The best TV advertising is like great TV programming, it’s highly engaging and talked about. It becomes part of popular culture and generates water-cooler moments up and down the country. This has always been true, but now that the water-cooler has become a virtual, always on conversation amongst millions, the opportunity for brands to benefit from the topspin of engagement is greater than ever. Meanwhile, the worst TV advertising is still eminently forgettable.
I was fortunate enough to learn this 20 years ago, when ‘engagement-led marketing’ was an opportunity for challenger brands rather than the imperative it is for all brands today. Looking back, this experience prepared me for the modern age of engagement-led marketing.
The Stella Artois "Reassuringly Expensive" TV campaign was a salutary lesson in challenger thinking and engagement-led marketing. In the early 90’s Stella was the 17th biggest beer brand, competing with brands that had 10 times more budget. This led to a real focus in advertising on the quality rather than quantity of impact.
You only have to see an amazing film once for it to live long in the memory. So we didn’t think we were making ads, in our minds we were making films
I was passed the baton for this campaign from the early Noughties, and inherited a mind-set that you only have to see an amazing film once for it to live long in the memory. So we didn’t think we were making ads, in our minds we were making films. We therefore tried to apply the same care and attention to artful storytelling, cinematography, music etc. that you’d see in a feature film.
This ‘one view is enough’ mind-set allowed us to achieve same ad awareness as Carling and Fosters with a fraction of the budget, and more importantly, helped the brand climb the rankings to become the No.2 beer brand.
This strategy of investing in content, rather than viewing media spend as the only determinant of competitiveness, was arguably ahead of its time. One third of the budget was spent on production (and closer to half if you included agency fees.) But rather than view this as ‘non working’ media – surely the dumbest phrase ever invented - we took the opposite view. It was our hardest working ‘media.’
This formative experience taught me the power of a great idea/script, and the power of world class directors. Working with the likes of Jonathan Glazer, Ivan Zacharias, and Frank Budgen amongst others, gave me a real appreciation of the filmmaker’s craft. I didn’t always understand why they wanted to do what they proposed, but I soon learned to trust their expertise.
They had the ambition and talent to sprinkle their magic dust on an idea to make it worthy of their name. So we’d invite them to bring their own vision and craft to an idea rather than instructing them to tightly film a script ‘scene by scene’. ‘Production’ was therefore not just about ‘making’, it was about continuing to build on the engagement potential of an idea.
Working with the likes of Jonathan Glazer, Ivan Zacharias, and Frank Budgen amongst others, gave me a real appreciation of the filmmaker’s craft
One of my favourite Stella ads of that era was ‘Last Orders’, where a man on his deathbed requests a glass of Stella as his last wish. The thing that made this film truly special in my view, was when one of the dying man’s relatives makes a hand gesture to suggest the arriving priest has finished the prized Stella before it gets to its intended recipient.
It wasn’t an ad I was involved with, but as I understand it this was never in the original script. It was something that evolved on the shoot, and was the sort of flourish that we, as a client, encouraged.
So the Stella "Reassuringly Expensive" TV campaign taught me to value the craft of filmmaking and to prize engagement above all else – not least because it helped deliver +16% CAGR sales growth over a 10 year period.
Whilst a drumming gorilla is worlds apart from French art-house film, the ethos behind it was the same. The spiritual brief I gave the agency on Cadbury was that I wanted an ad that was as enjoyable to consume as a bar of our chocolate. I wanted people to feel the joy, not be told about it. And in this sense, it was no co-incidence that it went viral.
Whilst a drumming gorilla is worlds apart from French art-house film, the ethos behind it was the same
There was no guarantee that we would pull it off, but the intent was definitely there to create something that was so engaging that people would want to talk about it. And as I sat there during its first TV airing in 2007, I watched on my laptop as it racked up the first 250,000 of 20 million+ views on YouTube. So what became one of the first viral ads in fact had its roots in the discipline of making ‘paid-by-the-second’ TV ads as engaging as possible.
Fast forward eight years and the continued proliferation of media has brought many more opportunities for brand communication, but I can’t help feeling some of the discipline of ‘making every second count’ has been lost. The rush to ensure every brand has an integrated campaign using the latest ‘media de jour’, means the amount of time, money and craft applied to each piece of content has become diluted.
So as we reflect on 60 years of TV, perhaps it’s timely for the marketing profession to rediscover some of the engagement discipline and craft that was inherent in some of the iconic TV ads of yesteryear.