2. Always have the logo bottom right.


3. Always have a big call out


4. Don’t use humour


5. Don’t have type that’s hard to read.









Sorry guys, but REMAIN bombed in research.

I know what you’re thinking, of all the perspectives – both wildly positive and apocolyptic on BREXIT over the last couple of weeks, I haven’t read one from a poncy flowery-shirted Creative Director.

I wonder why that is?

Maybe it’s because we are sooooo over asking the public for their opinions and soooo not surprised when the answer isn’t the one we wanted.

What the hell do people (you know…those loathesome consumers out there) know about EU subsidies, trade deals and the WTO?

Apparently not as much as we’d all hoped.

What they do know about is foreigners coming over here and stealing all the jobs in factories, beating down living wages and not getting a hospital bed.

IE: The things that matter to them. The things they were promised would change.

Well, good luck with that.

For me, despite its best intentions, the strategy behind the REMAIN communication campaign was a tincey-wincey bit flawed.

Whether this was deliberate or whether I am just picking up on the overall media confusion I am not sure, but it seemed like they were targeting more or less everybody who could vote.

Yeah, because that ALWAYS works.

But we all knew that BREXIT had a huge fault line between the different generations.

If you were a client with two options on possible target markets, you’d probably choose the market that was most likely to buy your product- right?

You’d be surprised how often that doesn’t happen.

Don’t believe me? It is a well known, but well ignored, fact that the greatest buying power in consumerland is not the most targeted – 18-30 year old market – but the most overlooked, over 50s market.

Over 50s have all the money but none of the cool. Nevertheless the only time we see people of a certain age in advertising is either women having ‘windypop’ issues or men with ‘leakage’ trouble.

Now to my mind, in terms of messages the REMAIN campaign went this direction:

Don’t side with Farage or Boris, they’re racist old dickheads.

Travel and working abroad is great!

Everyone’s our friend these days.

We can work out our problems.

Don’t be a racist!

Be part of something bigger than our little island.

All good and worthy messages, depending on your opinion. But do you detect a slight youth bias? The aspirational dream of a better world where we are all friends and making each other daisy chains?

Now, to a sixty year old’s ear this is all insufferable bollocks.

EU-Campaign-Wolfgang-Tillmans---Between-Bridges5 eu-referendum-remain-campaign-posters-by-wolfgang-tillmans_dezeen_936_5

You had to dig quite a bit deeper to find anything about financial collapse, new trade deals dependent on free movement, extracating ourselves from 40 years of EU & UK law…the lack of investment, EU subsidies withdrawal, all the stuff that could have struck a chord with the over 50s.

And when they did talk about it, it was labelled ‘Project Fear’.

REMAIN had the harder brief, I grant you. As any Pharma brand knows, the promise of maintaining the ‘status quo’ isn’t that sexy.

Normal is boring. There’s a lot of walking on beaches and parks involved.

But then look at the LEAVE campaign strategy, it positively dripped with the promise of new and exciting, which any creative will tell you is a well…a walk in the park:

Get our country back.

Don’t believe the experts.

Take control.

The EU is undemocratic.

We didn’t fight in two world wars to be bossed about by Germans.

Put the money back in to our system (The NHS)

It’s not racist to want border control.

No wonder this worked for the silver-haired brigade. You see, people over 50 believe they are the experts. And they’ve seen ‘so-called experts’ be proved wrong before dammit!!. The older you get the more you want control, not partnerships and a French pen-pal. Plus, the baby-boomers were raised on WW2 films, books and comics where plucky Brits were always trying to beat or escape those pesky Germans.

Don’t think that doesn’t have a residual effect.

The LEAVE campaign didn’t have to bother with tackling the fluffy stuff because their voters weren’t interested anyway.

Like in those research groups for car commercials, there is always a mouthy know-it-all that declares: I don’t care about the cool people on the mountain road, tell me about the MPG!

But then we look at the numbers of who voted what.

75% of under 24 year olds wanted to remain.

81% of 55-64 year olds wanted to leave.

Before the vote, it was split down the middle between old and young with a little bias towards remain.

Then you look at who actually voted, which is quite different to a poll.

Reputedly, only 36% of 18-30 year olds actually bothered to make it down to the polling station.


The cool kids driving the car on the mountain road… guess what? they don’t buy new cars.

Strategically, what the REMAIN camp needed to do was talk to the older LEAVE campaign supporters in a way that related to them. Forget the fluffy bollocks angle.

This was now famously one of the ads that never ran, produced by M&C Saatchi. Personally I think it could have helped.


So then what happened?

The day after the vote The Sun publishes all the facts that will effect us now we’re out of the EU. Suddenly people were outraged and showing buyer’s remorse. “Why didn’t they tell us?’ was the question being asked in all the tabloids.

