Framestore: NYLon

Much of the everyday business of commercials now spans the Atlantic. Peter York takes a look at two advertising industries united by commerce and divided by culture.

"You learn," John Hegarty says, "not to use the word 'creative'. Creative means edgy advertising in the US, and that's not good."

British admen learn fast in the US. They learn that advertising's an altogether different game, not just a bigger one - actually not a game at all, nor a branch of arts and entertainment, but a business, almost as mainstream as, for example, accountancy.

If they stay, it's because the trade-off between British culture-shock at the priorities of US advertising and the chances of learning and earning works for them. They become proselytisers for the sheer scale and professionalism of US advertising, its focus on the client and his returns, its lesser interest in the consumer and doing original clever-dick work. They start implying that English advertising's rather up itself. They become like Tom Wolfe's mid-60s advertising character, mid-Atlantic man.

You could blame the Saatchis, with their arty and political associations, or the US's Christian fundamentalists. You could blame Lord Reith and the public service broadcasting ethic, or Samuel Smiles, or any of hundreds of American business self-help books with their culture of relentless optimism and self-improvement. You could blame a thousand things for the fact that British and US advertising cultures - and their output - are wildly different.

It's not getting any closer either. In the early 90s, big thinkers predicted we'd practically converge as transatlantic cross-ownership of agencies increased and those irritating independents and start-ups looked as if they were disappearing from the picture here.

It never happened.

British agencies, giant and medium-sized, independent and globally owned, have two things in common: They are honour-bound to believe in that difficult, dirty word "creativity" and - let's take this one straight on - if they matter, they're in London.

Not in the British equivalent of LA or Portland, Oregon or Miami. This means they're part of a metropolitan club. They're in Groucho-land, the Soho House catchment area. They play together. You can see all this difference in the ads for Bounty, P&G's paper kitchen towel brand. It's such a modest, low-interest FMCG category; so utilitarian, serving such a global need, you'd think they could run something American worldwide. But they don't.

One US campaign was based around a cartoon muscle man, and stuffed with product pointers. The British version is men in frocks. Hairy panto trannies.

Sure, there are comparative product points, but the whole thing's played for low-camp laughs. You can blame our entertainment tradition for that.

Brits love men in frocks.

The 2004 American election, and George W Bush in particular, has focused us on the differences between Americans and their overall difference from us. We're starting to hear more about the fault lines in American society and their version of Two Nations. Right Nation by two US-based British journalists from The Economist - John Micklethwait and Adrian Wooldridge - talks about the other America, the one you have to live and work there to see, the one you have to be mass-market facing to understand. This other America, they say, is very different from the one we chattering-class, marketing-services types see when we're visiting the US and talking to friends. We tend to meet like-minded people in the North East, particularly New York, or on the West Coast. People with jobs like ours. And passports.

People who are Anglican or Catholic or Jewish by background, but aren't that observant. People who are Republican or Democrat voters (probably more the latter), but pretty centrist and not that political. A lot of our friends in the creative industries will tend to be what Richard Brooks famously called Bobos - Bourgeois Bohemians - in his satirical profile of the latte-loving, trend-chasing, dressed-down New Ruling Class.

But the other Americans are the kind who regard Bobos with profound suspicion as an almost un-American activity - almost certainly too liberal in their social values. This hidden America, which mass-advertisers and their agencies have to know, is profoundly conservative, consensus-driven, religiously observant, positive and optimistic. For better or worse, it isn't troubled collectively by Old-European style doubt and cynicism. It doesn't think irony's the high point of civilisation. This other America believes in the Nation, the Presidency and the Flag, in the family, good manners and a whole host of American institutions. And, on the most conservative estimates, the population of this other America is at least twice the size of the entire UK. And it's active and vocal. There's the religious right, of course, but also Mothers for This and Families for That, who put instant pressure on advertisers, media owners and agencies about anything they don't like.

The American media is hugely different too. The UK has the most centralised media in the world (and let's face it again, only London really matters here) with a choice of national dailies and Sundays for every market sector, with a terrestrial broadcasting TV system dominated by an advertising-free public service broadcaster, whose culture impacts on every other UK and radio broadcaster in the country. From here, it's difficult to imagine a world of parochial-looking American town and city newspapers - paid-for and freesheets - with only the weedy US News and World Report as a "national" and a few big city papers, The New York Times in particular, remotely focused on foreign news and sophisticated metropolitan stuff.

And the TV - the curious old networks and their local affiliates with their entertainment-based schedules and constant commercials. And the multi-channel offer with its weird and wonderful religious strands and hypo-chondria channels, and the infomercial stations that play the story of the wonder pill or the driveway powerhose all day long on a loop. American media, like a storefront church or a half-covered salesman's wagon in Main Street 1880, is built to sell, balls out, all day long, without the remotest embarrassment.

US TV viewers may not particularly like the constant advertising but they understand what it's for and don't demand it tiptoes round them pretending to be contemporary art or Channel 4 comedy.

Viewed from the US, British advertising looks like something bent out of shape - its proper, practical, use-every-trick-in-the-persuasive-book shape - by a culture so consumed with embarrassment that it can't look a salesman in the eye when he's making a pitch, particularly if that pitch is laden shoulder-high with emotion - love of country, family or God.

It had to be an Englishman who said patriotism was the last refuge of scoundrels. From a mainstream US perspective, there's not that much difference between a quirky, elliptical leave-them-guessing bit of UK adland humour circa 2004 and that pair of joke gents, Cecil and Claude, who couldn't move an inch for constantly saying: "After you." It's kind of charming, but kind of unworkable too in the US, with its fragmented audiences and ethnicities, its raging sensitivities and, above all, its huge risks.

