Monthly Archives: February, 2013

TIZER AND IRN BRU: A POLITICAL CRITIQUE

We’ve pretty much learned to accept that it’s the role of doctors to hand down nagging reminders about how 28 units of alcohol is a weekly limit rather than (as we long believed) a daily target. But when they start lecturing us about soft drinks too – well, surely a line has been crossed. The advertising industry has acted with admirable restraint under this latest assault, courtesy of Professor Terence Stephenson, who wants to ban all mention of fizzy drinks in polite society.

This deranged man cannot be allowed to succeed. And let’s face it: a bottle of Tizer – “The Great British Pop” – has never looked so desirable.

Of course we’d fully support any attempt to ban Irn Bru, a drink that has aligned itself with ultra nationalist factions in the British Balkans (aka North Britain). Nationalism is one thing and Socialism quite another – but, combined, they add up to something rather monstrous. Especially when packaged in virulent orange form.

So, yes, granted – on that front, we humbly suggest that it’s time to act. Now.

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kiss me kate

Poor old Hilary Mantel. She’s often described as a historical novelist – but the truth is she’s a rather poor historian. Or, to be more generous, there’s little of genuine historical insight in her Thomas Cromwell novels. These are not books, one might surmise, by someone with an abiding understanding of political power.

By implication, she probably has only the vaguest grasp of the pact (we’d call it a Faustian pact if we had any gumption) that literary fiction has forged with the nation’s esteemed political class over the last three decades or so.

This is a genre patronised (in the word’s oldest and most precise sense) by meretricious awards schemes and by the views of the editors (and in some cases the managers, proprietors and proprietors’ wives) of quality newspapers. It is a world mediated, in the broadcast domain, by BBC Radio Four.

So Hilary Mantel’s only options, following her Kate remarks, would appear to be twofold. Either she can a) eat humble pie and appear to do so enthusiastically; or b) tell the world she’s learned her lesson, but do so churlishly.

Is it too much to hope that she chooses the latter course?

Homepride Doughboys and the Men from the Ministry

Fascinating to see ad industry reaction (or rather, the lack of any coherent critical reaction) to the launch last week of The Bakery – a joint initiative between the ad industry and the Government (The Tech City Investment Organisation and UK Trade and Investment). The ultimate aim: to develop new advertising technologies.

And yes, I’m partly to blame. I’ve written a (belated) piece about it for this week’s Campaign: but it’s a rather basic article explaining who’s involved and what they hope to get out of it. There was no room to look at the many curious issues arising. True, even had there been space, there would have been mild political difficulties: The Bakery is an initiative that has the backing of the Institute of Practitioners in Advertising: and Campaign, is, unashamedly (and rightly so), the provisional wing of the IPA.

But there are those who will wonder what the blue blazes the Government is doing pitching its tent in this neck of the R&D woods. This sort of future-facing business is exactly the sort of thing that advertisers and their agencies are already, supposedly, really rather good at.

Meanwhile, Governments almost always get involved in this sort of thing for all the wrong reasons – and let’s not forget that many critics (most notably James Dyson) continue to argue that the whole notion of Tech City is misguided both in theory and practice.

One ad agency source close to The Bakery project told me last week (somewhat ambiguously given his tone of voice) that it “was no mere public relations exercise”. And, he added, even if it were (I flatter him with the subjunctive here), that would be no bad thing. Surely?

Well, strange he should say that. But yes. Yes it would. In more confident times, during the late Noughties, ad agencies employed what they called “creative technologists” to cover off this sort of territory. Their remit was to seek out budding entrepreneurs – bright sparks with big ideas – to develop specific bits of technology (and for “technology” read “software”) that might lend a bit of futuristic gloss to specific campaigns for specific clients.

I interviewed (for a magazine feature) a whole lot of them a few years back. Not one of them had an A-level (or equivalent) in mathematics; not one of them could give me, off the top of their heads, a satisfactory definition of the word “algorithm”. Which was strange, because this was a word that creative technologists tended to throw about with gay abandon. And yet… unconvincing though they were in the round, it had to be admitted that they were unequivocally out there doing their bit.

Clients have an even better track record in this space – and, needless to say, they put less-than-wholehearted faith in the sorts of clowns who tend to get ahead at UK Trade and Investment. They tend, rather, to be terribly keen on the notion that you’ll steal a march on your competition if you develop your own killer apps in secret.

So… what to make of The Bakery? Well, the truth is that, in distracting a few people from somewhat dark musings, it may achieve a couple of rather important short-term goals. It may help deflect attention from the realisation that, for instance, in over 15 years of the digital advertising era, the UK industry has yet to produce a truly memorable digital display advertising campaign. Or, more broadly, from the notion that (and contrary to the sort wittering nonsense you still get from those who should know better), we’re actually enduring the most technologically stagnant era in well over a century.

