OPINION: Mills on ... Halifax

I realise this might make me more unpopular in adland than a management accountant in a creative department, but let me declare my hand: I am the number one fan of the Halifax advertising campaign. Perhaps only Howard, who seems to be a bit smug these days, runs me close.

Colleagues, principally Caroline Marshall, think I'm either being deliberately perverse or I've lost my marbles. They think it's the modern-day equivalent of Shake'n' Vac. I think she's not mixing with enough real people.

Real people love the Halifax ads because they're engaging, uplifting, witty and entertaining. It's sit-forward TV. In its contemporisation of the amateur music hall tradition, the campaign is very British. And I love it as advertising because, to me, it absolutely captures the Halifax: mass-market, populist and with a crystal-clear proposition.

Compared to it, the Halifax's high-street rivals look stuffy, staid and mean.

It's also, although well concealed by the creamy-voiced singing of Howard, a very aggressive piece of advertising. The assault by the Halifax on its rival banks is pretty rough, some of it verging on the knocking-copy side of things.

No question about it: since they launched in the New Year two years ago, the ads have made the whole sector reassess its advertising. You can see the effect in the way one of its principal rivals, Abbey National, has struggled to find a response. First it drops Alan Davies and replaces him with talent-contest type ads using real customers; then it drops that idea and reverts to celebrities.

And now the Halifax is moving on with two new ads, still with Howard but without the Busby Berkeley-style set-piece spectaculars based around chart songs. This is a shame. Just think what Howard and a decent copywriter could have done with the Cheeky Girls' Touch My Bum song.

This time they've gone animated and put Howard in a classroom where, complete with Mr Chips mortarboard and gown, he lectures children on the benefits of banking with the Halifax before a quick burst of "Who gives you extra?". And he's a got a Black Country accent thicker than Noddy Holder speaking through a barrel of treacle although, apparently, it's not even his voice but an actor's. Still, at least he's doing the singing bit.

It's not the accent that bothers me, but the setting. Once you've seen the real thing, it's hard to adjust to animation. Unless they're trying to save money on production, it's hard to get the rationale. It was the fact that Howard was real that made the previous ads stand out. It's a scale thing too. Implicitly, the old ads suggested that the Halifax was a serious player on a national scale; lower-key, these ads don't, at least not in the same way.

I'm also slightly uncomfortable with the classroom setting. I understand its role here: it's the financial services equivalent of men in white coats providing the scientific underpinning in detergent ads. But it's all a bit pedantic, right down to the blackboard and Howard waving his pointer stick. Given the choice, and in a low-interest sector such as banking, most consumers like to be led gently to the marketing proposition, not have it rammed down their throats. However, the fact that the Halifax has resorted to this somewhat simplistic device suggests that, in previous ads, while the branding was clear, maybe the message wasn't getting through as strongly as it might have liked.

I should carp though. These are all criticisms at the margin. In Howard and the "extra" line, the Halifax still has the freshest identity on the high street. These ads don't take it further, but they don't lose it either.

Dead cert for a Pencil? Come on, this isn't for luvvies.

File under ... C for cut price.

What would the chairman's wife say? "What happens if Howard leaves the

bank?"