Letter to a disgruntled client.


Hi Wxxx!

Came across your “Ooooo Ooooo” note in my daily trek through XXXX’s creative lairs, and found it so interesting I thought I’d make a few comments. As you know, I’m not close to the daily  work, but I certainly am close to the philosophical aspects of your paper and would like to express some perspectives I’ve become associated with in my career.

One of my sons, Alex, who has a law degree but works as a writer for MMMM says that in a philosophical sense the ad business is “a mile wide and an inch deep”. I agree with him.

Let me offer a retrospective look into the history of modern advertising in the hopes you’ll find that really, nothing’s changed except that a phenomenon I call “marketising” has taken over and marketing people play at advertising the way they play golf, lots of good equipment but the majority just don’t have the needed flair.

There have been perhaps four significant developments in advertising that I can think of, apart from Erik the Red in 980 A.D. actually calling a mountainous ice-capped island Greenland, in the hopes of attracting settlers (perhaps that was more PR!).

I think Albert Lasker and James Kennedy (a Canadian, by the way) developed the first great ad campaigns back in the ’20’s. Things like: “They laughed when I sat down at the piano, but when I started to play…”. This stuff was definitely aspirational and relied on excellent colloquial writing skills. To me, the next stage of development involved a lot of testimonial advertising, very romantic and thoughtful. A car ad showing a young girl driving a 1928 convertible on the prairie, wind in her hair, and a headline: “Somewhere west of Laramie…”.  Again evocative stuff, getting into the heads of readers in emotive terms. This was the time of writers creating advertising strategy and generally calling the idea shots.

In the ’40’s  Raymond Rubicam (who took me to lunch on his yacht when I first got hired at McKim) wrote a classic ad for Steinway which featured Ignacy Paderewski playing a Steinway with shafts of sunlight bursting through as if from heaven onto a darkened stage and the simple line: Steinway. Instrument of the immortals.

Now to me, that’s not too far from what you guys have been doing except you’ve had to deal with all the baggage that modern communication crap has hung on us all. By that I mean segmentation, and the hyping of brand.

Anyway, to continue with my advertising retrospective, the next  stage, came about in the early ‘60’s, when America finally beat down its puritanical influences enough to actually rebel, instead of just incessantly talking of rebellion (of course, this ended with Kent State and dead student bodies. Snuffed out the ol’ dissent right there). Advertising in the ‘60’s emerged from the boring, media-dominated ‘50’s. The ‘50’s were where the first visual aspects of advertising took over from the early writers’ influences. General Motors went to thousands of billboards each with a forgettable line, because the visual was the important thing, not the idea. Media tonnage was the strategy. Television became very pompous and actually changed car design (Detroit realized it’s much easier and cheaper to change an ad campaign than to actually change the car. All that was required was a visual change, tailfins or a  hardtop look etc.). The ’60’s were a welcome change from the pompous boastfulness of the big advertisers of the ‘50’s. The revolution was led mainly by two people, Bill Bernbach of DDB and David Ogilvy of O&M. A third leader, Leo Burnett, presented a vibrant, fresh aspect from a Chicago perspective, getting down into the marrow of everyday life with a kind of rural heartland, colloquial approach.

Bill Bernbach was, in my view, the most important because he added conversationality to the advertising dialogue (perhaps close to what you mean by communication) and he could do this in print as easily as in television.

Ogilvy, a superb writer was more at home with up market products and never gained any mastery over the television medium. He was the closest thing to a brand flake of today, having a research background working for George Gallup. His genius was an absolutely astounding writing ability: “Tread softly past the long, long sleep of Kings” for a British Travel ad showing Westminster Abbey.

But Bernbach was the influencer. He changed American and British advertising, and one can still see Bernbach influences to this day in the best British work. The same thing happened in Quebec when Quebécois people developed their own milieu, heavily influenced by Bernbach.

Bernbach’s incredible use of colloquial expression and multi-ethnic sympathies (he was a true liberal in the Kennedy tradition of marching to Little Rock) meant he could connect, engage and his work was of the people, rather than at the people.

I say this because your paper mentioned some aspects of what you had termed “dictatorial“ advertising. I think that branding itself has actually increased the dictatorial aspects of advertising by its rigid imposition of rules, grids and templates, the antithesis of provocation and, indeed, freedom.

I wrote a paper in 1976 about what I term Aggressive and Ingressive advertising, that is: messages which are projected from a medium to a viewer/reader (traditional) and Ingressive: messages which the viewer/reader ingresses by going into the TV screen or the page. Doing the latter involves brain work and thus increases awareness. We built several campaigns on this, the most famous being; The Long distance Feeling and Thank You Very Much Milk. One important tenet of ingressive advertising is the need to judge the medium being used. If it is noisy and cacophonous, one must be quiet to be engaging and intrusive. And if the medium is inherently quiet and untroubled, one must be dynamic and freshened.

