By Jeremy Bullmore, campaignlive.co.uk, Thursday, 31 May 2012 08:00AM
A: Forgive me if I take a little detour before returning to your interesting question.
During the late 40s and early 50s, Harry Wayne McMahan was the head of television at Leo Burnett in Chicago. His only claim to creative fame, made often by Harry himself, was to have invented the slogan "The best to you each morning" for Kellogg. Around 1954, he wrote a bestselling book, The Television Commercial: How To Create And Produce Effective TV Advertising. From then on, Harry McMahan was a consultant, a guru, a columnist for Advertising Age and a globe-trotting evangelist for the television medium.
In 1955, the first of the independent (commercial) television channels opened in Britain. British advertisers and their agencies knew nothing about television as an advertising medium. We'd made a few cinema commercials and that was about it. We didn't even know what a television commercial looked like.
This was before Cannes; or rather, before Cannes admitted television entries. (Cannes was established to showcase cinema advertising, and exclusively cinema advertising, as a defensive measure against the threatening new medium. Early days, of course, but I'm not sure it's been entirely successful.) It was also before Clios and videotape.
Harry saw an opportunity and grabbed it. He somehow obtained the permission of American advertisers and their agencies to assemble all the most interesting US commercials on 16mm reels. And he then flew to Europe where hungry agencies and their clients were more than happy to pay to see Harry's reels and listen to Harry's informed commentary. A McMahan presentation would last a full day (his pre-lunch commentaries being rather more informative than those that came later).
He was utterly scrupulous in his attribution of credit. He would start the day by making it absolutely clear that he, personally, had had no direct involvement in any of the spots we were about to see. Either before or after the screening of each spot, Harry would credit the advertiser and name both the responsible agency and the responsible production company. He would finish by distributing printed lists of the reels he'd run, with agency and production house credits meticulously recorded. It was unequivocally clear that Harry Wayne McMahan was simply the messenger; and that, with the possible exception of "The best to you each morning", he laid no claim to being creative.
Yet throughout British advertising, Harry Wayne McMahan was universally recognised as the world's most creative user of the television medium.
I hope you can now see why I embarked on this roundabout route to an answer to your question. The McMahan experience was the first time I became consciously aware of how creative reputations may be built not only through delivery but almost as effectively through simple association. People who have been close to creative things - famous creative people, famous creative work, famous creative agencies - absorb a reputation for creativity through their pores, as if by osmosis. They don't lay claim to a single creative act; they don't have to. Like Harry McMahan, they play it absolutely straight. It's only their observers who, entranced, enchanted and beguiled by their choice of creative clothing, unthinkingly grant them creative status. (It's probably why very few executive creative directors wear three-piece suits.)
This agency executive who won a fat piece of new business by presenting not his own agency's work, but work he wished his agency had done, was knowingly exploiting this phenomenon. If you're able to choose between presenting the best that your creative department has come up with over the past three weeks and the best that the rest of the world has come up with over the past 12 months, who wouldn't? It's not going to work for everyone, of course; but you have to admit, it's quite creative.
Q: Do you think that there is a "domino effect", whereby health warnings on advertisements create the pre-conditions for an eventual total advertising ban and subsequent severe product usage limitation?
A: Happily, I don't. Critics of advertising (as opposed to advertisements) never venture alternatives, and you can see why. Our least worse economic system simply couldn't operate without it.
"Ask Jeremy", a collection of Jeremy Bullmore's Campaign columns, is available from Haymarket, priced £10. Telephone (020) 8267 4919
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This article was first published on campaignlive.co.uk