Let’s stop being guardians and start being hit makers
A view from Gen Kobayashi

Let’s stop being guardians and start being hit makers

Showmanship should be advertising’s guiding principle.

Recently I was lucky enough to have been invited by Campaign to interview Planning legend Paul Feldwick about his new book, Why Does the Pedlar Sing? I’ve long been a fan of Feldwick’s work so jumped at the chance. 

His latest book makes the case that advertising is at its most effective when it entertains and creates fame for brands. Advertising, in Feldwick’s mind, should be entertaining and populist at its heart. He calls this the “showmanship theory of advertising” and the book delves into the notion of brand fame and likens this to the cult of celebrity.

Like celebrities, he argues, successful brands are those that have the ability to capture the hearts and minds of the general public over time and it is advertising’s role to help catapult brands to this fame through entertainment. Advertising, according to Feldwick, should be seen as showmanship, not salesmanship.

Thanks to the work of Les Binet, Peter Field and the IPA, we’ve long known that entertaining advertising with the objective of driving fame has proven to be one of the most effective in generating profitable returns for brands. There is empirical proof that Feldwick’s showmanship theory pays back. 

But as an industry we’ve never seemed comfortable with this theory. Feldwick traces this reluctance back to the early 1900s when the advertising industry wanted to shrug off its historic links to that of carnival and medicine shows of the 1700s. Mountebacks travelling from town to town entertaining people with carnivals were not seen as “respectable”. So, the industry had to distance itself from its entertainment-driven past to be accepted by big business.

This need for acceptance still rings true today. We are an industry that seems to have been in a perpetual cycle of introspection and reinvention. Should we be more like Big Tech? Should we be more like the consultants? Should we be more like social change agents?

During this cycle of soul searching, we’ve taken our eyes off the ball and found ourselves in a place where the advertising we’re producing is becoming liked less by the people we’re meant to be selling to. The latest research from Kantar states 89% of the British public dislike or don’t care about the advertising they see today. When the vast majority of Brits are turned off by what we produce, alarm bells need to be ringing.

We have an urgent need for advertising to return to its roots in populist entertainment. As Feldwick said during our interview, “advertising should be more Mrs Brown’s Boys and less Fleabag”. This wasn’t a point about the qualities of Mrs Brown's Boys, it was a wake-up call to the industry to stop playing to its niche circles of friends and start playing to the gallery. 

In Derek Thompson’s book, The Hitmakers, he scientifically dissects what makes a number one smash hit. I believe the rules and principles of how art is perceived and consumed by the public could really help us in the world of commercial arts if we are to truly embrace the showmanship theory.

That means principles like MAYA (most advanced yet acceptable), which speaks to the truth that most people don’t want entirely new, they like things that feel familiar but are pushed to new spaces. Or the principle of repetition, where some of the most popular songs, speeches and poetry all have structured repetition and what he calls “musical language” – or what we’d call an earworm. 

None of these principles are new in isolation, but we aren’t applying this thinking to the output of our commercial product enough. You only have to read Orlando Wood’s brilliant book Lemon to see the increasing dominance of “left brain” advertising in the UK that doesn’t emotionally connect with its viewer in the same way that “right brain” ads do.

We should learn from Feldwick’s showmanship theory. But I doubt this will happen overnight as it will be counterintuitive to many people. It’s easy and comforting to be wedded to models, frameworks, traffic light systems etc. These are all artefacts from the world of business that help let us rationalise choices that we can sell to the board. But so much of the value we create for brands is in the chaos and unpredictability of entertainment which is counter to the predictability of business.

There is nothing predictable about a talking meerkat that sells insurance or Ant & Dec selling mortgages on behalf of a bank. But it works because it entertains.

If we really want to embrace showmanship theory, we need to start reframing what we’re in the business of doing. Talking less of agencies as brand “guardians” and talking more of brand “hit makers”. The most successful brands are by very nature “popular”, so let’s judge ourselves not on the number of Lions won but the number of people recounting our work in the pub. Let’s stop borrowing from marketing culture and start borrowing from Saturday night primetime entertainment culture. Being empowered and encouraged to approach every piece of work as a number one hit. That would be a start.

Gen Kobayashi is chief strategy officer at Engine Creative