How to change advertising for the better: more outliers and mavericks

Google's industry manager, Paddy Collins, was the winner of this year's Last One Standing event, held each year by the Advertising Association. Here he unpacks his winning pitch on how to change advertising for the better.

Collins makes his pitch to Last One Standing (Picture: Bronac McNeill)
Collins makes his pitch to Last One Standing (Picture: Bronac McNeill)

I don’t actually think that, as things stand, there’s a whole lot wrong with advertising.

There is great encouragement to be taken from an industry that deals calmly with duality. Things are simultaneously getting better and worse. We routinely navigate situations of perpetual flux, speaking confidently about intangible value and perception. 

The problem is, people just don’t seem to care.

As Dave Trott long before me has noted, with an annual spend of £18 billion on advertising in the UK, just 4 per cent is remembered positively and 7 per cent negatively – leaving around £16 billion totally forgotten.

The number of complaints received by the ASA is also steady at roughly 31,000 for the last three years – only climbing to 37,000 last year when one particularly objectionable piece from a gambling company garnered over six thousand complaints. 

Research by the Advertising Association shows favourability for advertising falling from 51 per cent in 1994 to 26 per cent last year. The shift here isn’t polar; these folk don’t now dislike ads, they simply don’t care either way.

At a time of supreme opportunity for advertising, we’re using advanced technologies to chase people around the web with some shoes they didn’t want to buy, we’re sleazing and insulting our way across already ample boundaries of acceptability, and from the look of the numbers we’re paying a hefty premium for invisibility.

The problem, I believe, is that we’re stuck in the middle. Neither good nor bad. Reneging on our responsibility to produce the very best work we can. 

Rather than single out a particular offender, I thought of the Grayson Perry story of two Russian artists called Komar and Melamid. In the 90s they commissioned a big international survey to find out what art people in different countries wanted. The results were unanimous. Every country wanted a landscape, few figures dotted around and that it should be mainly blue. Whilst these paintings would clearly be answering the brief, the results would make for some staggeringly dull art.

As we base our decisions in endless data and research studies, this felt like a reasonable parallel. Great work requires commitment, it requires vision, and true creativity is unlikely to grow from a bunch of homogenised opinions. 

How often have you felt you had an idea that could have been exceptional, and yet someone or something limited it?

The idea was never really vetoed, just slowly starved. For some reason you just couldn’t get enough oxygen around it, so you deposited it in the top drawer and moved on with something more vanilla. 

What I think we need is more outliers, and more mavericks.

We need people wholly committed to their ideas, supported by people courageous enough to go along with them. The greatest fear, our harshest stigma, should be only just failing. There should be no place in our culture for failing a little bit. The reason we are stuck in the middle can’t be time, we can always make more time. It can’t be money, as we’ve got £16 billion being ignored every year. Therefore the only thing I would change, would be to eradicate the word ‘maybe’. Ban the use of it, incinerate it, take it out the back and shoot it, and in doing so banish all of its attendant inertia. Let’s stop saying maybe, and start choosing ‘yes’ or ‘no’.

Whether we’re a client judging an agency’s work, an agency briefing a media owner, a media owner creating content, or a technology company coming up with new advertising products  let’s nail our colours to the mast.

Our responsibility is not to just kick the can down the road a bit. 

We should commit ourselves to ideas, safe in the knowledge we’re better like that, and we can endure either glittering success, or use the flaming wreckage of glorious failure to illuminate the way ahead.

Yes or no, but never maybe.

Paddy Collins is the industry manager at Google UK