The ’60’s spawned a new breed of agencies like Wells, Rich and Greene, George Lois’s Papert, Koenig & Lois, all of them, including Bernbach, coming from Grey Advertising in New York. What described them all (and including Ogilvy) was a return to colloquial writing, coupled with great art direction and a single-mindedness about the idea. The ’70’s brought the plague of the research revolution, and the era of what I call, marketising,  the involvement of non-experts in the creation of advertising, with the resulting diminution of respect for agency contribution. A lot of it was caused by marketing and advertising research (inexact sciences if there ever were any) being seen as truth, while conveniently taking the pressure off decision makers. From the ‘70’s we’ve fallen into a huge ad blender, with academics who’ve never seen the inside of a competitive office, let alone an ad agency, pontificating on branding as if it was a revelation instead of rhetoric taken from 100 years of empirical communications history. Branding is not a revolutionary technique, it’s a system of enclosure, because by nature all systems must enclose. You cannot have a system that opens up because then it wouldn’t be a system. Branding as touted, is the antithesis of provocative conservation and a way of management assuring control of any dynamic visual utterance of a company. That’s why it’s so popular. The agencies of the “mile wide and an inch deep” description of my intuitive son have leapt upon it as salvation from actually having to think critically and to originate ideas.

Branding involves jargon, the re-naming of the clichés of the past with the pomposity of the present. Brand print, for example, is nothing more than image. We have ad people calling themselves, “Brand Stewards” and “Keepers of the Brand”, each utterance proof that brand is an enclosure. I eagerly await Brand Pimp.

Well, my argument against the infallibility of brand is that strategy today must invariably change because everything else is changing at the topical level, therefore brand itself must adapt. Instead brand is being encased in concrete and the ad utterances that are conceived in the womb of visceral experience of the marketplace are being changed constantly to conform.

Meanwhile, without any brand control, advertising, stewardship or keepers, the little word Maserati, puts a longing gleam in the eye of car lovers everywhere. Most of the empirical elements which the university alchemist brand flakes have stolen to flavour their own brand, which is brand, have existed for at least a century. That’s the trouble with advertising. It is so simple everyone thinks she or he is an expert. But real talent in persuasive art direction, writing and strategic thinking is hard to find. Everyone can skate around a hockey rink, but few are talented enough to play in the NHL. Everyone can play around a golf course, but precious few can hit the ball worth shit, day after day.

The other side of the paradox of simplicity is that agencies have had to lard advertising with mysticism masquerading as thought in order to impress the client and justify fee.

The move from 15% media commissions to fee has largely destroyed advertising productivity. With commission, agencies used fewer people who thought harder. With fee, the agency must add more and more people who can bill more fee. This has given birth to the ad planner, the anthropologist, and the “cool hunter”.

Since the time of Lasker and Kennedy and Bernbach, the problem has been in finding the talent, as all great original and persuasive advertising is driven, not by systems but by individuals. Not all these people are creative types, that is, writers and art directors, because advertising has always needed smart business heads as well, and above all, organized minds. At XXXX we expect our account service people to be creative and critical thinkers, and we exhort them to be involved in a broad range of life and activity because this keeps them in touch, and the ideas percolating. There is no room for narrow-mindedness or present-mindedness in this business.

When I worked for Grey Advertising in New York in the 60’s, positioning was the thing. We had a little book about it. I was so disillusioned when I realized the idea of positioning as espoused by Grey was really a ploy to look important and get more business, even though the positioning idea had validity.

The dissemination of ideas into varied media like the web has fragmented the idea of ideas itself, and to me, all advertising theory is gone. On the one hand we have you, Wxxx, seriously trying to get a grasp on what the fuck we’re all doing. On the other we see a definite lack of respect for agencies, especially in Atlantic Canada. This, to me, is a kind of  advertising prejudice, where you condemn people because they belong to a group, rather than assessing them on their individual personas. In my view it is more rampant here than in Montreal or Toronto or Vancouver where there is more acceptance of advertising talent and agency contribution. But we live in an era of systems, and technological whims and gimmicks.

The systems era has no respect for individual talent, only respecting technologically-oriented solutions, and hyped jargony names instead of vivid original explanation.

If I may disagree with a premise you mentioned in your paper, advertising is not an entertainment outlet. There can and should be entertainment value in advertising, but I wrote an ad once which for a time, reduced holiday weekend car fatalities. It was a full page newspaper ad of white space with a little note in the middle with lines for names, dates of birth and addresses. It read:

                    Clip and save this do-it-yourself obituary notice.

