AdMan: What business can learn from a sparrow's testes

Advertising guru Steve Henry gets his minibar ransacked on a trip to Latvia’s extraordinary capital

How big are a sparrow’s b*llocks in the winter?

This was the question that was worrying me as the plane took off for Riga.

If you wanted to see the future of marketing – blistering white hot technology and a passion for creativity that is borderline terrifying – you would go immediately to Riga.

Well, ok, that’s not quite strictly true, but I work in advertising and it’s hard to shake off the habit of not quite telling the truth.

We’ll get back to the question of the bird’s balls later. For now I must tell you that I just came back from four days in the Latvian capital, chairing their advertising awards festival which, to be honest, was very enjoyable.

Because Latvia is, in marketing terms, a young country unencumbered by heritage, history, reputations or expectations.

It was weird too.

In the middle of the awards evening, while a woman in a hoodie sang a song about liking someone while looking like she would easily cut out their guts, a large guy dressed in a white tracksuit came on stage and started a fight with a guy who had a rabbit’s head on.

They like weird in Riga.

And I like it too.

But the Brits aren’t very welcome in Riga because usually they’re mob-handed, drunk, foul-mouthed, lecherous and urinating on monuments.  

I tried to raise the national stereotype by only falling into one of these categories at any one time - rather like that excellent model of ambassadorial probity, Prince Andrew.

But who knows if I succeeded?

“Well, motherf***er, it’s my room and generally the minibar belongs to the person occupying the room”

To whom is it given to see oneself as others see one? Well, given the prevalence of phone cameras and Facebook, these days it’s most of us.  

For instance, I have large chunks of footage on my phone relating to a 2am visit to my hotel suite from several of the international jurors who wanted to discuss with me the finer points of the judging system.

I’d actually just fallen asleep when three of them woke me up and barged in.

I was feeling half-dead so it was a pretty one-sided conversation, and then one of them uttered the immortal words “Whose minibar is this?”

I SHOULD have said – “well, motherf***er, it’s my room and generally the minibar belongs to the person occupying the room.”

But I let that ride and they cleared it out, while making excellent points about life in general.

The work we looked at was pretty damned good, too. The four pieces shortlisted for the Grand Prix were all great.

For Air Baltic, there was a projection onto the side of a plane of Santa’s elves hi-jacking the plane.

All that was missing was an announcement at the end of the story that “Elves have now left the building”.

For a phone company called Okarte, there was a corporate ID based around four cool masked characters - as though Vodafone had suddenly become Gorillaz.

Then there was a stunning eight-minute film which tackled the brief of “how do you make altruism cool to school kids?”

The film showed a bunch of kids as superheroes and the casting and direction were faultless. An advertising awards jury by definition has a shorter attention span than a gnat with ADD, a full bladder, and girlfriend trouble, but we watched entranced for the full eight minutes.

And the overall winner was a stunning idea for the city of Ventspils which involved it declaring independence and printing its own currency.

Can an ad agency do that? DDB Latvia did. By God they did.

Even in the silver awards there were provocative ideas, including a lovely and extraordinary toy called a “duck” which had three legs and no head. As the Ukrainian judge put it, “it’s a three-legged duck, of course it’s a gold”.

Later, deep in his cups, the Swedish judge told me that “some male ducks have three legs”.

This was the legendary Joakim Labraaten, top creative at Akestam Holst - one of the coolest agencies in the world.

They’ve done stuff like the amazing Pepsi Refresh idea, with technology which allowed blind people to play football.

For electronics store Pause they created a human jukebox (forcing the CEO to swallow a transmitter the size of a small cigar called a “gutpod”) and later encouraged people to break into the store.

All their ideas have that element of “you can’t do that”.

Even the weather in Riga was amazing: bright, sunny, warm, making all the male jurors’ testicles expand in pleasure.

Which brings us back to the main question. Because the male sparrow’s testes are the size of a pinhead in winter but the size of baked beans in summer.

A fact I discovered while reading a review of an amazing book called “Bird Sense” by Tim Birkhead.

In the same review, it said that a mallard has a 17-inch penis, so it turns out that Joachim was right about that, too.

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 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.

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