Sometimes it’s the thought that counts. It really is.

Return home to Grand Central

Pop goes English Heritage

Howard Goodall’s Story of Music, Saturdays, BBC2.

When Albums Ruled the World, followed by

Pink Floyd – Wish You Were Here, followed by

Pop Charts Britannia – 60 Years of the Top 10, BBC 4, 8 February.

Newspapers and their daily Beatles diet.

Plus a general background noise of Grammys and Brits hoopla.

 Just when was it that The Beatles were canonised? My best guess is that the process began at some point just after the publication, in 1994, of Revolution in the Head by Ian MacDonald.

 In the 1970s and 1980s, The Beatles had few fans. Their music at this point was held to be bland, derivative, soulless and, in the worst possible sense, ersatz. And if anyone knew anything about The Beatles (especially if they’d read Albert Goldman’s book), it was that John Lennon was a nasty piece of work, a spiteful and violent drunk who had a penchant for kicking seven shades of harmonic variation out of his womenfolk. And they knew, too, (though this was hardly a new revelation) that Paul McCartney was the worst sort of mawkishly sentimental narcissist – the pathetically needy sort.

 Revolution in the Head, a work of painstakingly thorough cultural archaeology, established The Beatles as a historically significant phenomenon. Within a couple of years, Noel Gallagher (whose first two Oasis albums had established him as rock’s latest great white hope) had completed the rehabilitation by giving The Beatles (band and brand) the imprimatur of Brit Pop. And then of course we had Tony Blair, freshly installed as prime minister in 1997, attempting to co-opt Brit Pop, just as (here we go round the mulberry bush), 30 years earlier, Harold Wilson had attempted to co-opt The Beatles.

 We are talking, in short, about the show-biz strand of the dreaded Blair legacy. And of course the electric-guitar-playing Tony Blair is an archetype for all the electric-guitar-playing middle-aged gimps who currently run the media and advertising industries.

 The very people, in short, who will have watched the Wish You Were Here story on BBC4. And, indeed, the very people who absolutely haven’t been watching Howard Goodall. After all, who gives a tinker’s cuss about Bach and Mozart and, like, all that shit? (They should. This, more than any other music programme on TV recently, shows how, if you let creative people earn a living, they’ll eventually produce some astonishing stuff.)

 And indeed there was a good deal of music on television over the weekend – almost every bar of which was old, shamelessly borrowed and alarmingly blue. (The sort of mauvy blue your lips go when you are deprived of oxygen.)

 It all served, one way or another, to remind the world what a terrible void there is where once there was a rather fecund field of creative endeavour. Don’t worry. I’m not getting on my high horse again about racketeers like Apple and their dismal hordes of stooges in the digerati.

 (That I’ve been proved right, year by year, about Apple is hardly of any consolation to anyone. Especially as the battle for power in commercial TV has now, unequivocally, been joined. Recent spats on both sides of the Atlantic have revealed that Google and Apple will pay less than 10 cents in the advertising dollar to content creators. In UK terms, that equates to around two Shillings in the Guinea. The past five years have exacted a terrible toll on the creative industries – but in Lord of the Rings terms, we have only just reached Rivendell.)

 So I won’t do my stuff about how Apple “saved” a down-and-out music industry by grabbing it by the lugs and raising it to its knees. Only to tell it in no uncertain terms that its new role is to administer executive relief. And no spitting out.

 No. I want only to complain meekly and feebly about the unremitting diet of Beatles drivel we’re being fed by our newspapers. Last year, we had our fill of The Rolling Stones. This year, we’re awash with thin stuff about their Scouse contemporaries. And it’s going to get a whole lot worse in the coming weeks. Next month sees the 50th anniversary of the release of The Beatles’ first LP – you know, the one given poetic legitimacy by Philip Larkin.

 Anyway… Daily, the (frothy, slightly discoloured) tide washes in. Just last week, we had the obituaries of a photographer who (among many other assignments over a long career) once took a picture of the band. Guess which picture tended to be selected to encapsulate his career?

 And then we had a couple of stories concerning the shrine that Abbey Road has become. Because of course the Abbey   Road studio building (the Abbey Road principally of The Beatles but also of the likes of Pink Floyd too) has become a Mecca for pilgrims from all over the world.

 The trouble is they’ve been getting on the London Transport system and heading for the Abbey   Road station on the DLR. So there’s been all sorts of TfL management angst about how best to redirect them from Docklands to the Grove of the Evangelist.

 But that’s not half as funny as the story about what the current owners of the Abbey Road building are attempting to do. Not very much music is made at the studios these days and its current owners want to do something useful with the building. A couple of years ago, EMI wanted to knock it down and replace it with a nice new block of flats – but that can’t happen because it’s now a Grade II listed building. So… how to put the place to good use?

