Campaign Craft: When technique seduces the jury at the concept’s expense

Five top creative directors are concerned for the fate of the idea. By Emma Hall.

Five top creative directors are concerned for the fate of the idea.

By Emma Hall.

’Like gilding a turd’ is how Tony Cox, the creative director of BMP DDB,

describes the emphasis on technique in advertising, which has resulted

in so many D&AD awards being given in craft categories over the past few


Last year’s only gold pencil went to Tony Kaye for his direction of

Abbott Mead Vickers BBDO’s ’twister’ ad for Volvo. Among the silvers,

the director, Chris Palmer, won a pencil for Ogilvy and Mather’s

’walker’ spot for Golden Wonder - but the commercial was not recognised

in any of the traditional advertising categories.

’Ad agencies shouldn’t take enormous pride in awards that go to their

outside suppliers,’ Cox continues. ’We should not be rewarding

production values at the expense of the core idea, which is our

stock-in-trade. It is dangerous for our business if advertising’s

premier awards are so far out of kilter with consumer tastes.’

In 1995, Volvo won two awards in the editing category, for ’stuntman’

and ’photographer,’ but was overlooked in the TV and cinema ads


Hence that double-page spread ad in Campaign - the one signed by five

top creative directors (Cox, Tim Delaney, Paul Weinberger, Peter Souter

and John Hegarty) - which reminded the D&AD jurors that ’it is ideas

that move people not techniques’.

Mike Dempsey, the president of D&AD, acknowledges the ascendancy of

visually led work but is not alarmed by the phenomenon and, unlike Cox,

he thinks the trend is a true reflection of public taste. Dempsey says:

’There are lots of highly visual ads in the D&AD annual, mainly because

style magazines have altered people’s perceptions and the audience is

genuinely changing.’

Nobody would argue that any idea is enhanced by the application of

appropriate and well-crafted techniques, but sometimes even good ideas

are overshadowed when too much attention is paid to the look of a


Robert Campbell, a creative partner at Rainey Kelly Campbell Roalfe,

cites Bartle Bogle Hegarty’s ’mermaids’ ad for Levi’s as an example of

this problem. He says: ’You are so entranced by working out how they

covered up the mermaids’ nipples, that you forget to take any notice of

the plot, and the whole point of the ad is lost.’

Campbell has identified two different levels of idea. One is internal to

the ad itself, while the other is a brand idea that sits above the ad.

In the first category, he places ’mermaids’ (which shows how three

mermaids are unable to part a man from his shrink-to-fit jeans) and

GGT’s campaign for John Smith’s Bitter in which there is a conflict

between Jack Dee, who wants the ads to be boring, and the client, who

wants to make them more exciting.

The higher level brand idea, Campbell claims, can be found in his own

agency’s Virgin Economy Class spot, where the appeal and excitement of

the airline are intrinsic to the story told in Virgin’s recent ’reaper’

film, which shows a young man watching his life flash before him.

At least the five creative directors who placed the controversial ’we

the undersigned’ ad cannot be accused of sour grapes. BMP DDB, Leagas

Delaney, AMV, BBH and Lowe Howard-Spink all have stacks of D&AD pencils

in their offices and are all well-represented on the jury.

Cox denies the charge of arrogance that has been aimed at the five

members of the ’creative mafia’ who placed the ad. He comments: ’If

complaints only ever came from Richard Phillips they would lose impact.

The ad was merely meant as a useful reminder. We do not purport to know

better than anyone else and it is stating only what any of us would say

in conversation.’

One of Cox’s gripes is that some of the best ads don’t even make it into

the judging process. He cites AMV’s Alka Seltzer spot, which tells the

story of two men stranded in a lifeboat. One of them ends up eating the

other one, and the ad finishes with the endline: ’For when you’ve eaten

something you shouldn’t have.’

In his D&AD President’s Lecture at the end of last year, Paul Weiland, a

director famous for his narrative skills, said he admires what is going

on in commercials in a visual sense, but lamented the way style has

taken over from content, particularly with younger creatives, whom, he

says, are being encouraged to take a purely visual approach.

More than 20 years ago, Dempsey remembers putting his name to a page in

the D&AD annual where all the members of the jury publicly stated how

miserable the work had been that year. Last year, copywriting and

photography went completely unacknowledged in either the awards or the

annual. This might indicate that, as Weiland warns, some of the basic

skills of advertising are being neglected by its practitioners.

With all the new technology available, it is inevitable agency creatives

will want to try them out but the novelty may well wear off. Dempsey

observes: ’We are in a transitory period, and in a few years people may

well be wondering whatever happened to all those nice visuals.’