US advertising is risk-averse because there's so much at stake with those huge clients and their meta-spends. It means everything is researched to death, link-tested and tracked so all backs are covered. "It amazed me," Judie Lannon, a market analyst, who left the US to work at JWT London more than 20 years ago, says, "that agencies were prepared to let young people say something - unresearched, either crap or marvellous. In the US, it all gets filtered."

"In the US, you have more time and money for research than here. Lots more. Global companies want to pre-test and cover themselves," Robin Lauffer, an American planner working at Euro RSCG in London, adds. She says it's driven by US clients. "In the UK, you only do post-testing if clients ask for it." Michael Lee, a British planner working for the same agency in New York, says: "The way they use research here is very different. Research is used to actually make a decision; it's a scientific test, not just a bit of 'learning'."

All this means the style and culture of agencies - and particularly the giant Madison Avenue houses -is very different. There's scale for a start.

A major company such as O&M will have 3,000-plus people in New York. That's the point where the whole thing has to be run in a very grown-up way, where titles such as vice-president of whatever, proliferate and where the suits dress very sensibly indeed. It's more ... businesslike.

And everything seems older. "It's younger here than in the US," Lauffer says, "and it's much more social." The big US agencies have senior statesmen who are practically Blake Carrington, where, as we know, in London agencies the over- 50s are quietly defenestrated.

In these giant agencies (and, of course, there are smaller agencies, tiny ones with a mere 200 people and different, more self-consciously creative cultures and dress-codes, such as the West Coast ones where they wear shorts to meetings, but the giants set the tone for the industry) in these giant agencies, things work differently. The client is God for a start. You work with him, you get to know the business and you give good meeting. Meetings at which consensus is reached to an almost Japanese degree. It is, so all my spies tell me, very process- driven. Despite the American self-perception of absolute directness, intensive interrogation, diva-style posturing and anything else disturbing aren't welcome at those meetings.

In the US, creatives are mostly house-trained and present their own work.

In Britain, while everything, but everything, is secondary to the work, its authors, 32 going on ten, are often considered too difficult to talk about it to grown-ups. They have to be represented by the suits.

And the work, oh, the work. I have to admit to a mean-spirited little British pleasure. When I'm in the piss-elegant glories of a US provincial city's best-hotel-in-town at some corporate- bonding hooley, (actually, rather intimidated by the scale, drive and old-time religion of the thing), I'll channel hop the TV into the middle of night, looking for the kitschiest, klutziest, krankiest programming and advertising. To a British eye, a lot of US advertising still looks and sounds astonishingly familiar - even 70s-ish - and formulaic. And a lot still appeals to the heart in a way that has you feeling, like Oscar Wilde on the death of Little Nell, that you'd have to have a heart of stone not to laugh: why do US ads practically say "my fellow Americans" - "America's favourite breakfast", "American - built to last" and so forth, when it's perfectly obvious whom they're addressing?

There are those hair and beauty commercials with their perfect hair arcs executed in slo-mo; the otherworldly, latterday Cindy Crawford models; the "here comes the science" interludes with a bit of uninspired computer graphics so different from the Kate Moss campaign for Rimmel. And the car ads, with, say, father and son off fishing, with the gravy-dark voice of a superannuated American Patrick Allen. It makes you wonder whether an Ur-English campaign such as Lynx or Pot Noodle would ever be run there.

All this, I have to admit, is sheer delight, the same guilty pleasure I used to get in the New York super clubs in the 80s noticing how the playlist and the clothes were actually a year behind London.

But, as the strategy king Mark Earls of O&M here says: "There's very little in US national big client advertising that isn't professional and understandable, and the best work easily ranks with the best UK work."

Contrast a Quiet Night In in Britain. Every kind of advertiser - you really can't predict by sector - is throwing at you practically the contents of Tate Modern, the Loaded Guide to Laddism, the Stephen Fry Compendium of Ironic Whimsy or the entire SFX box of tricks . There are commercials you can't identify by client after five or more viewings, and ones whose precise rationale will have the high table arguing all night.

Steve Le Neveu, a gone-native Brit working in Publicis in Seattle, says working in America has been about "having to let go of big words - say what you mean and mean what you say. There's an affected anti-intellectualism here; people used to pretend they didn't know what I meant. The bad side of the output is that they put in everything but the kitchen sink - 12 selling points - but the good thing is that no viewer ever says: 'What does that mean?'"

Andy Bateman, now returned to Publicis in London after seven years in the US, says: "British humour, the whole British psyche, is rooted in cynicism; that's a problem in a country where everything's positive. It's natural to talk things up in America."

This contrast has a curious effect on the status of advertising and advertising people in life's great listing game. In Britain, advertising and its people are socially smart in the wider world in direct ratio to their distance from selling and their resemblance to the arts and entertainment. The smart agencies - they know who they are - are full-on creative. And advertising people definitely take their place in the great world. The Saatchi brothers took a unique position in the 80s, one that made their agency part of The Establishment. They had the gravitas of politics (the Thatcher connection) and the smartness of contemporary art (The Collection). The brothers apart, John Hegarty, Trevor Beattie, Lord Bell and Robin Wight, to name a few, all belong on a big stage, pop up regularly on TV and sit on Good and Great committees.

But, in strictly business terms, UK advertising's status is deeply equivocal.

In lots of cases, it doesn't get a look in at the client board level and it's well below the salt in graduates' career choices after the City, consulting and new technology. In America, advertising isn't that glamorous - they've got Hollywood after all - and its practitioners tend not to be so famous individually. But they make millions and it's a consistently acceptable career choice for a decent MBA graduate who thinks creativity is something best left to window-dressers.