 The answer is that it could become a corporate entertainment venue. This will preserve its status as a shrine – but now for people willing to stump up £1000 a head to eat soup while Jimmy Carr dusts off some of his older jokes.

 Give me [verbal infelicity redacted at this point] strength.

 But, sadly, we all know that (what’s left of) the creative industries will, quite naturally, be at the head of the queue to get in there. And worse. We’ll all buy into it. If invited (in other words, if someone else is paying), I’ll pitch up to Abbey Road’s Studio One in my best approximation of “modern black tie,” fully prepared to gag on some of that Jimmy Carr soup.

 Of course I will. I am, after all, an enthusiastic supporter of English Heritage.

 

A shaggy dog story

Churchill’s latest television commercial, starring Dawn French
Pater used to sell insurance. Actually, that does him very little justice at all. He was something of a nob at a rather large financial services company – not that anyone referred to it as such back then. And briefly, the marketing director having let everyone down, as marketing directors are prone to do, father was drafted in to have a look at what those dreadful little people down at the advertising agents had been up to.

He didn’t like what he found. No. Not one bit of it. At some point, way back in the mists of marketing time, someone somewhere had been visited by a vision of a golden egg – and the company’s (the one father worked for, that is) advertising tended to feature endless variations on this theme. A naturalistic picture of a bird’s nest, in situ, say – but featuring a clutch of golden eggs instead of the speckled variety. And, over the years, the campaign had actually become rather stripped back, minimalist and abstract. Ads in the colour supplements would show a huge, beautifully photographed golden egg, just the one, just that and nothing else, against a pure white background. The merest hint of soft focus shadow. Plus a pun in three or four beautifully typeset words. Plus the company logo.

Anyway. Pater conducted a focus group exercise (in the back bar of the clubhouse at Muirfield) and, having had his fears and suspicions confirmed, he sought further advice from the most reliable sources he could think of – his former chums in the RAF and top flight rugby. (Not as stupid as it sounds, as it happens – one of the former was Tony O’Reilly.)

They told him in no uncertain terms that people (and, by this, they meant the man or woman in the street and on the smoking deck of the omnibus) never paid any attention whatsoever to advertising unless it featured babies or puppies.

He took this intelligence, instanter, round to the offices of the advertising agents, of course he did; and they told him, in the nicest way possible, to naff off.

The story doesn’t end there, naturally; but you have enough of it to see where I’m going with this. We’re not trying to pull some sort of archly cute stunt here. We’re not going to argue that Churchill, in evoking Britain’s legendary wartime leader, manages to conjure up both babies (all babies are said to resemble Winston) and puppies (although the Churchill dog is an old dog, he exhibits a winsomely youthful twinkle).

No. The Churchill dog’s gravelly voice is the sound made by that rarest of beasts, the time-ravaged yet cheerfully optimistic Yorkshireman. He is, unmistakeably, an old bulldog.

Which brings us rather neatly (and not before time) to Dawn French – a performer whose magic act is (we might humbly suggest) admirably impervious to the absorption of novel elements.

The new commercial in which she stars is, we are attempting to argue, in a very real sense, a puppy free zone. And actually, this production, courtesy of WCRS, could be up there with the most incestuous commercials ever made.

This isn’t half as exciting as it sounds… unless, that is, you’re a fan of ad industry in-jokes. Because, of course, it references not just any old ad, but an ad made by the television advertising marketing board, aka Thinkbox. You know the one. It shows Harvey, incarcerated in a cell in a Battersea-style dogs’ home, using the power of television advertising to tempt prospective new owners.

So perhaps, if we’re pushed to it, what we might be arguing here is that this Churchill ad is, once again, a missed opportunity.

But, as father tended to say: If you are going to lay an egg, do try to make sure it’s a golden one.

And in passing, we’d be failing in our duties if we didn’t alert Ms French to the curse of the Churchill ad. And yes, it might be argued that, in talking glibly of “the curse of the Churchill ad,” we are being slightly disingenuous.

Only two of the celebrities associated with this campaign – Vic Reeves and Martin Clunes – have been dropped following driving disqualifications. We are not implying that any of the other celebrities who have graced the Churchill ads (which have been running since 1996 and have given welcome financial succour to a string of sort-of familiar faces like Rolf Harris) have ever attempted to drive while intoxicated or, indeed, driven too quickly when sober.

We don’t even know if Dawn drives. All we are suggesting is that you can never be too careful.

There. Done. We’re conscious, now, that when we embarked on this essay, we had been in half a mind to work cats in there too somewhere. Because cats are, it has to be acknowledged, just as potent as dogs in the advertising bestiary. And in that spirit we were toying with the idea of sharing our little homily about Sir Martin Sorrell and Mrs Slocombe’s pussy. But we’ll now have to save that for another day. Perhaps next week, in anticipation of the great man’s birthday.
With all permissions. Additional reporting by Sebastian Bell.

