By Glen Mutel, campaignlive.co.uk, Friday, 06 June 2003 12:00AM
Twelve months ago, Esure was one of many outfits jostling for a share of the overcrowded insurance market. Today it's a brand even the uninsurable are familiar with. We all now know what the company sells and most of us understand how its offering differs from that of its rivals.
Such is the power of advertising. Or rather, such is the power of Michael Winner. The column-writing, restaurant-reviewing, film-directing raconteur is quite happy to take credit for Esure's turnaround. After all, not only did he star in the company's recent TV campaign, but he wrote and directed it as well. He even scouted the locations.
Oddly, adland doesn't seem terribly keen on congratulating Winner for his work. Maybe his ads are too crude and coarse for the average agency palate. Perhaps his personality is too risible and his scripts are too absurd. Surely everyone can see that these ads are mere pantomime scenes compared with the well-crafted, painstakingly researched, strategic tour de forces one reads about in Campaign?
"Commercials are meant to sell whatever the person making them, the person paying for them, wants to sell," Winner counters. "As wonderful as Campaign is, it's not the be-all and end-all. My commercial was not only successful, it has become part of the language."
We needn't just take Winner's word for this. His current employers agree with his assessment whole-heartedly. "The Michael Winner campaign has proved extremely successful," an Esure spokeswoman claims.
She goes on to explain that in the London and Central regions, where the campaign was first launched, the number of insurance quotes requested as a direct result of the advertising has increased by 15 per cent.
"Forecasts for the current campaign look very positive too," she adds. "Independent research indicates that brand awareness has increased by an average of 26 per cent between August 2002 and April 2003 in the regions where the ad has appeared."
As with most of Winner's adventures, his involvement with Esure began with a lunch. On this particular occasion, his opposite number was Peter Wood, the man who both launched Esure and founded Direct Line.
"I'd thought of a commercial for him, you see, and I didn't want to write it down like an office boy," Winner explains. "He had these dreadful commercials on at the time, which were soulless, lifeless computer things. Terrible.
"So I said, 'Peter, are those commercials of yours selling any policies?' and he kind of pulled a face, as if to say, no they're bloody well not."
Esure's advertising agency at the time was Delaney Lund Knox Warren & Partners. The agency's chairman, Greg Delaney, met with Wood and Winner at the latter's home in west London. However, any hope of co-operation between the three men was soon extinguished.
"You could see from the minute he entered my private cinema that Greg Delaney was against me," Winner recalls. "He thought it impertinent that anybody else should write commercials. He was more than defensive. He was abusive.
"When he eventually saw that we were actually doing the commercial, he resigned the account. What an idiot."
Since his agency resigned the £9 million business, Delaney has maintained a dignified silence on the matter. It's believed one of the main sources of discord between him and Winner was the role that research was to play in the campaign. Delaney, mindful of the dangers of over-exposure, was adamant that the idea should be thoroughly checked out.
However, Winner doesn't share Delaney's regard for research. He describes it as useless, citing Star Wars as a classic example of an enormous success that initially fell foul of a test audience.
Nor is research the only modern advertising practice Winner deplores.
"Can anyone show me a funny commercial?" he asks. "They used to be funny. You used to talk about them.
"There's one now in which fish leap alongside a car. I was with a very famous commercials director in the South of France recently. He thought the ad was for one car and I thought it was for another.
"What does that say? That if you drive this car fish will leap alongside you? And neither of us knew which car it was advertising. I think that's getting too clever."
So what of his own commercials? There's no doubt that Winner has kept them deliberately direct. But how does he explain the contorted expression he pulls when he crashes his car? Or the cringeworthy way in which his co-star says "Hello Mum" directly to camera? Or the radio execution in which Winner chants "I love Esure, I love Esure" before telling himself to shut up?
Are these moments of baffling surrealism merely devised to ensure the campaign stays on people's minds?
"Exactly," Winner confirms. "And that 'I love Esure' chant - people are singing it to me as I walk down the street. It is a little bit surreal, I agree.
"But in a way, my ads for Esure are piss-takes of commercials. They're very direct. They're not shot in a tricky way. They rely on the acting and the dialogue.
"I view it like I'm just chatting to the viewers. I'm not haranguing them. I'm not being the super salesman. We can only go on our instincts. My instinct was that these would be very funny commercials."
Despite the statistics, the campaign's real achievement is a matter for debate. Some advertisers are adamant that the short-term success of ads as tongue-in-cheek as these will be countered by irreversible damage to the credibility of the brand.
But few can doubt that, by coupling a product benefit with a famous face and a strong sense of his own ridiculousness, Winner has put Esure on the map. And there's more to come. More than 3,000 poster sites across the UK now feature an image of Winner, saying: "Calm down, it's only a poster."
And there's more TV work on the way. "There's one ad that I've dreamed up which, I modestly say, will be unbelievably talked about," he says. "It's a real stunner, but it's a little bit different."
The Esure campaign isn't the first advertising-related work Winner has put his name to. His 1967 film I'll Never Forget Whatsisname featured Oliver Reed as an ad executive, trying to leave an agency run by Orson Welles in order to devote his life to more meaningful work. The film is notable for the vehemence of its attack and for the clumsy way it misses the target through grotesque over-statement.
If the film's premise reflected Winner's own feelings at the time, his opinion on the industry certainly seems to have softened. With several advertising campaigns now under his belt, Winner declares himself available for employment.
"I am the advertising agencies' worst nightmare," he explains. "Some twit from Kensington writes a commercial in 40 seconds that does unbelievably well, yet they've got thousands and thousands of people at work. Peter Wood and Esure don't have an advertising agency. Can you imagine how much money they have saved?" Adland, you have been warned.
This article was first published on campaignlive.co.uk