Jeremy Lee recently delivered one of his entertainingly pugnacious columns, entitled "Wit, edge and subversion are being replaced by nebulous brand purpose". As a headline, it’s perhaps not up there with "Elton takes David up the aisle" or "Mad Müller – hate preacher goes shopping for yoghurt". But it was typically pungent and, as ever, straight to the point. The image used to illustrate his article was a still from a very old Tango ad I was responsible for back in my HHCL days, concerning a sextet of ginger middle-aged men in golfing outfits terrorising a pre-Los Angeles James Corden by repeating every word he said back at him through plastic megaphones.
I vividly remember reading the script out to the client for the first time. Richard Huntington – who was the planner on this particular project – and I were literally crying with laughter at our own jokes. Terrible habit, that, but we were breathless with it. I kept having to stop to get a good grip on myself and start all over again. We were all hysterical.
Well, I say all.
The client didn’t even crack a smile. Not a flicker. It was like presenting to one of those creepy Easter Island heads – but a lot smaller and wearing an awkwardly fitting C&A grey suit. It didn’t faze us in the slightest, this blank-faced response to our hilarious japes. We just grinned like buffoons into the silence, and waited for the verdict.
"OK," our grim-faced client said. "OK."
He sighed. "I guess we should make that one, then."
The clients we had at HHCL weren’t wacky or subversive or fools. They were ambitious, level-headed marketing people charged with using advertising to sell their services and products as efficiently and effectively as possible. They – and we – believed that brand advertising was a waste of money, and that every piece of communications we created together had to sell like shit off a shovel. The Tango megaphone ad I’ve been biffing on about was, in fact, a DRTV spot with a dirty great telephone number written all over it. No hidden persuasion going on here: hard sell and unashamedly so.
But our clients did encourage us to conceptually run riot. We were charged to be creatively noisy by any means necessary. However irresponsible and bewildering some of HHCL’s work may have been regarded by the advertising industry at large, our agency fundamentally believed that the most irresponsible thing we could do was to piss away our client’s hard-earned money on work that nobody noticed. It wasn’t brave, it was just good business.
Fast-forward 15 years, and the current marketing norm is to put flesh on the brittle bones of these "nebulous brand purposes" that Lee takes objection to. Nothing wrong with doing some good in the world – indeed, one of the saltier campaigns HHCL ever came up with was some extraordinarily prescient work for Fuji Film that tackled issues of race and disability in a way that was deemed unappetising at the time. But surely the current stiff-necked, self-righteous piety of the vast majority of our industry’s overly fêted work is becoming a little bit repetitive?
I sat through literally thousands of heavy-handed case study films while on a jury at Cannes earlier this year, and by day three I wanted to blind myself with my own genitals in order to escape the soul-crushing horror of yet another tear-jerking celebration of the world-changing effect of a small activation idea for an unknown Scandinavian brand of peanut/bicycle tyre/haemorrhoid cream. It was incredibly depressing.
In a world where rapid-fire daily innovation genuinely allows us the opportunity to experiment and take risks without the terrifying investment of spending millions of bucks on traditional broadcast media, it saddens me that we are increasingly fettered by the innate conservatism and follow-the-awards ovine behaviour of our own industry. It’s deemed far less risky to act like a saint than an idiot, far less chance of an awkward, difficult silence greeting your carefully crafted concept if it is intended to pluck the world’s heartstrings rather than fuck with your head.
I am not by nature the most nostalgic of old ad wankers – if you saw how modern my sneakers were, it would genuinely take your breath away – but sadly I do increasingly find myself yearning for the creative abandon of my overweight, underpaid, wonderfully misspent advertising youth.
Jonathan Burley is the chief creative officer of Y&R London