Feature

Reflections of a former adman

Is it possible to be a 'real person' and an 'ad person'? A veteran adman, Andrew Cracknell, reflects on life after advertising.

For 35 years I think I was part of a cult. You may be part of a cult. This is not a bad thing. It connotes a commitment, a belief, which must be preferable to vacuous indifference.

As you do now, for 35 years I cared passionately about a practice I thought to be a fundamental part of our social interactivity, and I thought that in my small corner, I was in some way a guardian and defender of the integrity of that practice.

What this piece is not about is sneering at that passion, or indeed that practice. I'm disappointed in those of my contemporaries who have left a lifetime in advertising and immediately rained contempt and contumely on their former colleagues and their activities, forgetting that the business had given them everything they had in self esteem, social standing and wealth. And I've learned from, and enjoyed enormously, my association with people in advertising and my immersion within that business.

What this is about is the direction or relevance of that passion in the world where people don't go to work to create advertising; where they couldn't name a single typeface; where a price is more important than a "brand relationship"; where the Turkish shop on the corner is more front of mind than a multimillion-pound supermarket campaign - the world where I now live. Where there are 2,600 real people to every advertising person.

Immediately you're going to bristle; you'll object to the notion that you can't be an advertising person and a real person at the same time. At first glance, that's not an unfair observation. You are, after all, a consumer, a customer, a citizen like everyone else. But think about it for a second and then decide if at some time this week - perhaps in a major new-business pitch or a comparatively trivial internal briefing - that your domestic partner or your children or parents would have reacted as a "real person" to a question and you would have reacted as an "advertising person" and given a "professional" answer. An answer you know your behaviour will contradict on your weekend shopping trip or evening TV viewing or web browsing.

Because, just as to a policemen, the world is full of suspicious people; to a cobbler, the world is full of broken shoes; to an advertising person, the world is full of advertisements.

But it isn't. It really isn't.

That's one of the big adjustments you have to make when you come out of a lifetime of advertising. Getting used to the fact that nobody cares about it, thinks about it, talks about it - even notices it. Even those of us who were once in it. When I asked if he watched advertising these days, Tony Cox, the former executive creative director of BMP DDB and Abbott Mead Vickers BBDO, said: "Not if I can help it. Although, when I do, I think of them as occupying a continuum between dismal science and high art, the new Orange campaign being an example of the latter, and almost everything else, the former." Triples all round at Orange. Heady praise indeed.

We - and I use the first person because I'm now one of them - will sometimes see something in an ad we like and we'll smile. But even then we may not see it as an "ad", we may simply see it as a piece of film or a picture that may have amused us. And at this point, those of you working in digital, who think I'm talking only about the old analogue world of advertising, it's just as bad for you. Your virals are passed around, of course, but as amusing pieces of film. Who brought them to us? Who cares? And on we go to the next YouTube clip of "people fainting" or "strange hats". Think about it. Had the Lynx "pulse" commercial only been a viral, would it have had such impact? I don't think so.

Howard Gossage, a hugely wise and immensely funny San Franciscan creative director in the 50s and 60s, once said: "People don't read advertising per se. They read what interests them. And sometimes it's an ad." In the past, this has been taken - by me anyway - as a defence for the well-written long-copy ad. But now I'm beginning to think it's a warning shot to advertising people; we don't necessarily always see ads as ads, just as whimsical things set in front of us to entertain us by a sponsor or sponsors unnoticed.

I was quite shocked the other day. Talking to an extremely high-ranking ad person, I found out how disillusioned he was with the ads themselves. The business still fascinated him - as well it should, it's a fascinating one - but he found "the games that advertising plays, the archness, the self-regard on the part of we, the ad creators, seems to me to be so irrelevant".

Maybe he's right. Often, I was surprised by the force field that some of my creative colleagues believed existed around their work, as if there was a frame around their ads compelling attention: the only point of buying that day's newspaper or watching that evening's television. I remember a copywriter I thought so good as to employ at three different agencies - and I still think he's excellent - once presenting a script to me with the irresistible pre-sell "the great thing about this commercial is that nothing happens!". Indeed, it didn't. For 30 seconds (or, if he'd had his way, 60) we were to be asked to watch an empty bar top and a beer pump that didn't move. "Busby Berkeley, eat your heart out," I muttered to myself. At the very end of this unrestrained extravaganza, a voiceover would intone something pompous, and we were all to fall back exhausted on our sofas, slapping our foreheads, emotionally wrung out. And we were going to do it the next night, and the night after that.

He just couldn't accept my misgivings. He truly believed that people were sufficiently interested in advertising for its own sake to see that his commercial's overwhelming impact was simply that it wasn't like other ads, that its very difference would be their criterion: "Ooh, I've never seen an ad like that before, all the others are full of noise and action; this one isn't - there's posh! I'd better pay attention ..."

