Rings of confidence
Adland's A Listers loved the way the Olympics lifted the country, but they also like a cab home in time to sob at the Channel 4 Paralympic TV ad. By John Tylee
The London 2012 Olympics are a fading memory, but Campaign’s A Listers just want to keep basking in the warm glow of its legacy and squeeze every last drop of feel-good factor out of it.
What happened to good old adland cynicism? Well, the Union Jack has enveloped it – at least, for the time being. But it must be said that the industry was by no means alone in believing that London’s transport system would cave in under the strain, ticket distribution was a disaster-in-waiting and, as for stewarding… well, that was going to make us a laughing stock from Kinshasa to Kowloon.
One glorious sporting summer later and jaundiced views have been swept aside. Seb Coe, the man who called it right – "He didn’t blink," Havas Worldwide London’s Russ Lidstone observes – has deification virtually assured. Or maybe he would settle for a nice big marcoms job instead.
"He can join our project management team any day," OgilvyOne’s Sam Williams-Thomas says. Better get the CV in before they change their minds, your Lordship.
"He didn’t just deliver an amazing and winning pitch for the Olympics, but over-delivered on the pitch promises," ZenithOptimdia’s Steve King concludes.
And Boris Johnson has turned into a national treasure and – dare we add – a prime minister-in-waiting. Indeed, in the eyes of a significant number of the industry’s movers and shakers, he is right up there with the parachuting Queen. "We could all learn to take ourselves a bit less seriously and still get the job done," The Red Brick Road’s Jason Lawes suggests.
OMD UK’s Toby Roberts sums up the industry’s collective emotions when he names "anyone connected with the Olympics or Paralympics" as his people of the year. "Magic," he comments. "Especially as it felt like so many people really wanted to believe that it was going to be a disaster before it happened. Then, quietly, everything started coming together and it just felt good to be here and to be British."
Post-Olympic patriotism – as well as a "we really showed ’em" attitude – are the recurring themes of this year’s A List, even if heads are warning hearts that it can’t last. The Advertising Association’s Tim Lefroy loves the "post-Olympic halo" but suspects it is "fading fast".
Just now, though, OgilvyOne’s Jo Coombs loves "being British", while MPG Media Contacts’ Marc Mendoza and McCann Worldgroup’s Chris Macdonald laud the pride the Games sparked. "Britain regained its cool in 2012," Mendoza says. "It never really lost it, but now lots more foreigners wish they were Brits than a few years ago."
At Rainey Kelly Campbell Roalfe/Y&R, Alison Hoad thinks the Olympics really brought the Brits out of themselves. "The British do, after all, have a sense of national pride and can cry in public and speak to strangers," she observes. "So I’m not such a misfit after all."
What A Listers are really enjoying, however, is the way the Olympics have impacted on London, the place where most of them work. Dare’s Lee Leggett and Saatchi & Saatchi’s Kate Stanners confess that they have fallen in love with the capital all over again.
Meanwhile, Steve Davies, the boss of the Advertising Producers Association, and Clearcast’s Chris Mundy reckon the Games have put a renewed spring in the city’s step. "London looks and feels more vibrant than ever," Mundy exclaims.
Paul Kitcatt, the Kitcatt Nohr Digitas creative chief, feels much the same."The city found a new sense of itself this summer," he contends. "It was wonderful and long may it continue."
That, of course, all depends on how long it will be – if ever – before London’s toilers revert to type. Maybe not long, if curmudgeonly Williams-Thomas isn’t alone in his delight that the extinguishing of the Olympic flame means "not having to talk to families on the Tube commute to Canary Wharf."
For others, though, the Olympic spirit still burns brightly. ISBA’s Debbie Morrison claims she’s back in the swim again largely because of the Olympics, while OMG UK’s Sam Phillips confesses to have developed an Olympics fixation that even The Sound Of Music’s most ardent fans would find hard to match, having become a permanent fixture at every day of the Olympics and Paralympics.
"That’s 22 Olympic sports, 15 Paralympic sports, two Paralympic ceremonies and thousands of memories," she boasts. And a severely damaged bank balance too, no doubt.
Among advertising’s male members, the Olympics seems to have got the sap rising – among other things. Agency Insight’s Andrew Melsom suggests BoJo may have set the tone by describing how the beach volleyballers "glistened like otters". Phew! Pass the cold towels.
The summer heat seems to have got to Leo Burnett’s Giles Hedger, whose favourite app is "the one where you press that big gold button in the middle of the screen and the Team GB synchronised swimming girls appear at your side like dolphin nymphs bearing flutes of chilled Krug on a hot day when a big meeting has just been cancelled". Sorry Giles, we seem to be having problems downloading this one.
