By Mark Summers, Mark Summers Management, campaignlive.co.uk, Friday, 05 February 2010 12:00AM
These days, everything appears to have a formula in order to succeed, whether it be the grading of apples, the issuing of parking tickets or the niches that niche branding is designed to fill.
Even in the world of media, television and music, we have become obsessed with a particular vision; something that must meet pre-ordained criteria that fit a specification designed to attract a certain demographic and ensure the fulfilment of the all-important ratings.
Trouble is, the tightness of this specification means we leave little to the imagination. And, as we all know, imagination is what makes great shows, great series - and great commercials.
Take sitcoms, for instance. When I was growing up, sitcoms of genius such as Fawlty Towers, The Fall And Rise Of Reginald Perrin, Yes Minister and Only Fools And Horses abounded. Brilliant observational humour with huge character development. These days, sitcoms expect instant recognition, instant empathy and, unrealistically, instant success.
Characterisation of the genius of Basil Fawlty, Reggie Perrin's CJ and Yes Prime Minister's Sir Humphrey Appleby simply do not exist in the modern era. The writers, commissioners and producers do not have the luxury of the time that character development takes, nor do they have budgets to risk. And that, I am afraid to say, is totally to the detriment of the creative industry.
In advertising, I understand the need to interact with the attitudes of the target market. I appreciate the need to portray aspiration, or to depict value.
However, isn't it an absolute truism that the grand majority of truly great advertising campaigns have been absolutely original? Look at the Smash commercials, the VW Golf commercials (which, of course, have spawned a follow-me approach from every car manufacturer) and the hilarious Cinzano ads of the 70s; each of these, I am sure you'll agree, were groundbreaking moments of creative genius.
While I am the first to admit that The X Factor is indeed compelling viewing, every act in the history of that show has one thing in common: they sing songs written by somebody else. They imitate a formula. But where will we find the next David Bowie? Who are the heirs apparent to the creative genius of Pink Floyd? When will we find new acolytes of the Sex Pistols?
If you were to list these artists' collective writing achievements, you'd find that at certain points in their careers they virtually defined styles such as trance, techno, metal, rock, prog rock, white soul, new wave, punk and electro. Look at Bowie's back catalogue and you'd struggle to argue that his creative output is not the most diverse and original in the history of popular music. On balance, and for all his boyish appeal, I'm not convinced that Joe McElderry is going to release the next Thriller.
One of the reasons reality TV has enjoyed so much success is its instant nature. Take a fly-on-the-wall approach to subject material that we all are familiar with and there's natural empathy, whether it be an airline, the police force, bailiffs or customs officials. A by-product, of course, is up to an hour of free promotion for a brand.
It's a paradox that ten years ago, such reality shows were unheard of and that when they arrived on our screens, they were groundbreaking. Trouble is, we've stood still ever since.
As a casting director, I want to do something about this, but it's not within my gift; my role is to respond to a brief. I do sense frustration within our industry at the lack of integrity in modern programming and I feel that there's little true creative legacy being generated right now. Quite frankly, you have little or no chance to get a show commissioned that is leftfield, innovative or difficult to classify. Blame the much-vaunted "commoditisation of media" if you wish, but now it's all about urgency, franchisable formats and touchpoints that fit demographic pigeon holes.
In short, the TV industry is in danger of becoming risk-averse, repetitive and downright dull. And this has a knock-on effect on the commercials that play within it.
The delicious irony here is that this over-formulaic approach leaves the field wide open for a seriously comp-elling and creative offering, but it's a brave man who hangs his cashflow hat on the peg of originality.
Now, don't think for one minute I am having a pop at the creative industry. I'm not. I meet some amazingly talented people, both clients and friends alike, and I totally believe that we have the ability, vision and desire, but, paradoxically, I am not convinced we are able to procure the budgets required and I am even less convinced that requisite appetite for originality (and therefore risk) exists in the corridors of power.
As I alluded earlier, we hear a lot of noise about the so-called commoditisation of media. In business parlance (a language in which I am not particularly fluent), I believe you remedy this through adding value and creating differentiation; exactly the things we are failing to do. Those businesses that have remained formulaic in every space have been those that have perished. Those that adapt and change survive.
So my message is this: rebel. Rebel loudly and wildly!
Change is a word that's often bandied about these days, but I believe that our industry is particularly ready to embrace something different, and if that means bucking the trends and reshaping the norm, then so be it. The public is ready for it.
Great creative juices come from rebellion, the clearest messages come from challenge and invention comes from a lack of a palatable alternative. The rewards are there to exploit if you're prepared to create them for yourself. The problem is, too few people are prepared to take the risks required to deliver originality. That needs to change.
- Mark Summers is a casting director and the owner of Mark Summers Management.
This article was first published on campaignlive.co.uk