CLOSE-UP: LIVE ISSUE/STAFF STARRING IN ADS - Why clients are putting employees centre stage. Many companies are keen to turn their staff into the brand

As anyone who's ever glimpsed a B&Q commercial will tell you, using

a company's employees in a campaign is far from a new strategy. Yet 2001

has seen an unprecedented number of staffers take centre stage in

high-profile ads. The past 12 months has seen many employees becoming

their company's brand.



Throughout the 80s, retail outlets proved themselves willing to use

staff as cheap mouthpieces for simple tactical messages. B&Q didn't need

a great thespian performer to emote the joy of realising you could get

two wallpaper rolls for the price of one and Asda didn't need a sitcom

star to feign excitement at the prospect of how much you could save on

frozen chicken breasts. Staff performers could fill these roles

efficiently enough, yet companies rarely thought of getting any further

mileage out of them.



"In the past there's been quite a paternalistic and almost patronising

use of staff," Delaney Lund Knox Warren & Partners' managing partner,

Tom Knox, says. "It was thought that it was perhaps a good idea to use

them to portray either service or price but never as proper advertising

vehicles."



Nor was a company likely to use actors to portray staff on screen. Not

only was it a waste of money, but you also ran the risk of offending

employees by presenting them in an unfavourable light - or simply

isolating them from the message. When Sainsbury's ran its unfortunate

Basil Fawlty-style John Cleese ads through Abbott Mead Vickers BBDO, it

wasn't just the public who were complaining. On the whole it was

understandable for staff to take the hump at the way they were

presented.



When playing themselves, they were treated as slightly simple, greatly

enthusiastic worker ants with no character of their own. Usually they

got a couple of seconds of screen time each.



"They weren't stars," Knox says. "They're talking heads, you don't know

who they are. I'll bet when B&Q staff talk to their mates down the pub,

their mates take the piss out of them for being in the ads."



The ads produced by DLKW for the Halifax this year signalled that such

embarrassments may be coming to an end. Performing employees have

escaped the territory of cheap retail ads and are delivering complex

messages in multimillion-pound branding campaigns. Howard Brown did this

so effectively in the Halifax work that he's since become a celebrity

within the building society itself, opening stores around the

country.



"The great thing about a campaign that uses real staff is that it has an

internal effect that's way beyond that of a normal advertising

campaign," Knox says. "The workforce feels it has ownership of what the

campaign's about."



Yet the change in advertising's attitude toward staff is not restricted

to giving real employees more interesting things to do. The character of

a company's staff is now considered so important that entire scripts are

written around them and actors and stuntmen are hired to portray them on

screen. The personality and dynamism of the workforce now seems

essential to the branding message of a growing number of

advertisers.



This is particularly clear in AMV's new ad for Fed Ex. You'd expect a

courier service to concentrate on explaining how many days it takes them

to get your stuff from A to B - or how much it costs.



Instead, the two spots launched by AMV this week are built entirely

around the fictitious recruitment of individuals - raising them, in the

process, to heroic status. It's no longer enough for Fed Ex to be seen

as a giant corporate machine taking on and spitting out packages across

the globe.



The company wants potential customers to see its staff as caring deeply

and individually about each item entrusted to their care.



There seems to be a degree of reverse psychology operating here. The

ability of a company's staff to do the job has gone from being an

assumption readily made by most customers to a crucial point of

differentiation. It's not that we expect package handlers to go to the

ends of the earth for our deliveries. It's rather that we dread the

opposite and have experience of crucial packages lost or delayed to back

up our concern. It's easy to present Fed Ex's elite delivery boys as the

exception rather than the rule - and, consequently, the only choice if

we want things done properly.



"The tactic of using staff is not a new one but it has increased

relevance now," AMV's head of planning, Mike Teesdale, says. "As people

have looked for greater integrity in their choice of brands, companies

have found staff to be an increasingly effective means of portraying

their values."



Members of the workforce have traditionally appeared in ads to talk

about the level of service they offer but they've rarely presented any

real evidence of this. Now companies attempt to present a believable

motive for decent customer service in order to give their claims more

credibility.



Increasingly, working in the corporation's ranks is portrayed as a

vocation - a personal calling that guarantees absolute focus on the task

in hand.



An early version of this approach was the "Fourth Emergency Service" ads

produced by HHCL & Partners for the AA, which is now reviewing its

account. The launch spot showed a child playing with toy cars,

pretending to fix a woman's car at the side of the road. This image

sought to raise our perception of working for road haulage from just

another job to something akin to driving a squad car.



Now this might just be believable of the AA. However, the current trend

in using employees to communicate a company's integrity has extended the

idea to areas that are far more of a stretch. Roose & Partners' work for

TXU Energi, again from this year, attempts to convince us that the staff

filling their telephone centres are so pathologically dedicated to

helping customers that even in their own time they automatically go out

of their way to help strangers.



When pushed too far, the idea of the dedicated employee becomes an easy

target for parody. Miles Calcraft Briginshaw Duffy's new work for

Benecol, which broke last week, has the TXUs of this world in its sights

when it presents a salesman, Stefan, so obsessed with his product's

qualities that he is oblivious to the reaction of the general

public.



"There is something very engaging about Stefan's enthusiasm," MCBD's

creative director, Malcolm Duffy, insists. "He disarms us with his

passion."



However, Stefan also shows just how ridiculous images of evangelical

employees can be when they outstrip reality.



TXU, like Fed Ex, is an American company introducing a stubborn US

vision of customer service to the British market. In the States,

companies expected the internet revolution to increase dramatically the

potential level of customer service that they would be able to provide.

As more problems were solved via online enquiries, the theory ran,

telephone operators would be freed up to deal with our queries more

efficiently. This area, traditionally one of the weak links in their

customer relations, would be transformed into a crucial selling

point.



Unfortunately, it hasn't really happened that way. US customers have

found that a proliferation of technologies has instead led to a

proliferation of technical problems - with customer service centres

being hopelessly swamped as a result. The image of customer service in

the US has taken an unexpected battering over the past couple of

years.



These difficulties demonstrate the potential problems for TXU in the UK.

The company may have pushed through an extensive training campaign for

its staff but, in all probability, its customers will still experience

considerable frustration when calling in with problems. TXU's

advertising proposition could be undermined by a few bad experiences on

the phone.



Even if TXU's customer service really is flawless, they must still

compete with the public's in-built cynicism about the process. Customers

do not look forward to their dealings with service providers' staff

since they usually result from something going wrong.



Both TXU's good Samaritans and Fed Ex's superhuman couriers have one

final disadvantage. In each case, it is clear that we are dealing with

fictitious employees in fictitious situations - which itself begs a

rather obvious question. If the character of a company's staff is

relevant enough for them to appear in the ads in the first place, then

it could be necessary for the agency to go the whole way. It remains

difficult to persuade the public to trust a company's employees unless

the company itself is prepared to put them in the spotlight.



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