Last week, a year after his death, the ad industry gathered to celebrate the work of director Frank Budgen.
It was at once the most thrilling and unsettling hour I’ve spent in a while. The reel of Budgen’s commercials – thrown gloriously on to a big screen at Picturehouse Central – was simply exhilarating.
He comfortably filled an hour or so of screen time with ads that were exciting, intriguing, funny, damn sexy and beautifully cinematic. From Levi’s "Rub yourself" to Stella Artois’ "Returning hero", from Nike’s "Tag" to PlayStation’s "Double life" and "Mountain".
When I started out writing about advertising, these were the ads we had to write about. It was a privilege. But watching Budgen’s reel was also an unsettling reminder that we’ve lost more than a brilliant director.
The advertising and marketing industries have moved on so far that much of Budgen’s work – though timeless in its appeal – just wouldn’t be made today. It would be too expensive. Too slow. Too hard to justify with easy metrics and a quick, measurable ROI. And, given what’s happened to media consumption, this sort of work possibly wouldn’t be as effective today.
As the lights came up at Picturehouse, at least half the audience seemed to be mourning more than the passing of Budgen. They were also mourning the days when the ad industry was heavy with spine-tinglingly wonderful work that millions of people enjoyed.
And they were mourning the loss of the obvious stature and swagger that gave the advertising industry a clear sense of its own importance and influence.
"Bloody clients these days haven’t got the balls to demand ads like that," one creative said. More likely, the trend towards fast-turnaround, lower-budget advertising, the heavy reliance on "nearly right" data (as Charles Vallance puts it), the erosion of craft skills, media fragmentation, the pursuit of fashionable digital opportunities – all have helped to diminish the stature and swagger of the industry.
Fewer brave clients wouldn’t help. But it’s fatal to believe that the days of brave, confident marketers buying brave, confident advertising are over. The results just look different now.
Smart brands and agencies are now collaborating on brilliantly exhilarating strategies that re-engineer businesses around consumers, creating richer relationships between brands and their customers.
When we’re good, we’re working faster, smarter (all that data!) and solving more complex business problems. Will anyone pay homage to it in a darkened room in 30 years’ time? Probably not. But at least the brands and agencies that hungrily pursue this sort of advertising have a better chance of still being here.