Close-up: Opinion/creativity - Are we experiencing a golden age of advertising?

Paul Arden, a former Saatchi & Saatchi executive creative says we've never had it so good. What can he mean?

For the past ten years I have been disinclined to watch commercial television, because of the commercials. The breaks had become longer and the content as dull as it ever was. If I wanted to look at good commercials I'd look at reels.

But not now.

Now I find myself watching the breaks with an attention I've never given them before. I don't find them an interference. Why? Because advertising has become fun.

At last people/clients are recognising that irreverence and daftness are endearing. They work for you rather than against you. Why has it taken so long? I've no idea, but I do think we are now going through a remarkable phase of creativity.

Until recently you could watch the breaks all night to find one ad to which you could say: "Hey, that's good." Today you probably won't go more than an hour without being impressed by something. There's Reebok's "belly" and "sofa", Super Noodles' "West Side Story", Dr Pepper, Guinness, Skoda.

But the really significant change is not in the running shoes, drinks and other hip markets, it's in the big brands. Suddenly major advertisers such as McDonald's, Kellogg, Coca-Cola, Persil and Nestle are finding that wacky works. The advertisement for Kellogg with the man in fluffy slippers in drag is astonishing - for Kellogg.

Nestle too is thinking: "We must be silly, it's what the young people want." McDonald's is doing some lovely ads. The latest one shows big girls at lunch with the line: "For women wot lunch." It would have been unthinkable three years ago. So how has it happened? Who is responsible for these marvellous outrages?

The answer is partly creative growth and partly the expansion of the media.

You can trace the creative element as far back as you want. For simplicity I'll begin with the Benson & Hedges campaign, then sometime later the Japanese Pot Noodles "hungry" campaign, the Dunlop and Guinness films, most of Cliff Freeman's work (such as Outpost.com) and Paul Meier in Holland who was ahead of his time. HHCL & Partners

certainly played its part as well.

If you saw the Financial Times' "Who's Who in Creativity", it's a very different picture from three years ago. John Hegarty is relegated to 23rd place. Trevor Beattie is at 28, though I think that is a bit unfair. If you separate the agency's creative output from the man, it comes a lot higher than 28th.

There is a new breed of bright, intelligent young people who are slightly ignorant to the old forms of advertising. To me that's a good thing, I think it's probably this that makes their work so fresh.

But the most surprising factor is that global advertising, rather than making everything dull and of the lowest common denominator, is creating freshness and modernity.

"Wacky" seems to work across cultures as an international language. Creativity is going up, not down. D&AD is no longer the finite judgment of our creative world. We're competing internationally.

Advertising is enriched by Traktor in Sweden, BBDO in Brazil, Cliff Freeman in America and Mother in the UK. These are the names that quickly come to mind. There are many agencies producing fine work. How about Leo Burnett in London? And Wieden & Kennedy, of course.

In my advertising span there have been three major creative phases.

In the 50s, advertising was pretty grim. There were a few poster artists left over from the war: Abraham Games, Henrion, Hans Schleger. It was pretty dull really, but still novel enough to make me want to go into advertising. Over in America, meanwhile, it was all happy families and lifestyle.

Then one day in 1960 or 61, we gathered around a whole page ad in a newspaper.

A whole page in itself was an unusual idea. The ad was a picture of the sea. In the right-hand corner 5 per cent of the image had been torn away to reveal the copy, "From today the Atlantic Ocean is 5 per cent smaller", a bit of blurb and the EL-AL logo.

We were astonished. From that day advertising was never the same. The Bernbach revolution had started: simplicity, clarity and artistry; advertising that treated people with intelligence.

We all know the Doyle Dane Bernbach story. It created a standard of advertising that may never be surpassed. It was to last 30 years as a fashion - indefinitely as a culture. It was, and is, the Bauhaus of advertising. Although we no longer consciously refer to it daily, it will never go away. In fact, I predict we will return to it after the present cycle, incorporating the lessons we're learning now.

The second phase in creativity started as a result of necessity. Specifically the restrictions on cigarette advertising which meant that you couldn't show anything aspiring or elegant, you couldn't show people, you couldn't even show anything remotely healthy such as sky or scenery.

Collett Dickinson Pearce decided to turn this into an advantage and produced the Benson & Hedges campaign that no-one except its creator, Alan Waldie, could understand.

Before that, anything gratuitously arty was not considered advertising.

It was something those self-indulgent creative people did to amuse themselves. Until then, clients did not know the value of an image. They didn't understand it, it wasn't within their field of knowledge, so it was never considered.

After that, people began to see the value of an abstract idea and, until recently, anything which wasn't abstract wasn't easy to sell because clients didn't think it was modern.

The worst sin we could commit was to have an idea, because nobody knew and still doesn't know what a good idea is until it's been done, tested and proved. But good ideas rarely get that far.

I will say though, to give the company its due, that Procter & Gamble never succumbed to these arty notions. It managed to stay entrenched in the 50s.

But not now. Now everything is changing, even P&G. It is possible that now is the greatest moment ever in advertising.

The acceptance of creative thinking without having to go through a checklist of why it's wrong is in its infancy. We will see a lot more of it because it's becoming the cult among clients.

The movement is more than a passing moment. There is so much awareness of what's happening creatively in the world, that everyone is considering themselves creative. Clients certainly feel themselves to be creative. And I think they are already competing to be the most creative client.

What will happen soon is that anything which isn't wacky will become unacceptable, defeating the whole purpose of wackiness. We will be saturated with silliness. But long before that a new generation of bright people will be saying: "Enough of this silliness, let's be clean, simple and intelligent."

Until then let's appreciate and enjoy the moment.

Paul Arden, a former Saatchi & Saatchi executive creative director. He is now a director and founding partner of ArdenSutherland-Dodd

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