What really seems to have caught the industry’s attention, though, is how the Olympics turned out to be as much a creative event as sporting one. "I love the confidence and creativity we showed the world," Leo Burnett’s Tony Malcolm declares.
Richard Madden, the Kitcatt Nohr Digitas strategy chief, marvels at how the Olympic opening ceremony managed to "revive the mood of the whole country for less than the cost of a decent chocolate bar launch". And Coe gets BETC London’s Matthew Charlton’s man-of-the-year award by a country mile "for proving that £10 billion on global marketing of Great Britain works".
Danny Boyle, the ceremony’s ringmaster, produced an extraordinary pageant that reminded everybody – according to LBi’s Luke Taylor – that the Brits are "a tad bonkers". Adland judged the event almost exclusively in creative terms. The verdict: an unalloyed Boyle triumph. As Atomic’s Richard Hall points out: "He nailed it."
According to Madden, Boyle achieved it by having a clear insight into Britain, "surely one of the most complex brands in the world".
In fact, A Listers are unstinting in their praise of Boyle for showing great courage and – according to RKCR/Y&R’s Mike Boles – he got it right "when it could have gone embarrassingly wrong". Thinkbox’s Lindsey Clay is equal in her admiration for Boyle "because he had immense creative ambition and it totally paid off".
"Loved it when Tim Berners-Lee turned up to point out that, on top of all the Shakespeare and Elgar cultural stuff, we also invented the internet," WCRS’s Matt Edwards says. "Take that, world!"
At DLKW Lowe, Charlie Snow describes Boyle as having painted a picture of Britain that "embraced the HappySad of life and at last allowed us all to feel unashamedly proud to be British".
Carat’s Gavin Miller suggests the event was a transformational moment in the way Britain is perceived across the world. Boyle, he believes, "achieved global reappraisal of ‘Britain’, made UK naysayers Olympic fan-boys and launched the greatest show on earth with a playlist including the Fuck Buttons and Bonkers".
Meanwhile, senior creatives queue to shower their praise. VCCP’s Jim Thornton calls the opening ceremony "the single greatest feat of creativity under the most daunting and intimidating circumstances I’ve ever witnessed". Fabula’s Luke Williamson says Boyle took a tough client’s toughest brief "and knocked it out of the park".
SapientNitro’s Malcolm Poynton goes even further, acclaiming Boyle for having "achieved in one night what our entire industry strives to do collectively in a year!"
No surprise, then, that the effects of the Olympics and Paralympics have cascaded down to impact significantly on the A Listers’ choice of their men and women of the year and the advertising that those events have inspired.
Bradley Wiggins – succinctly summed up as a "Mod on a push bike" by Rattling Stick’s Andy McLeod – gets lots of A List nominations for man of the year. "Hard, humble and very,very cool," Bartle Bogle Hegarty’s Ben Fennell says of the man who, as Weapon 7’s Adam Graham points out, galvanised a nation. Oh, yes, he endeared himself even more when, as RKCR/Y&R’s Jerry Hollens recalls, he did the "drawing the raffle gag" on the podium at the Tour de France.
No surprises about who is in the chasing pack. One, of course, is Jessica Ennis. "She faced an unimaginable weight of expectation and managed to combine superhuman sporting skill with being a nice person," Steve Henry says. Another is Mo Farah, who, according to Carat’s Matthew Hook, "redefined what it means to be British in a way I feel proud of".
The Paralympic swimmer Ellie Simmonds – "Tiny but mighty and scarily mature for one so young," McCann Worldgroup’s Nikki Crumpton comments – is also in the frame. So too is the wheelchair athlete David Weir, who, according to MBA’s Stephen Maher, forced everybody to take a reality check. "He single-handedly removed everyone’s reason to complain ever again about such trivialities as the weather or the hangover."
A Listers are also warming to Andy Murray, the Olympic gold medallist and US Open winner who’s a bit less surly than Kevin the teenager these days. "He dug deep," Clear Channel’s William Eccleshare says. "And I was there."
Meanwhile, there’s an honorary gold medal for Clare Balding, the undisputed star broadcaster for the Olympic month. "Human, insightful, funny and intelligent," according to the Radio Advertising Bureau’s Linda Smith, while M&C Saatchi’s Lisa Thomas praises her for "reflecting the emotions of the nation".
But who in the world beyond sport is attracting adlanders’ admiration? Anybody who was out on the streets during the Arab Spring, according to Tim Delaney. Global Radio’s Mike Gordon cites the International Monetary Fund’s chief Christine Lagarde – "bright, intelligent and sorting out a hell of a mess".
