The thing about taking risks is sometimes you get it wrong. But if you don’t take the risk, you’re unlikely to get it very right. Take Henry’s old ad for Danepak, which won a gold Lion at Cannes back in the days when returning from Cannes with a Lion was a deliciously rare pleasure (these days, there are so many categories that whole prides of Lions will be found roaming Nice airport come the weekend).
Henry’s idea for the ad was to have a family of nudists barbecuing bacon. Sensibly, he decided that the cast should be freshly shaven, pubicly speaking, in order to gain valuable extra centimetres of flesh that could be shown on TV without offending the ad censors. So off they went with the wet razor. What’s really shocking about this campaign to the modern advertising eye is not so much the shorn nudists and the bacon but that there weren’t any clients involved in the approval process.
If we're all risk-averse, if all we do is advertising by numbers, then there's an algorithm waiting to take our place
As Henry says: "These days, they’d be all over it, discussing whether shaved pubes reflected their brand values or not. Where do shaved pubes appear on the brand ladder? I don’t remember seeing shaved pubes anywhere on the brand onion. That sort of discussion."
Would this ad get made today? Probably not. Henry reckons many marketers would be too worried about offending someone, and more concerned with the logical takeout than with the joyous entertainment value. Perhaps these are the sort of clients – and their compliant agencies – that Russell Davies has in mind when he talks about software eating our jobs. If we’re all approval-driven and risk-averse, if all we do is advertising by numbers, then there’s an algorithm waiting to take our place (for less money and without needing weekends off).
Effective creative brilliance, on the other hand, requires an alchemical mix of insight and intuition that is innately human – something that can’t be coded… yet. But hang on a minute. Can new, big data help finesse the insights a bit better than traditional ad research? Henry reckons so and, with his colleagues at Decoded, is using real-time data analysis and machine-learning to unlock a new understanding of consumer behaviour.
Will it give marketers a new confidence when it comes to taking risks with brave creative ideas? Perhaps. Will it replace the man who thought a naked barbecue was so right for selling bacon? Never.