AdMan: 95 per cent of advertising is a waste of money

Adland’s enfant terrible asks: what’s special about that remaining five per cent?

As I start my inaugural blog on advertising for the LondonlovesBusiness website, I’m troubled by one small but insistent question:

Why the f*ck would anybody read this?

It’s my nagging belief that nobody looks at advertising unless they actually work in advertising.

You can test this out for yourself. Next time you’re in a Tube station, see how many people are looking at the ads.

Alternatively, talk to someone who isn’t in the industry and ask them what ads they like.

They will stop after naming one, or possibly just before that.

Rather like Edward Lear’s fictional island where the inhabitants make a precarious living by taking in each other’s washing, the ad industry is fuelled by the belief of the people in it that it is important – purely because, to the people in it, it is important.

Only the top 5 per cent of ideas ever cut through. Everything else is a waste of money

I realised this problem myself a few years ago when I became disillusioned with the ad industry and left it (albeit temporarily). I stopped looking at ads out of professional curiosity and realised that other people weren’t looking at them either.

It was perhaps the most useful lesson I’ve ever learned about advertising.

Only the top 5 per cent of ideas ever cut through. Everything else is a waste of money.

But I went back into adland for two reasons.

First, the people.

Raymond Chandler once described something or other as “the biggest waste of talent outside an advertising agency”, and it’s true that agencies are full of very bright people.

Probably the most brilliant man who ever worked in UK advertising is someone called Frank Lowe.

Frank ran two of the most creative ad agencies ever.

And he’s larger than life, in a way that ad people should be. Everybody in the business has their “Frank Lowe” stories.

My favourite comes from a book called Fast and Louche. It concerns the time when it was fashionable to buy and lovingly restore old French farmhouses.

Frank bought one such property, immediately bulldozed it to the ground, erected a faux chateau made of concrete in its place, and then sent a team from Shepperton who distressed it 250 years in a fortnight.

People still debate which part of the phrase “lovingly restore” he’d misunderstood, but at the end of the project, he was asked what he thought of the final handiwork.

Spotting a hill which spoiled his view of the coastline he said “lose the hill”, before catching a plane back to London.

But I also love the ad business because it’s about applying creativity to solve business problems.

The ad guy said: “Put these words on every label. ‘The tuna that does not turn white in the can’.”


There’s the story of the adman who was approached by a tuna importer keen to introduce pink tuna to the market. The businessman wanted to persuade people that his tuna was OK when up until then people had only seen white tuna.

The ad guy thought for a bit and then said: “Put these words on every label. ‘The tuna that does not turn white in the can’.” 

Bill Bernbach, the brightest man ever to work in advertising anywhere, once solved a bigger problem in fewer words.

He’d been approached by the car hire firm Avis who were being squeezed out of business by Hertz. Hertz was four times bigger than Avis – with four times as many places to pick up a car, four times as many cars to choose from, better rates because of economies of scale, and so on.

Basically, Avis was screwed.

Until Bernbach came back with six words. Seven, If you include the name of the brand.

Those words were “Avis. We’re number 2, we try harder.” 

This claim proved utterly irresistible to a generation of Americans who’d had to work damned hard themselves, and it changed the marketplace completely.

Or closer to home, look at all the price comparison websites.

What they offered was indistinguishable – and then a certain meerkat came along.

What they offer is still indistinguishable, but the meerkat stole tons of business from its competitors.

Rumour has it, the agency in question was about to lose the business when they presented this crazy, but ultimately category-shaking-up idea.

It’s a bit like you selling your pushbike on eBay by writing lots of copy about what your cat had for breakfast


The idea was barking mad; the ads spend 95 per cent of their (very expensive) TV time extolling the virtues of something they aren’t.

It’s a bit like you selling your pushbike on eBay by writing lots of copy about what your cat had for breakfast.

But it worked gangbusters.

What the agency had realised was a) branding was key, (“meerkat” only sounded like one of the websites) and b) people prefer to be entertained rather than bored.

A smart guy I worked with once, Paul Bainsfair, used to say that advertising should be like “Double Art” for clients – the bit where creativity is allowed to interrupt their otherwise remorselessly left-brain timetable.

And he’s dead right.

But it can also make a massive commercial difference as well.

(Something which Paul, as the director general of the IPA, will be doubly keen to stress.)

However, that, as well as being the glory of the business, has also become its biggest problem.

More on that anon.

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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