My first ad

Planners remember the first time they gathered their data, and braved the creatives to see if they had any effect on what came out the other end.


I was 30 before I worked in an advertising agency. My assured impersonation of a planner at interview had somehow convinced the agency chiefs to hire me. Two weeks in, the account-handling supremo Adrian Simons asked me to write a brief for a campaign for the Sci Fi Channel. This is it, I thought.

Generating rich insights, crafting finely honed propositions, spurring creative teams to new heights - these were things I'd never done before. The creative briefing section from How To Plan Advertising made it seem effortless, but didn't actually explain how to fill the empty boxes on the brief in front of me.

No fear. The briefing itself is where you earn your money. I envisaged the white heat of ideas and ambition zinging between me, Pete Hardy and Richard Evans - a talented creative duo not known for their charitable, jovial or forgiving nature. Surely they'd recognise the value I was adding?

My recital of the brief was met with a silence worthy of a Wild West saloon bar. The silence was not borne of admiration. There were no questions except a gruff: "When do you need this by?

Sensibly, they ignored my brief and produced entertaining posters. They were immediately approved by the client and went on to win awards at Campaign Press and Poster. I'd hesitate to call these ads in any way mine, but I was certainly in the vicinity when they were developed.


Claiming ads is difficult for us planners. We know they're not really ours. They belong to the creatives who are able to magic an idea out of our brief so that it connects with consumers.

My first ad was all about the magic (it's a good job this column is not called "My Second Ad" as that's not such a wonderful story.)

It was a problem political parties had been wrestling with for decades: "How do we get young people to vote?"

It's so easy to sound too worthy, or worse, look like your mum trying to dance to the Scissor Sisters. (Oh my God, I am that mum).

But I hadn't reckoned on the creative force that was Richard Flintham and Andy Mcleod. I lucked out on them being interested enough in the problem to want to work on the solution.

The result was the "Use your vote" campaign for the Ministry of Sound, and it was my first experience of that phenomenon they call "the creative leap".

The campaign very simply, but shockingly, redefined the value of a vote for our audience and it was my introduction to the concept of big ideas (we just didn't call them that then).

The industry talks about the concept of a "media budget of zero", but we actually experienced it, and we didn't have the luxury of YouTube to make it a non problem.

My proudest moment was not in crafting the perfect proposition, it was in securing free cinema space and money for the bulks so that the idea could get airtime.

The funny thing is, when you put the effort in, creatives will generously allow you to claim a bit of the glory.

Yes, even if you're a planner.


It was near to closing time at The Ship and my first day in advertising. I was drunk on anticipation and Indian Pale Ale. Communal agency singing had kicked in at 9.00pm (Matt Monro, natch) and a baby-faced blond bloke was explaining to me the utter pointlessness of planning.

I had arrived at Madell Wilmott Pringle from the much gentler world of market research, where colleagues discussed post-structuralism over Earl Grey and Digestives.

It was something of a shock.

The next day, I was introduced more formally to the baby-faced blond. It turned out he was to be my first creative director.

"Hi Steve, I'm your new planner."

I was also introduced to my first campaign. It was for Three Barrels Brandy. Through the dark arts of planning, John Madell had established an opportunity to position Three Barrels as the definitive mixing brandy. This was Courvoisier's blind spot, apparently ...

A pretty compelling argument, I thought, as I leant over the resultant double-page spreads on the creative department work-bench. Aspirational young folk in aspirational settings having witty dialogue about mixing. Mmm.

"It's kind of aspirational," I said. "Yes, not so much funny as inducing a wry smile." And then we inspected the tracking data, which suggested an elegant plateau of awareness before, during and after the advertising.

My first flatliner. I felt slightly nauseous.

"And you may ask yourself: 'How did I get here?'

"And you may tell yourself. This is not my beautiful job ... My God, what have I done?'"

I sought out Madell for counsel. "It looks like no-one at all has noticed the advertising."

But he seemed unflustered and explained to me that advertising's first role is to "keep the plane in the air".

"Put a Bunsen under the branding and you'll be OK."


If truth be told, this wasn't the first ad I was ever associated with (that was for a now-defunct department store called Allders), but this was my first ad as a planner. And it's for the almost defunct dog food Winalot.

While this might not have been the most glamorous start to a planning career, it was a wonderful campaign to cut my teeth on.

For a start, there was plenty of the boring, but important stuff. I had reams of IRI data, a fresh U&A study and decades of Millward Brown tracking to keep me occupied. However, there were a lot of distractions from these, the principle one being my boss at the time, Raoul de la Bedoyere. Great name, great brain, great man in my view. Our discussions were rarely about work directly and more usually about wars, motorbikes and friends of his with strange sexual peccadilloes, but somehow we'd lurch towards a cogent argument regarding the dog food.

In this case, that argument was based upon the need to link the Winalot brand to real dogs and real owners, rather than Crufts and the "top-breeders" that Pedigree used. We then had to get to understand real families and their dogs, and set about using the sort of ethnographic research that is still not that commonplace, even today.

The result was a fairly charming ad built around a genuine user insight into their tendency to anthropomorphise their pets. Unfortunately, it was all finished off with one of the worst endlines ever: "Live a lot, wag a lot, Winalot." Vintage Bates ... now defunct.


My first meaningful ad was for Malibu in 1993, a tactical summer radio brief, and, to me, it was the biggest opportunity ever. Bright-eyed, bushy-tailed and still very wet behind the ears, I began mapping all things Caribbean.

Some brands, it seemed, lived in a world of clean-cut Kuoni escapism alongside Tom Cruise in Cocktail, where others, like Cockspur, dwelled in a darker voodoo-meets-Angel Heart space. To make Malibu more credible, it needed more Caribbean provenance, but it's a light alcohol so we couldn't push it too far. It needed a voice that was real, yet sunny, the soul, if you like, of the Caribbean.

