The ad I wish I'd done

John Tylee asks six leading creatives to pick an ad they would have been proud to have created themselves, and to explain why exactly the work is so special.


On 8 April 2004, a chicken appeared in the US that could seemingly do any command viewers requested. After being seeded into several internet chat rooms, the "subservient chicken" instantly struck a nerve with bloggers.

A day after being released, the site had a million hits. Within a week, it had received 20 million hits. More surprising than the stats was the fact it came from Burger King, a brand whose commercials typically featured meat patties bouncing in slow motion on to a bed of iceberg lettuce and a bun.

The strategy was totally in the idea - "Chicken Any Way You Like It".

This platform wasn't revolutionary; it was simple and came right out of BK's long-running "Have it your way" brand promise. But it was the use of such innovative technology to bring it to life that enabled the campaign to capture consumers' imagination and deliver the bull's-eye for BK. The chicken became a pop-culture icon, even hosting a Sunday night sports show on Fox.

The other thing that made me envious of the whole concept was that it was the first time I'd really seen technology used to such effect. I know that other campaigns had employed versions of interactivity, but somehow they didn't do it well enough or big enough to capture this consumer's imagination.

The nearest example to the subservient chicken was smaller in scope, but nonetheless the best use of technology that I've seen. It was a viral sent round a couple of years ago for a Mini dealership that, when sent on by e-mail, addressed the person who opened it by name with details of their job, girlfriend's name and details of a distinguishing visual feature. I watched someone open that particular e-mail and I have never seen a response to an ad like it. He literally went pink, then red, then pale.

The subservient chicken not only created fans of all ages across America, it probably did more to introduce clients and agencies to the profound change that technology can make to brand communications than all the seminars and hoopla of the past few years. And it wasn't just clever; it sold product by the truckload.

Of course, the campaign probably threw up a couple of problems. The agency has to trump this campaign when it attracts new clients - "I want my version of that chicken thing" must have been the constant plea from every prospect almost before the agency had got to reception. And every agency has looked enviously at this technological and creative wizardry and has had to find ways to re-invent or better it. So, with this campaign, Crispin Porter & Bogusky raised the bar for the rest of us.


I first came across this ad in 1989. It was, however, originally written in 1962. At that time, much of American advertising was characterised by hard sell and "hucksterism". Even David Ogilvy had, by then, lost the family argument and succumbed to the view of his brother-in-law, Rosser Reeves, that USPs should be drummed into the audience's head by constant repetition.

When Howard Luck Gossage's agency won the Fina petrol account, his rivals were drumming away with their competitive claims about this or that secret ingredient or additive. Most chose the pseudo-scientific route. Esso preferred to "Put a tiger in your tank".

Gossage, however, knew that the average driver had twigged that all petrol was the same, that visits to petrol stations should be put off until absolutely necessary and that the last great breakthrough had come 30 years earlier: the relatively clean restroom.

So Gossage avoided unbelievable product claims. Instead, he differentiated Fina by talking to the car driver with honesty and charm, delivering an insight into human nature that was noticeable only by its absence from the ads of Fina's rivals. It was the first of a hugely successful campaign that became more engaging and irreverent with every ad he wrote. Incidentally, the headline that I have chosen became the strapline for all the ads in the campaign.

This was typical Gossage. He never shouted at his prospects, but preferred to say something intelligent and interesting. He always put a coupon on his ads because he wanted people to talk back. And he kept this conversation going until they liked the brand and the product enough to buy it, mention it to their friends and buy it again.

I think more advertising should be like this, and the Fina ad is as fresh today as it was 46 years ago. However, I suspect that few agencies would have the confidence to present it nowadays and I'm pretty sure no client would have the balls to run it.


I like ads that make me think, where the fuck did that come from? Such as Fiat's "hand built by robots", Levi's "launderette", Volkswagen's "New York", Apple's "1984" and PlayStation's "double life".

Other favourites would probably be Dunlop, Guinness' "surfer", Coke's ad featuring Sharlene Hector, the Orange cinema ads, Sony's "balls", Honda's "cog" and Cadbury's "gorilla". But my favourite is "Perfect Day" for the BBC.

I was at a friend's house having dinner one night when something came on the telly that silenced everybody in the room for three minutes. What the hell were we watching? It didn't look like an ad or a trailer or a programme. It defied description. Which is always a great trick to pull off.

The music was a track from a 20-year-old album, never released as a single. And it was being sung by - everyone. Everyone you cared about or loved in music. Everyone from David Bowie to Evan Dando. There was also a symphony orchestra in it, and a couple of opera singers.

Lou Reed's Perfect Day is an incredibly haunting song. Try reading the line "You made me forget myself; I thought I was someone else, someone good" without tingles running up your spine.

It provoked a storm. The Guardian, in prissy mode, slagged off the commerciality of the BBC. But while some people accused the broadcaster of wasting taxpayers' money, it had pulled in these superstars for £250 a pop - because the performers respected the brand and the power of the idea so much. That, by itself, is enough to keep me in love with this industry.

The ad put the record at number one when it was released as a single, and this raised millions for charity.