He was an advertising Jihadist. It's what made him simultaneously very, very good and very, very bad at advertising. He knew, like the people around the tables at those Saturday night advertising dinner parties in Clapham and Belsize Park and Hammersmith, exactly who was doing what on which account with which agency and with which director - and usually how wrong they were getting it.

But to paraphrase Kipling: "What does he of advertising know who only advertising knows?" He was like so many valuable advertising people, he knew how to create fascinating and persuasive advertising - with the odd aberration - but who also knew how to impress the dinner tables of Clapham and Putney, forgetting what they are supposed to be doing is impressing me.

For many years now, I have owned a Range Rover or a Discovery, and now I have a Freelander. I got into the large vehicle habit when my family of four-plus-dog were small and went to Wales regularly for weekends. I wanted the reassurance of knowing that as they drove down a rainy M4 on a squally night in winter, they were in a car that could cope.

Now I'm shocked at the opprobrium heaped on my head, from the dignified tones of Ken Livingstone accusing me of being an "idiot" for driving a 4x4 to any critic who doesn't understand the difference between engine size and traction system. And I look to advertising (and PR - but don't get me started) to defend me, because, surely in the messages they use to attract new customers, they'll defend my choice and to some extent, silence the critics.

But the one thing - almost the only thing - that Land Rover advertising has consistently told me over the past few years is the one thing that all we Brits atavistically know already - that Land Rovers are rugged and that they open up the wilderness.

And to counter the growing environmental lobby, what do 4x4 advertisers present? Vehicles hurtling across the baked earth and mountain streams of the wilderness, throwing up the dust of the savannah. Talk about pouring oil on burning carbon. BMW must be so relieved that the 4x4 has replaced its marque as the target of choice for driver, cyclist and pedestrian abuse. Ironically, if you compare the fuel consumption of the two types, you won't find much difference.

Of course, I understand the strategy, the perfectly logical ad absurdum that if they can withstand this treatment, they can withstand whatever you're going to dish out. But gouging tyre tracks through areas of natural beauty isn't the only way to explain it, and since it's now so irrelevant and inflammatory, why do it? And why have they ignored the relevant virtues and issues as to why someone like me continues to be attracted to such a vehicle, such as comfort, superior vision (to anticipate problems and offer greater enjoyment), safety and strength?

It's simple. It's because the ad business likes it the way it is. In the parallel universe of its own criteria, it dishes out gongs for ads with admittedly pleasing and clever visual ideas, albeit ideas that any magazine art editor would probably consider all in a day's work, but ads that have the sort of drama and wit that advertising people appreciate. Meanwhile, the real world goes on with its real business. It's like architects dishing out awards for a building that has already fallen down. "So it fell down. It was a revolutionary design, looked great on the awards entry. Give it a Golden Gropius."

(Don't scoff. I once sat on a jury that gave an award to a hard-hitting comparison ad, even though we were told it had been withdrawn because the dramatic facts on which it was based were proved to be inaccurate. "Bollocks to that, it's a great ad," was the deranged consensus. The argument "how can it be a 'great ad' if it had to be withdrawn?" was treated with derision.)

The answer clearly is to get more in touch with the real world. This was supposed to be the job of the planners. Some are truly insightful, but many seem to have become distracted and metamorphosed into wannabe "McKinseyists" and "brand specialists". Don't ask research companies either, unless they're doing more subtle trends research, and can give you a helpful indication of how people are thinking about their lives in general. For the rest, forget it.

One day, someone much cleverer than I will write the book explaining how the real scam in marketing for the past 40 years has been advertising and product research. Nothing ever gets to the public without getting the tick from the research company, yet there are as many failures as ever. And does anyone ever say: "The research company said this would work - fire them?" No, they say: "The research company told the ad agency this would work - fire the ad agency."

Maybe ad people should spend less time with ad people, maybe they should listen to their partners and kids more. I often had a sneaking regard for the view of the "chairman's wife"; at least it came from a real person and was often interestingly eccentric and usually more informed than the chairman's.

But I was always depressed at how, over the coffee and biscuits before a meeting, the agency and client people could chat together about their kids and holidays, Saturday's match, their hopes and fears, and the instant the meeting started, revert to their prearranged postures that had so little to do with the real people they'd been just a few moments before.

Trying to stay slightly more on the edge of the cult, and getting more in touch with your real side, while being a little less dismissive of the man on the Clapham omnibus' view of ads are all virtues I could have benefited from.

Thinking about what's important and persuasive in selling. Have you ever seen the flyer an art director does when he's trying to flog something of his own? Huge product shot, gigantic phone number and bullet points and starbursts all over the page like squashed moths on a Land Cruiser's windscreen. And if there's got to be a logo, you can bet your life it'll be huge.

The next time you start to trot out the professional view, try your "perhaps more honest own Saturday morning" view. See if it doesn't have more resonance. It might result in some ideas and ads that the 59,975,000 of us who don't work in advertising find are actually talking to us.

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