Armed with said film clips, way more enthusiasm than most radio briefs muster and a not-so-snappy proposition that went something like "add some Caribbean soul to your summer", I talked it through with the copywriter, Paul Burke. His idea was simple; that whatever was happening on the outside you could still feel sunny on the inside. I couldn't have been more delighted with the campaign, a series of beautiful poems co-written and read in rich lilting tones by Benjamin Zephaniah, wistfully commenting on the vagaries of the British summer (from Wimbledon to the weather) concluding with the line: "The sun always shines when it pours." A simple brief, but to me it felt like the first time I'd really made a difference.


About 1976, L'Oreal briefed us for a relaunch of Ambre Solaire, which at that time was the leading sun product in the UK, but facing a sharp challenge from a new brand called Bergasol that promised you would go brown faster. (Yes, attitudes to tanning and the sun have changed a bit since then.)

The client wanted us to tell a very scientific story about a new filter that screened out UVAs as well as UVBs, or instead of UVBs, or the other way round - whichever it was, it was quite clear in group discussions that no-one was remotely interested. When people talked about sun-tanning, it was all about memories of Mediterranean holidays, and the unique smell that Ambre Solaire left on your clothes for years afterwards, and (not too subtly) sex.

So this was the classic stand-off between the client's belief in selling through functionality, and the reality that people were buying a dream. It could have been a disaster, but was resolved (as most of our problems were in those days) by the genius of John Webster, who neatly translated "new filter" into a promise of "staying in the sun longer", and used that to structure a film that had wit, style, sex and a great song.

Luckily we didn't have to force it through a quant pre-test that asked how many people knew their UVAs from their UVBs - we did groups in which it was clear we were pressing all the right emotional buttons. Innocent times. Ambre Solaire doesn't smell like it used to either.


At 23, the world was at my feet when I was recruited as a planner into HK McCann from Coca-Cola. I'd worked for Jim Hytner, presented to Roberto Goizueta and had conducted Coke's largest youth study.

This knowledge of youth and soft drinks was soon put to excellent use in my first agency planning role - on WD-40.

I spent hours locked in a dark room with piles of historical GFK U&A data to find a perspective on what our ad should say.

With my rudimentary planning competencies, I could see WD-40 was ubiquitous in households, but was a limited-use product of the shed, rather than of the house. This led to the "moving out of the shed and into the kitchen" strategy.

It was executed by Stuart Cooper, with a six-sheet campaign. Our chief executive, the late Mark Gault, told me I'd done a good job. I proudly told my Mum.

Thinking back, WD-40 was a good grounding in what Paul Feldwick would call "enchantment of the ordinary" - getting excited about everyday products that may not have the glamour of the world's top brand. To this day I still drink proudly from my WD-40 mug, which carries the inimitable line "Protects, penetrates, helps keep friends".


If I said "William and Tinky", or "Ann Kettlewell", you'd probably be none the wiser about my first ad. If I added: "In tests, eight out of ten ..."

Ah, the days of memorable endlines. Yes, it was a Whiskas testimonial, starring the aforementioned felines and their Lady Di lookalike owner.

The year was 1990, I was a graduate trainee at D'Arcy Masius Benton & Bowles, based in the gorgeous St James's Square, and I thought I had well and truly arrived. I soon found out that having "arrived" meant endless days in concrete shopping centres approaching strange women.

My trusty cameraman and I travelled the length and breadth of the land like some sort of desperate X-Factor duo, searching for the ultimate Whiskas devotee.

I remember the women who wouldn't stop talking, I remember the women who wouldn't stop, and I remember the junkie in Bath who punched the cameraman. That was the low point.

But some 17 years later, I can see the merits. I'm fed up with arms-length planning done from a desk, with the web as the supposed window on the world and blogs as gospels.

We need to get out there and mix it. If you're not interested in people, then you have no business in this business.

My Whiskas experience also reminds me that good planners can get interested in anything. I confess that I'm a dog person, but even I got into the anthropomorphic owner/cat relationship and why cats shouldn't drink normal milk.

Of course, getting interested in a client's business is made somewhat easier when you have a graduate trainee's crush on the client. I'm sure Martin Glenn never knew, but he certainly made cat food sexy.


It's different for planners. When creatives wrote about their first ad in Campaign a couple of months ago, they all seemed to do one the moment they walked into their first job at their first agency. Trevor Beattie was "put straight to work on the Weetabix pitch". Peter Souter "assumed that this was what happened with your first ad" when it won awards. Dave Trott "wrote most of the lyrics" for a Unigate commercial. That's fine; they're creatives; that's what they're supposed to do.

But what are planners supposed to do in their first job at their first agency?

I wasn't allowed anywhere near the creatives at Benton & Bowles. Just as well, since I had nothing useful to say to them.

So I sat there in my office with no windows and learned how to analyse markets, do groups, commission tracking studies and read sales reports; what brands are and how advertising works.

When I left to join a creative agency - Gold Greenlees Trott - I took all this learning with me. And I applied it to creativity for the first time. GGT was on fire. But I always seemed to be working on the inherited campaigns such as London Docklands and Foster's, rather than the new ones such as Toshiba and Mazda.

It took me about seven years in the business before I planned my own first proper ad, from scratch. I think it was "crosstown traffic" for Wrangler at Simons Palmer. But I could be wrong. It probably wasn't like that at all. But it makes a better story this way. And a better point that planners should develop their research and analytical skills before they start hanging out with the creatives. Anyway, a good planner has never been afraid of a little bit of post-rationalisation.