Steve Henry, once a creative powerhouse behind HHCL and now a co-founder of the digital training business Decoded, accuses today's ad industry of becoming "terrified of making mistakes".
I think he is right. If one looks at the great campaigns of the 90s, when HHCL was in its pomp ("you’ve been Tango’d", Pot Noodle’s "slag of all snacks"), much of today’s FMCG advertising looks safe and conservative in comparison.
However, it’s not just advertising that is suffering from this lack of bravery – it’s the whole British economy.
Henry convincingly argues that the best advertising emerges from creatives who don’t slavishly follow client demands, but focus hard on the audience and take risks. Now, this rather arrogantly presupposes that brand leaders don’t know what they need. It’s an attitude that leaves ad execs open to a familiar attack. After all, good clients do push the boat out. But they are in the tiny minority. There is now an overriding propensity – for all of us in corporate life – towards the risk-averse.
If everyone had relied on focus groups, there would be no Big Bang theory, no Dyson vacuum cleaner, no iPhone
Why is this? It could be an economy that has seen many years of sluggish growth. The political right would argue it’s the insidious effect of a post-war "nanny state". It could even be down to a deeper, inherent British reserve. Whatever the cause, it’s time that we stopped worrying so much and learned to love the (creative) bomb.
Unfortunately, just when media clutter reached a cacophonous level, when consumers gained the ability to screen out commercial messages, the ad business opted for safe, inoffensive ideas with less power to interrupt our busy lives.
The business world in general has become terrified of failure. Bankruptcy levels have declined steeply despite the recession. However, the capitalist economy thrives on people prepared to try, to fail. If everyone had relied on focus groups, there would be no Big Bang theory, no Dyson vacuum cleaner, no iPhone.
Thankfully, Henry’s battle cry is not couched in nostalgia. It derives from exposure to, and immersion in, London’s thriving start-up community. Here, we find a new generation of creatives ready to tackle the status quo. If the ad industry can meld their energy and attitude with the undeniable excellence and craft that still reside within established agencies, clients could yet be convinced to change their approach.
It only takes a couple of effectiveness case studies to create a new momentum. But don’t worry about that for now. Just shake things up with some work that breaks the mould; make ads that simply force us to stop, think and, maybe even, laugh.
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