Think about how often artists feel ripped off by our industry - usually quite rightly. In this instance, Reed said: "I have never been more impressed with a performance of one of my songs."

But more than this, in one swoop it changed what could be done in our industry. It smashed the 30-second box wide open and forged a bridge into a longer-format, impossible-to-categorise area.

And it changed what people felt about the brand, beyond recognition. A fussy, old-fashioned Auntie figure became, in the space of three minutes, experimental, mould-breaking and cool.


For me, and I suspect many creative people, the true measure of a piece of work can be gauged by the amount of actual fucking pain that non-authorship can inflict upon you. We are not talking about mild irritation here. We are talking gut-wrenching gastro-intestinal agony with an over-flush of epidermal burning. And while not a chronic sufferer, I can recognise the early symptoms.

As with the pain of childbirth, they say the first time is often the worst, and so it was with me. Embarrassingly enough, it happened in a room full of nearly 2,000 people at Grosvenor House in 1979. That was the first time I was exposed to the excoriating effect of "Gertcha".

Legend has it that this commercial for Courage Best Bitter was inspired by someone from BMP spotting cheeky cockney songsters Chas 'n' Dave in a pub. Success, they say, has many fathers. Certainly the creative credits have an Advertising Hall of Fame pedigree: writer Dave Trott, art director John Webster and director Hugh Hudson.

Basically this is just a jingle-driven tour of a pub interior and its local colour. Yet despite the period setting, the black-and-white photography and the achingly slow camera pan, this film has a freshness and zest that shames its more trendy contemporaries. The cast are reduced to the same single word of dialogue to camera. "Gertcha" is their uniform response to any fancy alternative to good old-fashioned Courage Best. This East End term of derision was new to those of us not born within the sound of Bow Bells and became an instant catchphrase. The joy of the piece lies in the meticulous synchronicity of track and visuals.

We don't really do jingles or even music-as-narrative any more, just cool bands and library. But it works like a bastard here. Similarly, its nostalgic appeal would probably not play today. The past, it seems, is not somewhere that the consumer cares to visit these days.

Of course, there are many more recent campaigns that induce an early onset of genius envy in me. But you never forget that first twist of the knife.


Advertising's greatest skill is the ability to reduce complex issues to simple powerful thoughts that spark the imagination and force the consumer to engage with the message.

Great ideas don't open out on the page in front of you; they open out inside your head. The only space you're trying to occupy is the space between someone's ears.

Rarely do we come across a piece of communication that is close to perfect. That is also an object lesson in the art and craft of advertising. But this Economist ad is exactly that. An ad that kick-started one of the most successful campaigns of the past 20 years.

This in my view is as good as it gets. In eight words and a numeral, David Abbott has captured the essence and competitive advantage of The Economist. And in so doing has produced not only an incredibly effective piece of communication, but a near-perfect lesson in the art of advertising.

A complex multi-layered proposition has been crafted into a daring thought. Challenging the reader to complete the circle. Reaching of course to only one conclusion, the importance of this journal in advancing your business career. Credit here should also go to the client, who, at first glance, is instructing us not to read their magazine. That was a brave decision.

Pascal, the great French philosopher, on writing to a friend concluded the note by saying: "My apologies for this letter being so long. Had I more time it would have been shorter."

Pascal would have appreciated the brevity of Abbott's pen and would I'm sure have agreed with the maxim. Write less, say more. Oh, and I haven't even mentioned the brilliant art direction. I'll leave that to the next time I am asked to make this choice.


Like most creative people, I largely consist of a green jelly of envy and fear feebly covered by an unconvincing carapace of confidence and swagger. So every great ad fills me, in equal proportion, with joy and pride at working in a business that can produce such brilliant oeuvres, and impotent jealousy that some other brilliant bastard thought of it instead of me (even when they're my friends).

And there are so many ads that engender this response. Ones that I love because they are just simply magnificent are Levi's "creek", The Guardian's "points of view", John West Salmon, British Airways' "global", Sony's "balls" and virtually everything written by David Abbott and John Webster.

Ones that I love and admire because they genuinely moved the business on are Volkswagen's "snowplough", Benson & Hedges and Silk Cut, Heineken, Tony Kaye's Dunlop commercial and Guinness' "surfer".

Those that did the above and made me want to go into advertising are Jeremy Sinclair's "pregnant man" and Charles Saatchi's "fly" poster.

But, in the wee small hours, there is one that fills me, as a copywriter, with a sort of savage creative joy, totally free of the merest twinge of resentment. I just really wish I had written it with my fair hand: Blackcurrant Tango.

Every frame, from its small wobbly camera opening in the Tango complaints department to Ray Gardner's developing rant about the whingeing Sebastian, from the exchange student to the Harrier jump jets hovering over the boxing ring on top of the white cliffs of Dover, is a delight.

Faultlessly written, flawlessly executed (can you see the joins even now?), brave, original, effective and as funny as hell. What an antidote to the timid, invisible and ineffectual mediocrity that our industry so often passes off as advertising.

And it is all against the French. What's not to love?