AdMan: The more important advertising becomes to you, the worse it gets

Our resident advertising guru, Steve Henry, on the painful and peculiar contradictions within the industry

The work that most successfully captures the public’s imagination is often hated by the ad industry.

Over the years, absolutely dreadful ads for products like Shake n’ Vac, Ferrero Rocher and Go Compare have been so reviled within the industry that their creators have actively hidden their authorship.

Yet a discussion with the average taxi driver would reveal that these ads were among a mere handful that they could recall from a lifetime of bombardment by ludicrously expensive marketing.

Another contradiction within the industry is that the more important advertising becomes within an organisation, the less likely it is that you will get good advertising out.

Why? Because great creative work, in any medium, rarely comes out of committee discussions.

When a guy called Leo Burnett opened his eponymous agency in 1935, he declared that he only wanted 10 clients. Now it’s the 10th largest agency in the world

There’s a big difference between painting The Last Supper and presenting an idea to a room that resembles it. And unless you keep the numbers under control, you end up with the average sort of wallpaper that is the unfortunate industry norm.

In my last blog, I said that advertising was like Edward Lear’s fictional island where the inhabitants made a precarious living by taking in each other’s washing. But actually it works on something like the opposite principle.

The industry can feel like it’s only buoyed by a never-failing belief that it can nick a juicy bit of business off its neighbour. Keeping Lear’s desert-insular imagery, the ad industry is like a school of sharks swimming ceaselessly in a circle, regularly taking a chomp out of each other’s nether regions.

Clients play a part in this. Most are going behind their agencies’ backs and asking someone else to “just have a look at this”. It’s like living in a street where everyone is having it off with everyone else’s wife.

It wasn’t always like this.

When a guy called Leo Burnett opened his eponymous agency in 1935, he declared that he only wanted 10 clients. Because, he said, that was the only way he could give clients the service and attention they deserved.

This idea proved so successful that he upgraded the target to 20. Now it’s the 10th largest agency in the world.

As Bill Bernbach, the founder of a huge network called DDB, said, “a principle isn’t a principle until it costs you money”.

And as Groucho Marx said: “These are my principles. If you don’t like them, I have others.”


I once knew the most successful man in German advertising, Reinhard Springer, who – in the way of Germans everywhere – went one step better than the great Leo. Having set up and sold a hugely admired agency, he decided to try something new. 

I met Reinhard at this point and he was the sole occupant of the biggest office I’ve ever seen.

Rather than seeking to grow, agencies should seek to shrink

It took up the entire top floor of a large modern office block – I don’t know, 30,000 sq feet – and in this space was Reinhard, truly the most talented man in German advertising, and one PA, a very attractive lady who looked like she had a PhD in applied sexual thermodynamics.

Reinhard’s ambition was to have just ONE client.

I’m not sure if the model worked, but for me it was a wonderful combination of (quite justifiable) hubris and a ridiculous attitude to real estate.

But it was Reinhard who had the best model ever for creative companies to deal with growth.

Every time his previous agency, Springer and Jacoby, had grown bigger than 30 or 40 people, he would “spin out” a new agency, so that eventually he had seven or eight mini-agencies all round Hamburg, all carrying his name, but all working in an optimal small-company way.

It was brilliant. And it answered the fundamental question put by Jay Chiat – who set up a big network called Chiat Day – “how big can we get before we stop being good ?”
 
That’s still the question for all ad agencies.

And for me it’s also the answer to advertising’s current malaise.

Rather than seeking to grow, agencies should seek to shrink.
 
There’s another contradiction for you.

There is no doubt that the industry is currently broken. The financial models are unsustainable, the media models are changing beyond all recognition, and we’ve forgotten the very raison d’etre for the  industry – creativity.

But really creative industries thrive on contradictions.
 
And if enough small groups of talented people stopped believing in the existing model and set up a raft of new small “shops”, it could all change.
 
Finally, I’d like to touch on possibly the biggest contradiction of all. The greatest tool for communications ever created, bigger than the printing press and the cathode ray tube put together, is something which less than 3 per cent of people know how to work. With that in mind I’ve set up a company to work with the communications industry, called Decoded.

It teaches anyone to write code in a day.

Be interesting to see how it goes.

Steve Henry was founder/creative director of Howell Henry Chaldecott Lury, the agency voted Campaign’s Agency of the Year three times and Campaign’s Agency of the Decade in 2000. He has won most of the major creative awards, including the D&AD Gold Pencil, the Grand Prix at Cannes, the Grand Prix at the British Television Awards, and the President’s Award at Creative Circle (twice).

In 2008 he was included in CampaignMagazine’s inaugural Hall of Fame, a collection of the 40 most influential people in British advertising overthe past 50 years. He now works as a creative consultant.

Steve has just launched Decoded, a ground-breaking programme that promises to teach anybody code in one day.

www.decoded.co

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