CLOSE-UP: LIVE ISSUE/ADVERTISING’S IMAGE - Will the ad industry ever shake off its 80s image? - The sins of the 80s could haunt advertising forever, Francesca Newland writes

Volvo may be reviewing across Europe, Grey Advertising may have a new chief executive but all that anyone in the industry wanted to talk about last week was that piece on Euro RSCG Wnek Gosper’s executive creative director, Mark Wnek, in The Sunday Times magazine.

Volvo may be reviewing across Europe, Grey Advertising may have a

new chief executive but all that anyone in the industry wanted to talk

about last week was that piece on Euro RSCG Wnek Gosper’s executive

creative director, Mark Wnek, in The Sunday Times magazine.



With quotes such as ’Our mortgage is so big I can’t bring myself to say

it out loud’, ’I’ve got 300 shirts and ties at home’ and ’I’m like a

kind of life commando’, it’s not surprising that the piece has caused a

stir.



The criticism aimed at Wnek has been vociferous and has used the kind of

expletives that normally punctuate his speech. One senior advertising

figure says: ’We work really hard but it all goes out the window when

someone says something like that.’ Others go so far as to say the agency

may lose business because of the article.



The gossip has been motivated by a bitchy crowing over someone else’s

humiliation and also by the notion that the interview panders to the

stereotypical image of admen as a bunch of overpaid tossers. Some people

feel the piece has done the industry a disservice.



Wnek says he was stitched up: ’I never said those things, in those ways

or in that order.’ And there is little doubt that Euro RSCG’s

appointment to handle advertising for Ken Livingstone’s bid to be London

mayor affected the timing, if not the slant, of the piece.



But (outside the Wnek household) it doesn’t matter whether he said it or

not: the important thing to notice is that the magazine reported him as

speaking in that fashion presumably because that is what would entertain

the greatest amount of readers.



And Chris Powell, chairman of BMP DDB, thinks journalists are the root

cause of the stereotypical image: ’Peter Marsh hogged the headlines for

ages because he fitted the parody. If it can find a parody, the media

will play it because it’s popular.’



Nobody in the industry would dare deny that advertising was guilty of

vulgar excess in the 80s. Rupert Howell, now president of the IPA, talks

about when he was a 26-year-old Young & Rubicam staffer with a Ferrari -

a fact that angered the agency’s Heinz client.



And there are still excesses. The Cannes Advertising Festival is a

week-long orgy of excess for many executives: to lie on a sun lounger at

the Hotel du Cap is said to set you back a whopping pounds 150. And

Champagne is still consumed in copious quantities at most big agencies,

the vast majority of which have lavish in-house bars which they use to

entertain clients and de-stress staff.



Some big advertising faces, including Wnek, feature in articles or TV

programmes which undoubtedly perpetuate the negative image. Take Robin

Wight’s recent Tatler appearance, in which we are shown around one of

the most expensive-looking houses imaginable, or the earnest appearance

of evangelical St Luke’s staff in a TV documentary last year.



Most people in advertising do seem to have cut back, or at least learned

not to shout about their lavish lifestyles. But this seems to have

failed to change public opinion and that of clients. As one senior ad

executive says: ’Clients all think we swan around drinking Champagne and

living the life of Riley. It’s very, very hard to shake off that

image.’



Part of the reason is that in order to maintain its mystique - and,

after all, it is a creative industry - a degree of egocentric hot air is

not only permissible but, in some cases, necessary because clients think

that the ability to see things differently is what they are paying

for.



Powell says: ’There’s always a market for colourful characters. A lot of

clients go for that.’ Wnek adds: ’I’m not going to pretend I’m a Chris

Powell. I won’t pretend it’s like banking or the law. I’m colourful. I

say what I think and I wouldn’t pander to a journalist.’



Howell sums up the dilemma: ’Clients buy into creativity and expect a

bit of unclient-like behaviour. In the 80s they had their faces rubbed

in it but it doesn’t happen now. It’s a balance. You want to be seen as

neither dull nor profligate.’



However, Howell, who has publicly warned people about making appearances

in the press without proper preparation because they can end up damaging

the industry, thinks articles like the one on Wnek don’t matter.



He is convinced that Wnek was speaking with his tongue in his cheek in

The Sunday Times’ article.



’Advertising people will never be loved. There’s a popular image of a

twirling bow-tie and a Ferrari. I am concerned about the representation

of advertising more than the perception of the people working in it. The

image of advertising is at a high point, it is more popular with the

general public than ever before and its importance is more recognised by

businesses than ever before,’ he says.



Advertising is unlikely to shake off its 80s image - an image fuelled by

occasional outbursts from figures such as Wnek and by the prejudice of

the media. The industry is not alone in suffering from an unfair

stereotype - after all, all journalists are soaks, all lawyers are money

grabbers, and all merchant bankers are bores who wear red braces. Aren’t

they?



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