Our friends in the North (of London)

It doesn’t take us long to put our list of studiously predictable questions to David Pemsel. We’ve failed miserably, for instance, in our attempt to get him to rubbish ITV. (He was treated shabbily by the network in the summer of 2010 when, following the arrival of Adam Crozier as the company’s new chief executive, he was effectively edged out of his group marketing director role by Peter Fincham.)

But we’ve established that he’s far more of a Guardian person than an ITV person and that he is relishing the task of bringing a new focus to the company’s revenue generating efforts – he was recently appointed chief commercial officer of Guardian News & Media in the wake of Adam Freeman’s surprise decision to pursue other career opportunities. He’s told us how privileged he feels (“this is one of the best commercial jobs in media right now”) to be sitting where he’s currently sitting.

And that might have been that… had he not offered us a tour of the offices. Usually we politely decline this sort of invitation. We’ve actually seen offices before, even vast open-plan ones with seas of people staring intently at computer screens.

But he’s chosen to host our meeting in the Guardian’s on-site version of Room 101, a claustrophobic pod hardly bigger than a Superloo, with no natural light and rather too much of the unnatural, headache-inducing variety. You can’t help feeling this is probably the cubicle the human resources people use when they’re inviting staffers to consider voluntary redundancy packages.

Carelessly, between us, we’ve already used up just about all of the available air: and, suddenly, a tour seems a terribly good idea. As it happens, it turns out to be curiously fascinating.

The Guardian building’s interior décor evokes all sorts of things – a rather well-appointed metropolitan university, a library, a design museum, complete with rather chi-chi, soft-furnished break-out zones in challenging colour schemes – all of which serve to underline the notion that the institution may be a lot of things but the one thing it’s not is a temple to commerce.

That notion, at some point, must give a chief commercial officer pause for thought. And it’s fascinating to observe the extent to which he stands out from the Guardian crowd. True, he’s sporting the mandatory stubble. It’s just that, as stubble goes, he’s more Jose Mourinho than Johnny Vegas. He’s cleanly dressed, suited, his shoes are shined. By a million miles, he’s just the sharpest person in the building.

So, in short, we inevitably find ourselves questioning whether he’s quite as much at home here as he was insisting earlier down in Room 101. (The tour is unsettling in other ways too. We start to realise that the only thing he’s determined not to show us is his office itself; and we begin idly to wonder what hideous monstrosity he can be hiding from us. Or are they still scrubbing a patch of dried blood out of his carpet?)

By common consent, the Guardian’s ad revenue problems have, in recent years, been two-fold. Firstly, its day-to-day relationships with important buying points have become (we’re being generous here) vexed.

Pemsel will almost certainly fix that immediately. In his early career in advertising he was feted (most notably at St Luke’s) as a high flier, the most naturally gifted account man of his generation – and by now he’d surely have become one of the captains of our industry if his first real venture into management, at Boymeetsgirl, hadn’t gone into spectacular meltdown back in 2004.

The second problem is more philosophical and intractable. The Guardian, famously, commands a dwindling print audience and a growing digital one. It wants the latter to generate the same premium ad rates as were historically commanded by the former. Agencies have tended to argue that this is just not in advertisers’ interests.

Pemsel, however, counters that said agencies are on the verge of coming round. “We have a compelling story to tell,” he insists. “We need to be more assertive and focused. We need to be clearer about the value we can provide [to advertisers].”

And, yes, it’s true that the group’s digital revenues have been growing – but actually, that’s largely down to the success of its £32-a-month lonely hearts website, Soulmates. Meanwhile, we remind him, the company continues to lose money.

He’s rather accomplished, of course, at swatting aside these sorts of petty quibbles. And it’s true that he comes to his new role with his eyes open. His relationship with the Guardian actually began in September 2011 when he was drafted in as a consultant on the process leading to the appointment of Bartle Bogle Hegarty as its agency and the creation of the Three Little Pigs campaign that ran earlier this year. He became chief marketing officer back in June.

Now, having taken all of the company’s marketing and ad sales functions under his control, the company’s whole future is effectively in his hands. And he must have been given some scary targets – for instance, it is believed that Andrew Miller, chief executive of Guardian Media Group, hopes that digital revenues, currently around £45 million, can be more than doubled to £100 million within four years. Surely that sort of figure is just not achievable?

Happily, however, Pemsel is able to offer us one last reassurance on this point. “Of course the targets are achievable,” he says. “I would not have signed up if this had looked like one long journey of hardship.”

An edited version of this article appeared in Campaign magazine. With all due permissions.