When I started in advertising, commercials were either 30 or 15 seconds long. Everyone liked writing 30s, but nobody liked doing 15s. You couldn't fit much in - 15s were a pain.
Then, in 1976, the rules changed.
Suddenly 15s changed to 20s, which was a much better length for us.
I never knew why it changed until recently.
To start with, you have to understand how the old system worked.
The UK was divided up into different commercial TV regions.
Programmes ran nationally, so these regions all had to have the same-length ad breaks.
Even though they often had different ads.
For instance, if the ad break was five minutes long, each station would have to fill the break with exactly five minutes of ads.
Obviously, their job was easier if the ads were all 30s because they fitted together more easily.
Putting a break together was like fitting all the pieces together in Tetris.
Awkward lengths like 15 seconds were a pain, so companies preferred to sell longer lengths.
Mike Yershon was head of media at Collett Dickenson Pearce.
Mike was a really creative person.
Among its clients, CDP had a single Reckitt & Colman brand, Supersoft.
It was worth about £200,000 (around £2.5m today).
But all Reckitt & Colman’s other brands were at a lot of other, bigger agencies.
And together they added up to £4.8m (more than £60m today).
Mike wanted to get the media buying for the entire lot.
And he found two numbers that proved the key to him doing just that.
The cost of a 15-second commercial was 70% the cost of a 30.
But in London, at Thames TV, the cost of a 60-second spot was 150% the cost of a 30.
That meant if Mike bought a 60-second spot and ran three 20-second ads in it, he’d get three 20-second spots for less than the cost of three 15-second ads.
Which meant he could give Reckitt & Colman 25% more media, at no extra cost.
Which would be like saving more than £1m (around £13m today).
And they’d be running 20-second ads instead of 15-second ones.
Of course, 20 seconds wasn’t the industry standard, but Thames TV didn’t care.
Because its job was easier if you bought longer-length ads.
What you put in it was up to you.
So Mike could run a 40 and a 20, or three 20s in that spot – whatever he wanted.
Mike was the only person in advertising to see this.
And Thames TV agreed to let him do it for Reckitt & Colman, so Mike and CDP won all its media-buying business.
Meanwhile, the rest of advertising was still stuck doing 15-second ads.
None of us knew why CDP could run 20-second spots while the rest of us had to run 15s.
The truth was, no-one else had the imagination Mike had.
Eventually, he presented the case to all the TV companies and everything changed.
Twenty-second spots became an industry standard.
At the time, I didn’t know all that – I just remember being glad to get rid of 15-second ads.
We could finally write a decent spot in 20 seconds, and advertising got better.
Creativity isn’t just about the creative department.
Real creativity can come from anywhere.
And that’s how a media guy improved advertising by thinking creatively. •
Dave Trott is the author of Creative Mischief, Predatory Thinking and One Plus One Equals Three.