OPINION: Mills on ... Thomas Pink

Why is it that high-end fashion brands - Prada, Dolce and Gabbana, Ralph Lauren, Burberry, Armani - have a tendency to bypass agencies and do their own ads? Is it because agencies, hard as it may be to credit, just can't do the luvvie stuff with enough conviction? Or is there some fundamental incompatibility between the fashion DNA and that of agencies?

But just when anybody thinks they've bridged that culture gap, it never lasts.

Remember Thomas Pink (okay, it may not be everybody's idea of high-end fashion, but it is part of the LVMH luxury brands conglomerate so they must think it is) and M&C Saatchi? After an initial flurry of excitement last year - caused in no small part by an ad campaign making heroes out of two East End gangsters and thieves (bit odd that, for an agency whose clients included the police and a bank) - Thomas Pink slipped out of Golden Square with scarcely a trace. It's like when you turn up to a party in black tie and everybody else is in trainers and combats. You cough politely, pretend you've left the iron on at home, edge towards the door and hope that nobody sees you go.

Now Thomas Pink has turned up a different sort of agency, Yellow, where, one suspects, it may feel more at home. Yellow is run by Mary Portas, responsible for the turn-around of Harvey Nichols from its fusty ladies-who-lunch image to one a bit more in tune with the "mwah, mwah" fashionistas. Along the way, to prove her creative credentials, she also won a D&AD gold in 1998 for her window displays.

At Yellow, Portas works her stuff on a variety of fashion and luxury brands, and the first campaign for Thomas Pink broke last week in The Times, Evening Standard and Financial Times. As most of the male readers of Campaign would also be, I'm probably right in the Thomas Pink target market: men who like or need to look casual/smart without being formal, but don't much want to be seen, at one end, in something from Gap, Marks & Spencer or Austin Reed, or at the other from shirts made by a stuffy "gentlemen's outfitter" in Jermyn Street.

Trouble is, for me and many others it's exactly that latter image that Thomas Pink conjures up, made worse by its association with that ghastly, braying City boy, or the stuffed-shirt corporate type. We quite liked the shirts, we just couldn't stand the people who wore them. No doubt the desire to get away from this trap and broaden Thomas Pink's constituency was behind M&C Saatchi's decision to go for the gangster chic/Guy Ritchie aesthetic. That was a flawed piece of thinking. Whatever you might think of the ethics of using self-confessed criminals to advertise a shirt (morally bankrupt, since you ask), Guy and that mockney gangster buzz had already passed by the time their ads appeared. Anyway, could you really imagine Freddie Foreman and his ilk wearing a Thomas Pink shirt?

But if that's the negative of Thomas Pink, the positive is its Englishness: it resonates under-stated quality, and it stands for integrity and good manners. What I like about this campaign is that it taps into those residual feelings, but adds a twist by celebrating that other great English quality of eccentricity.

It works simply by asking people to nominate successful businessmen who have an unusual hobby, thus allowing Thomas Pink to say that you don't have to be a dead-from-the-neck-down businessman to wear one of its shirts. Indeed, it goes further than that by saying that a successful career in business doesn't compromise your individuality, whatever form that individuality takes. And the joy is that, by using real people with real eccentricities, it underlines its authenticity (not to mention saving on model fees). Yup, I think I quite fancy one of their shirts now.

Dead cert for a Pencil? Steady on.

File under ... I for improved.

What would the chairman's wife say? "I hope they don't find out about your secret hobby."

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