Why indeed.

Well, because REMAIN were too busy being the Coca-Cola ad on the hill, teaching the world to sing.

And now the pound is in the toilet, racists apparently feel they have a license to attack anyone who looks a bit foreign and irony or ironies, we’re having to recruit more foreigners to help negotiate our exit because we don’t have enough skilled negotiators to do it.

Perhaps the REMAIN campaign should have listened harder to their marketing experts. Perhaps a cross-party committee wasn’t the best way to choose the work, (no shit).

Or perhaps like Michael Gove, they’d simply had enough of experts.









Haute couture on the Cotes d’azure

Arriving last weekend at Cannes Lions I was struck by the level of new technology and interactivity on show.

In real time, you can interact with 3-dimensional people and experience what looks like an actual talker talking on a stage about social media, while you yourself can actually be on social media.


I know I was waving my arms around like an idiot trying to touch things that were in front of my face before Phil told me that they actually were in front of my face.

VR can be confusing.

On Saturday morning most of the London creative fraternity were busy experiencing a virtual reality ‘hangover’ that accurately represented the clawing fug and pain of ‘going large’ on the first night.

It’s amazing what can be done these days.

Meanwhile the awards were the talking point around most of the ‘interactivity pods’ conveniently located in nearby restaurants.

The usual concerns of the work being ‘nothing like what we actually do day to day’ seemed to be a recurring theme again this year.

But does it matter?

Not for me.

There are plenty of awards systems around the world that honour the work we do every day, but what Cannes offers, much like Paris in the Spring and Autumn, is a glimpse of the unattainable.

Think of the work we celebrate on the Croisette like the Haute Couture shows of Paris, Milan, London and New York that parade the ludicrous, the outrageous, the frocks that look like biscuits and the shorts made of concrete – in the name of fashion.

These are not clothes for anyone to actually wear.

Nobody goes around in a pair of trousers that look like two wet fish, but what happens slowly over the course of the year is that fishscale styling appears, biscuit emblems on T-shirts emerge and concrete looking fabric creeps in to the high street.

Cannes is about inspiration. And that’s to be applauded. Who cares if it’s all a bit dodgy?

One CD from Brasil that I was chatting to said he knew of a winning campaign that the agency devised two weeks before the closing date, found a client and got it to run. (does any work actual ‘run’ anymore?)

What he really meant was they got some people to try it out, filmed them using it, put it on twitter and got some PR around it. That’s ‘running’ these days.

So be it. Maybe we all need to play the game. Ideas have transcended traditional media across the advertising landscape. If you are still doing old fashioned branded ad campaigns you are effectively ruling yourself out of the gongs.

My advice to you is get some cool technology and find a way to link it with your brand. Rembrandt and Banking, its an obvious connection. Rembrandt was a painter and the banks now own all his work.

Okay that’s the positive.

What about the less than positive. ( 5 years in healthcare and the word negative has been beaten out of me)

It’s the weasling notion of the ‘healthification of everything.’

I know it sounds cool and inclusive, but hold on a bloody buggering moment.

I don’t care about consumer agencies muscling in, let them come, but what constitutes a health care or wellness campaign these days?

Surely it should be about the target market?

One excellent campaign was for a paint brand that linked colour to colour-blindness. They made a set of glasses that ‘cured’ people’s affliction. (more accurately – ‘appropriated’)

Fair enough you may think, that’s healthcare.

But if they are targeting the colour-blind as a target market in its own right it seems a rather small market for a paint manufacturer.

Like a pill sold by Stella Artois that reproduces the effects of a hangover for the tee-total, so they can feel as shit as the rest of us on a Sunday morning. They’re still not buying any pints.

(In fact I may pitch that to them)

What is more likely, and even admirable from an advertising point of view, is that they are using the glasses to be inspiring about colour. But let’s be honest here, in so doing they are….well, just flogging paint.

And fair play to them, but fuck off and do it in the consumer categories!

Surely a healthcare campaign, be it from a consumer agency or not should be defined by its attempt to target a patient or HCP market?

The healthification of everything could, by a more cynical blogger than myself, become just a backdoor entry to the Lions Health awards by any old product that can find a quasi-medical angle.

Cars with auto-parking: save lives. Bottles of water: cure dehydration. The lawnmower: reduces hayfever. The Bluetooth speakers: Reduce wire based accidents in the home.

Nevertheless, this is all mere trifles.

I continue to find Cannes inspiring, infuriating and challenging in equal measures.

So what is still the real challenge of lions health?

A Grand Prix from a branded pharma campaign. Or is that just insane?

If so, I could probably enter the entry in some category for mental health.