The quiet dignity of Burma’s opposition leader and Nobel Peace Prize-winner Aung San Suu Kyi (above) also wins much respect and admiration. Lewis Silkin’s Brinsley Dresden cites her "years of personal sacrifice", while Profero’s Wayne Arnold calls her "truly extraordinary and inspirational. One of the world’s great communicators."
And when it comes to selflessness, a lot of A Listers bow to Britain’s most famous pensioner in her Diamond Jubilee year. "What an actress!" Chime’s Sue Farr remarks, presumably recalling the Queen’s Olympic arrival alongside Daniel Craig’s James Bond. "Pure class," Martin Semmens at Elvis remarks, while Agency Assessments International’s David Wethey praises her "dignity, energy and selfless service". But maybe Proximity’s Caitlin Ryan sums up adland’s feelings best, praising the monarch "for taking a risk with her brand that paid off".
Closer to home, two of the industry’s high-achieving women win high compliments. One is Rosie Arnold, the D&AD’s first female president. "She has helped put D&AD back on the map," Sir John Hegarty remarks.
The other is Nicola Mendelsohn, who has made the enhancement of the industry’s skills base her priority during her IPA presidency. "Always so engaging and interesting," Initiative’s Alex Altman observes. "And never without a smile."
Naturally, Ogilvy & Mather’s Rory Sutherland zigs while others zag. "Everyone will put Steve Jobs here," he says when asked to nominate his person of the year. Well, no Rory, actually they haven’t. Apart from SapientNitro’s Nigel Vaz, that is.
And Sutherland’s choice? None other than Rupert Murdoch, somebody a bit short of compliments at present.
Not that Sutherland is handing out many. "Like Kennedy/Nixon, everyone idolises one and despises the other, but I’d rate their achievements about equal," he writes. "But at least Rupe is nice to his kids."
As for the ads that got A Listers energised this year , we’ll quickly eliminate Andrew Melsom’s contender: "Coffin. Unwanted Christmas present. £100 ONO." And we’ll move swiftly on from Kate Middleton’s holiday snaps, the choice of Neil Ross at WCRS because "I’ve never wanted to buy French Closer before".
Others, such as The Observatory’s Stuart Pocock and Walker Media’s Phil Georgiadis, saw nothing to float their boats, while Gerry Moira at Havas Worldwide London declares: "I thought our Olympic efforts were particularly disappointing. It should have been our Super Bowl but it wasn’t."
MEC UK’s Steve Hatch was downcast at seeing so few ads to make him laugh, and it’s true many of the most memorable commercials of the year were of the "pass the Kleenex" variety. The big exception was the Canal+ spot featuring a bearskin rug that becomes a film director – and that was French.
"My wife laughed so hard the water came out of her nose," Creature of London’s Ed Warren says. "She’s never done that for any of my ads."
Others featured in the A List unashamedly plucked the heartstrings, among them the John Lewis Christmas spot and – from the US – Clint Eastwood’s "It’s half-time in America" Super Bowl commercial for Chrysler featuring the country’s auto industry rising phoenix-like from the economic ashes of Detroit. "It hits America in the heart," The Red Brick Road’s David Hackworthy says.
You can take your pick of the other contenders high on emotion. There’s the VW Polo "dad" spot that made MediaCom’s Sue Unerman cry. Not easy to do with a tough "seen-it-all-before" media girl, we imagine.
And there’s those "proud sponsor of mums" Olympic build-up spots from – of all people – Procter & Gamble, erstwhile masters of the product demo. These apparently reduced Carat’s Matthew Hook to blubbering, even if the AA’s Lefroy took a more dry-eyed approach. His verdict: "From idea to whole company philosophy. Transformational."
And the winners? Well all, in their different ways, take courageous approaches and have reaped the rewards for it in what is pretty much a dead-heat.
First off the ground is British Airways, which won much praise for urging customers not to fly but stay at home and support the Olympics athletes. "So brave to run an ad telling people not to fly when that’s your business," MPG’s Paul Frampton remarks. "Brilliantly executed across all channels and platforms too."
Next comes "meet the superhumans", the Channel 4 spot for which the A Listers almost run out of superlatives for the way in which it shattered previous perceptions of disabled people. "It made me burst into tears at my desk," a red-eyed Ben Middleton at Creature of London confesses. "A brilliant example of how advertising can reframe and reposition," The Red Brick Road’s David Miller says. "It gave me proper goosebumps," M&C Saatchi’s Camilla Harrison adds.
But perhaps Saatchi & Saatchi’s Richard Huntington encapsulates the feelings best. "It primed the nation for the greatest sequel in our history and created the soundtrack of the Paralympics."