This was hardly entertainment. It was advertising. You also mentioned communication. I would rather you had said conversation. Because life itself, is a conversation. It is everything we cherish, it is how we touch people we love, how we show feelings, it is how we think, always in terms of conversational exchanges between components of our psyche’s reality. Conversation is prayer. Communication is a technological and technocratic word befitting the techy-themed world we inhabit. It’s like that other techy cliché; “messaging”. But let’s face it, Wxxx, nothing has changed in human behaviour since Greek Tragedy.

If you read Harold Innis in the Bias of Communication or any of his other works, you see that the basic human drives are always the same, and that when we tend to think that our present position is the zenith of civilizational development, we are being guilty of present-mindedness.

My analogy is that of driving a fast car with a dirty windshield, so that your eye is on the windshield, and because of this the way ahead is obscured. This is a dangerous way to drive fast and I believe it’s a dangerous way to look at advertising. To be obsessed with present-mindedness and not to see the way ahead. We call this projection in our business. It means being able to develop ideas which have the legs to be continued far into the future and into all kinds of areas of your operation.

The creative people I work with here are thinkers as much as writers or art directors. So are the account people, who must constantly balance and update their knowledge of advertising with the exigencies of your business.

The economic prerogatives of large agencies have required agencies to build fee by putting more people on the business. That’s how advertising planning was introduced. (the net result being that now we have people who can think, but can’t execute, and people who can execute but can’t think). Creatives have, in some cases, become simple cake decorators.

I don’t think it should be like that. We want everyone at XXXX to think long and hard about what we’re doing. We encourage them to participate in the creation of strategy, to see through the dirty windshield (or at least to clean it). We believe in small units doing the work, but the units must be allowed to contribute. Paul Lavoie’s ad agency was called Taxi because he said that’s all the people, including clients, you need to create great advertising. As many as can fit into a taxi.

I’m putting  all this down because I feel you may have a sense of frustration about the way advertising is created. Or  that you may feel XXXX hasn’t the capacity to produce absolutely stunning and brilliant work. I think we have the horsepower just as I know you have incredible products and to use a word I dislike for its present-mindedness; savvy.

To come back to your word, communication, I think you need to get closer to our people, and we to you, in touch, talking, shouting, laughing, roaming the world of ideas, in conversation in  the interest of YYYY. I see it now as a fairly sterile world of e-mails, PDF’s and phone calls. Not fresh and sinewy, daring and thrilling. No great ad ever appeared without causing chills and fear. That’s because advertising is supposed to be provocative and engaging.

Again, I believe my phrase, conversation,  makes sense. We need to get together and make great ads that take the intrinsic power of YYYY and potentiate it.

With respect, we don’t need the Pxxxx Axxxxx approach which I think is dilettantish, facetious and fashion oriented.

The record of work we’ve done for YYYY is something we’re proud of. We know YYYY is a great inspirational story of the business world, let alone the ZZZZ world. What we want is to have our people able to think freely about how we can make the advertising as good as the products. And to be as proud of our work for you as they are of your products.

Let me say, after this ramble, that I enjoyed your paper. As you may have guessed I don’t hear a lot of philosophy coming from the ad side, let alone the client side. If I can read between the lines, I’d say you want “Oooo Oooo” to be a kind of an omnibus theme line, for just about everything YYYY does. If so, is this really the line? And is it worthy of the essence of YYYY’s greatness. Is it in the league of: Steinway: Instrument of the immortals? Or is it just another line?

Call us.

Come down here, the trees are in bloom, the lilacs are brazenly ignoring the no scent bylaw and Nxxx is still making wonderful lunches.

With every good wish,

Graham Watt

Creative Director

 

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2 Responses to Letter to a disgruntled client.

  1. MacKay (The left-handed Laundryman) Smith says:

    After you stop swimming inland on land in N.B. what do you think of the 1.automobile ads and 2. their stress on rebates. What happened to comparisons of models?
    Your 3246 words of August 30 show your brain is still not addled but tending to be a model of pure verbosity and probably written with a advertizing history book at hand.

    • curmudgeon says:

      Hey Mackay, I learned the verbosity from all those evenings in Nadeau’s and the Pub. Just back from Les iles de Madeleine, retracing a trip I made with my dad and bro 72 years ago. We sailed
      in Clarke Steamship’s North Gaspé. I was 5 years old then and still remember my dad pointing out Dead Man’s Island, immortalized by Thomas Moore. While returning up the Saint Lawrence,
      war was declared on September 1st 1939, and our captain Fraser, was taken off ship in Québec and taken to HFX to take command of a destroyer. In October, my dad died. My lasting memory of that trip is a treasure and it was wonderful to get back and see, in a sort of rim-light distance, Dead Man’s Island (Corps Mort). As a final digressing thought, it’s easy to be verbose in the ad business
      as with all things of little real value, very much is written. Hope to see you down here some time.
      Graham

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