Things ain't what they used to be. Never have been, really. But Phil Horton, BMW's marketing director, who owned up last week to having a degree in history, has a longer memory than most - and he can recall a time when the commercials were the best things on telly. It was a time when Leonard Rossiter spilled Cinzano down Joan Collins' cleavage with gay abandon, Fiat Stradas were hand-built by robots, Hamlet was a Gregor Fisher comb-over in a photo booth and PG Tips was knocked out to us by a bunch of monkeys.
And now? Wallpaper, just wallpaper. Horton was addressing last week's TV industry conference in Bath. At a time when advertisers and their agencies are often quick to point a finger at the big TV networks, accusing them of poor programming and insipid scheduling, it may, he suggested, be time to look rather closer to home. Those self-same advertisers and agencies should perhaps examine their own performance too.
"Is it just me," Horton pondered, "or has the general standard of TV advertising in this country declined in parallel - or should that be sympathy - with the declining audience share of ITV? Does anyone else think the two might be linked? Certainly, those halcyon days of viewers allegedly preferring the ads to the programmes are long gone. In the UK, we've always claimed smugly to have the best advertising in the world. But how much are we, the advertisers and our agencies, responsible for low ad attention, zapping and wallpaper breaks?"
But he wasn't beating up on ad agencies alone. "We all share some of the blame for the limbo that commercial TV finds itself in. We all need to invest more time, more intellect, more creative energy and, yes, more money into our product - whether programmes or the ads themselves."
Is Horton right? Tony Davidson, the creative director of Wieden & Kennedy London, says that part of the problem is that agencies are under all sorts of new pressures. He states: "Some of it is about technology - clients expect things twice as quickly as they did before and they don't give their agencies time to breathe. More agencies are really drained now.
There are fewer agencies around these days and those agencies employ fewer people. They are all working too hard. Clients don't always appreciate that - though we are particularly lucky with Honda, which listens and believes and trusts. Margins, though, are not what they were and if you're a high-end agency with raw creativity then it's hard to make money. I know this is an old issue but if clients want creativity then we will all have to find new ways of valuing it."
Davidson also points to all sorts of structural issues that make things more difficult these days. The media proliferation and fragmentation that means ads are everywhere, even petrol pumps, tends to flatten the impact that any advertising can have. We've all got advertising fatigue these days, he reckons. And a mainstream audience - the sort of broad church that classic 70s ads were made to entertain - doesn't really exist any more. To state the obvious, an audience segment that watches, say, mainly Sky Sports has to be reached with commercials that make sense in the context of Sky Sports. That changes the nature of the game.
But in the end, Davidson muses, maybe that's not a good enough excuse.
"If you have a great idea, it will take on the world and it's still possible to make great commercials, just as if you make a great movie people will still come to the cinema to watch it. In a sense, it's as it always was," he says.
Some in the television industry will agree with the stuff about the new pressures in the industry. Consolidation in the ad market is all about cost savings and cost saving is often about cutting corners, they point out. Others disagree - and, indeed, there were conference speakers who argued that we shouldn't lose sight of the power of television as an advertising medium.
Graham Duff, the chief executive of Granada Enterprises, says it's not possible to say whether creative standards have changed. "I don't believe that ads have either got worse or better over the past, say, ten years," he says. "What you can say is that a powerful ad, like a powerful programme, will work better. That's common sense. We are doing what we can to help - we have a cleaner look on screen and have limited the amount of time we have at the end of programmes by squeezing the credits. We recognise the need for people to be entertained and clearly there's no advantage to anyone to have ads that aren't watched. In these days when there are so many more distractions and reasons for not staying with the break, it is clear that tidier breaks and more engaging creative work will deliver."
Surprisingly, only two creative agencies attended (as opposed to spoke at) the conference in Bath. Gwyn Jones, the managing director of Bartle Bogle Hegarty, represented one of them. He points out that Horton was highlighting the importance of quality in both the programmes and the ads that run in them. He comments: "The quality of the whole TV environment is important but we have to put our own house in order. There is always scope to improve the product, whatever the product is. We have a duty to make advertising that is at least as engaging as the programming it's in. Some part of the explanation is that for many advertisers, television is what they know best so they may be putting more effort into other things that are new and different. Perhaps they've not been focusing on making television work as hard as it can. There is an opportunity here."
But, he adds, there's a danger that the industry is just beating up on itself and is being overly self-critical. "We often forget how powerful television actually is. Our view is that more isn't necessarily better and that creativity is the answer. We think we do a pretty good job of that," he says.
Martin Bowley, the chief executive of Carlton Sales, tends to agree: "There is a multiplicity now of commercial channels and an increase in the number of clients using TV who historically wouldn't have used it - the debt-management companies, for instance. It is an effective medium for them but for some people it may not be as attractive on screen as a beautifully produced ad. On the other hand, if you watch prime time you will see some stunning campaigns there and if you have any doubts about creative standards you should get the BTAA winners DVD. In the end, people tune in to watch stunning programmes but it's undoubtedly true that stunning ads in stunning programmes helps the whole feel of a channel.
If I were being mischievous I'd ask Phil Horton if he's really pining for the hallowed days of Shake'n'Vac."