AdMan: The quality of nipples in advertising

Advertising guru Steve Henry gets down to business in Amsterdam

Mother agency reception

The Mother agency reception where mothers of staff adorn the reception walls

I find I can always judge an advertising agency reception area by the quality of the nipples there.

Before I explain that comment further, I want to say that the best agencies tend to have quite interesting reception areas.

Saatchi and Saatchi once put a Toyota sports car into theirs (removing walls and windows to do it) in preparation for pitching for that account. (Which they won.)

The agency Mother has photos of the staff’s mothers hanging on the walls (pictured). My own agency HHCL took the unhelpful step of having the Reception in the middle of the agency - guests found themselves walking past all sorts of different working areas before finding the official Reception desk.

But the best idea, I think, came from a Dutch hot-shop called Kessells Kramer whose office was in a former church near the red light district of Amsterdam. You weren’t allowed in to see anyone unless you took a Polaroid of your nipple. Either one would do - left or right - they weren’t fascist about it. This was then stuck to a wall of nipples behind the desk.

It certainly gave visitors to the agency something to mentally chew over. (Sorry about that, I must apologise for that last sentence. I split an infinitive there. Don’t know if that still matters these days.)

I was thinking about Kessells Kramer this week because I was invited by one of the founders, Erik Kessells, to speak at the launch of a new book he’s just put together called Advertising for people who don’t like advertising.

Now the great thing about that title is that it should, in my view, appeal to everybody.

And both the book launch evening and the book itself were very provocative.

On the night itself, Erik revealed that on a couple of occasions when presenting work to clients, they had cried in the meeting “and not”, as he said, “out of happiness”. 

His uncompromising attitude to producing provocative, fresh, engaging work is so rare these days that it could actually encourage a hen’s dentist to set up in business.

He showed work which had the 200 people in the audience laughing and cheering - the very sort of work which is rarer than a cockerel’s canines in London right now.

I do sometimes feel this blog should make some attempt to review the work being produced right now but, seriously, it’s all so incredibly samey and underwhelming.

If you don’t believe me, here are clips of most of the major campaigns being broadcast around the theme of the Olympics. The Visa ad is engaging, the P+G ad about mums I find very moving, but everything else is pretty ignorable.

Because it’s all so formulaic.

So many people in marketing are so scared of f**king up they produce average, invisible work - and f**k up.

Erik’s book is wonderful, though, with interviews with mavericks from around the world like Mark Fenske, Alex Bogusky, Stefan Sagmeister and yours truly.

Here’s Alex Bogusky putting out a more provocative thought than I’ve heard from the rest of the industry put together in the last two years…

“I grew up with the notion of parity product marketing, meaning two products that are essentially identical competing against each other - the most famous example being Coke and Pepsi. Back then, the marketer’s job was to come up with a story, a reason that made one product more appealing than the other. Really this came down to: which product lie is better ? Or which product’s lie is more romantic ?

“I think this facade of a romantic lie existed on most brands. But these facades are going to have to be replaced. The story is going to be replaced by real-time facts. It’s going to happen gradually, but it’s going to happen through social media and other tools that people use to access brands.

“Successful brands are beginning to shift from the notion of a story, to working on delivering real-time understanding of them as a company to consumers.

“Over the next few years we’ll see both versions of branding occurring. There’s a lot of old-school branding still going on, and then there’s the beginning of a new and very progressive understanding of branding, based around transparency”.

You may not agree totally – the art of imagination, of story-telling, will never cease to be very powerful – but it’s a fascinating take on things.

The industry desperately needs shaking up. And if agencies could see this there’d be less credence given to the view of taxi-drivers all round the world - and one subconsciously echoed in the
Polaroids in Kessells Kramer’s reception area - that ad agencies are just full of stuck-up tits.


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 Campaign Magazine’s inaugural Hall of Fame, a collection of the 40 most influential people in British advertising over the 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.

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