Running it close is The Guardian’s "three little pigs", Bartle Bogle Hegarty’s brilliant evocation of journalism in the information-everywhere age, even if it led some to ask what took the paper so long to follow up on its iconic "points of view" spot. "Utter genius and perfectly captures what open journalism is all about," Isobar’s Penny Herriman says.
Certainly, David Pemsel, Guardian News & Media’s chief commercial officer, has no doubts about what the film has achieved. "It was fantastically brave but, more importantly, it propelled The Guardian brand into the digital space where it rightly belongs," he declares.
Whether all this is the precursor to a more upbeat and confident marcoms industry remains to be seen. A Listers’ natural instinct is to put the best possible gloss on events, although the words "challenging", "exhausting", "relentless" and "rollercoaster " appear regularly when asked to describe their year. However, we’re at a loss to understand what O&M’s Will Awdry means by "chewy".
Perhaps CheethamBell JWT’s David Bell and Rapier’s Jonathan Stead are the most candid, respectively describing their years as "the hardest I’ve known it" and "about as tough as it gets". For CMW’s Liz Wilson, it’s been like doing the Gay Gordons in high heels: "Lots of racing up and down and spinning around."
Much sympathy, though, to Moira. "I’ve been literally working my arse off this year and am wearing a prosthetic arse which is several sizes too big," he moans.
And doesn’t your heart go out to Paul Hayes, the managing director at News International’s NI Commercial, when asked what it’s been like so far. "You’re kidding, right?"
No surprise, then, that many A Listers shrug their shoulders when asked what the biggest change in adland will be in five years’ time. "I couldn’t predict this last time you asked the question and I’m afraid I’m no closer to the answer now," Engine’s Debbie Klein confesses. "I haven’t got a clue and neither does anybody else," Leo Burnett’s Justin Tindall agrees.
Of those willing to take a punt, Steve Booth paints a truly apocalyptic picture, predicting "the rise of the machines. Think Terminator".
Steve Outhwaite at Creature of London has no less of a horrifying vision. "Publicis will sell to WPP, which will sell to Omnicom, which will buy the House of Lords and the Mexican restaurant chain Chiquitos." Sorrell salsa anybody?
"Everything will be digital, more agencies will be run from Asia," Group M’s Dominic Proctor predicts. Anything else equally revolutionary? "Andrew Robertson will buy a belt."
And what of the film-maker Tony Kaye and his company, Above The Sea? "Above The Sea will take over and bring flaming pies and flowers and automatic automatism realisation to motion picture and sound storytelling." Try as we might, Tony, we can’t get our heads around this. We think we’ll stick with Sutherland’s view. "Frankly, I’m getting too old for all this bloody change."
And what preoccupies A Listers besides work and worry? The latest apps, for one thing. Hailo, which lets you call a cab from your phone rather than stand on the street, is proving a big hit "because it makes me less likely to be Addison Lee’s best customer", OgilvyOne’s Annette King says. We also like the sound of CRAPP. "It tells you where the nearest loo is," Leo Burnett’s Justin Tindall claims. Legs crossed you didn’t make this up, Justin.
TV remains a stress buster. A Listers welcomed the return of Malcolm Tucker, a blasphemer of Olympic standard, to The Thick Of It, and Larry Hagman to Dallas. "He’s still got it", David Bainbridge of Elvis remarks. Homeland and Downton Abbey have been big hits, although 101’s Steve Waring still asks: "Is Mr Bates innocent?" Do you know something we don’t, Steve?
Then there’s the high body count of Scandinavian police dramas. ZenithOptimedia’s Mark Howley admits to an obsession with The Killing’s sweater girl Sarah Lund, while BBH’s Jon Peppiatt admits that Scandinavian DVD sets are his constant train companions. However, it prompts Marcus Rich, The Mail On Sunday’s managing director, to ask: "Is everyone a killer in Scandinavia?"
But football gives A List fans no relaxation. Stoke City supporter Jim Thornton can’t understand manager Tony Pulis’ refusal to buy a proper full-back. "It defies all logic and sense." PHD’s David Wilding wants to know the whereabouts of the Wolves back four every Saturday. "They must be somewhere surely." We share your pain, chaps. It keeps us awake at night too.
The last words go to Rufus Olins. Well, actually, to Harold Macmillan. Asked to say what will be his downfall, the Newsworks chief executive chose to recycle the words of the former prime minister when explaining what was most likely to blow governments off course. "Events, dear boy, events," he replied. And so says all of adland.
This article was first published on campaignlive.co.uk
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