Hold fast to the basic idea: advertising works
A view from Gideon Spanier

Hold fast to the basic idea: advertising works

M&C Saatchi's three co-founders, who are retiring, have made a big contribution over 50 years.

Jeremy Sinclair has been associated with two of the most famous agency slogans in advertising – “Nothing is impossible” and “Brutal simplicity of thought”.

The first was created by Saatchi & Saatchi, which Sinclair joined as a young creative in 1970 when Charles and Maurice Saatchi founded the agency, and where he stayed for 25 years.

The second was coined by M&C Saatchi, which Sinclair co-founded in 1995 and where he has remained for another 25 years, until the announcement last week that he is retiring as chairman, along with his two remaining co-founders Bill Muirhead and David Kershaw.

There is another Sinclair mantra that is less well known but has been a part of Saatchi folklore for decades: “Hold fast to the basic idea. Do not give in to the pressures of the moment.”

Sinclair wrote those words in large capital letters on a layout pad in 1992 when he was working on the Conservative Party's election campaign.

He was about to go on holiday and he left the note to remind Muirhead and other members of the team to keep their focus, even though Labour was ahead in the polls.

The Conservatives went on to win, thanks in part to a poster about “Labour’s tax bombshell” with an image of a bomb.

Sinclair’s determination – even stubborn insistence – to stay focused on the basic idea is part of the reason why he remained so dedicated to the Saatchi brand, as did Muirhead, who joined as an account man in 1972, and Kershaw, who arrived in 1982 and went on to be chief executive.

News of the trio’s long-expected retirement has been overshadowed by accounting errors, which led to a collapse in M&C Saatchi’s share price in August 2019 and a boardroom split with Maurice Saatchi.

The accounts have still not been signed off 15 months later.

Yet mistakes over lax auditing methods should not detract from the contribution that Sinclair, Muirhead and Kershaw have made to the British ad industry over half a century.

Some doubters will say that the trio represents a bygone era and stayed in charge for too long.

But their love for advertising in all its swashbuckling glory was evident in a joint interview that they gave to Campaign in September to mark the double whammy of anniversaries for M&C Saatchi and Saatchi & Saatchi.

They held fast to a basic idea for 50 years: the power of advertising to create ideas and communicate and entertain, to build brands and shape culture, to sell things and improve health, to change behaviour and get politicians elected and, even, to change the world.

A fundamental belief in the importance of advertising is why all of us should be optimistic at this critical moment – despite the pandemic’s continued toll on health and wealth and the ad industry’s own flaws and periodic bouts of self-doubt.

Even in recent weeks and months, during a second wave of coronavirus infections and new lockdown measures, we have seen how advertising matters.

Sainsbury’s and Tesco have both recruited more diverse characters for their Christmas ad campaigns in the wake of the Black Lives Matter movement in the summer.

It says a lot that one of the Sainsbury’s spots, “Gravy Song”, which featured a black family, has provoked a slew of racist comments.

“As advertisers, our voices are loud,” Rachel Eyre, group head of brand communications and creative at Sainsbury’s says, writing on LinkedIn. “Please use them well.”

ITV found its voice in September, supporting dance group Diversity in a striking print ad that declared “We stand with Diversity”, after complaints about a Black Lives Matter-themed performance on Britain’s Got Talent were rejected by regulator Ofcom.

Other brands have been producing memorable work on the local and global stage – from TK Maxx’s festive ad starring a sassy goat to Sony’s global launch for Playstation 5 in 25 out-of-home locations, including a takeover of Oxford Circus Tube station.

It is proof that the constraints caused by Covid-19 have not killed creativity. If anything, they have spurred on advertising and marketing folk to be clever and canny.

So much of the narrative about big agency groups and traditional media owners in recent years, both before and during the pandemic, has been about their structural challenges and lacklustre revenues.

But advertising itself has been an engine for tremendous growth in the digital economy.

It is why tech companies keep investing in their brands – as well as customer experience, data, ecommerce and other marketing capabilities.

Airbnb has just published its stock market prospectus ahead of its planned flotation that shows it increased annual spend on “brand and performance marketing” by more than 70% to $1.14bn (£860m) last year.

That has propelled the loss-making online holiday rentals company to an estimated $30bn valuation, only 12 years after it was founded in 2008.

Airbnb has slashed marketing spend by 65% in the first nine months of 2020 but is betting on a rebound in travel when coronavirus is brought under control.

As this pandemic year draws to an end with the hope of several vaccines, we should remember: hold fast to the basic idea. Do not give in to the pressures of the moment. Advertising works.

Gideon Spanier is UK editor-in-chief of Campaign