Ever since Aristotle wrote a letter to Archimedes persuading him to buy an orange with a well-worded joke and a delightful water colour depiction of the luscious fruit, advertising has been, and always will be, the noblest of creative pursuits.
When done well, it’s a beautiful blend of maths and magic. Both appealing to the rational and irrational senses. With far more directional utility than fine art – and discernably more elegance than hardcore commerce – advertising is the attractive middle sister, armed with quick wit and a strong punch, capable of catapulting a brand to fame and lodging ideas, themes and memes to bring about change.
But the creative industry potato needs feeding, and advertising has always borrowed, stolen, re-appropriated and ‘been inspired’ by (call it what you like) artists and a burgeoning art scene. The skill of post-modern advertising seems to be timely deployment, and sensitive treatment of the zeitgeist. Done badly, it gives the industry a bad name. Done well, well you’d hardly notice.
So, what of the latest craze of re-creating past successes within the industry? The Milk Tray man? The Oxo family? The Hofmeister bear? Bit lame? Or totally fine?
Well, the science seems to check out. There is certainly a case for the effectiveness of rehashing successful ideas from the past. And it’s certainly not confined to advertising. Just look to Hollywood. Few releases nowadays weren’t tested years ago. Set to be remade in the next few years: Pinnochio. Mary Poppins. Flight of the Navigator. Commando. Splash and Logan’s Run. Talk about comfort content.
And in TV land, Netflix is building its own success on past successes. Preferring a tried and tested formula to alleviate risk and ensure a small, core audience rather than zero. So does this mean the death of creativity? No. Certainly not.
These remakes aren’t guaranteed hits. There are plenty of Netflix and Hollywood flops where the maths checked out, but the magic simply wasn’t there. And it’s the same with the advertising remakes. And the difference between the hits and flops? As always. Good quality creativity. Not necessarily in concept in these cases - but certainly in execution.
After all, very few things (by definition) in the post-modern era are not retrogressive in some way. My partner Lolly always bemoans the lack of the truly new. But oddly, futurists tend to get a bad rap during the release of their work and it’s years down the line before they are seen as being visionary. That’s why a lot of commercial art deals in that which has already been dealt with. It tends to be more successful. More popular.
But it has to bring something new and be executed well. So it’s back to this blend of old and new again. Advertiser as paint mixer.
At McCann London, we look after many UK heritage brands – and while respecting and maintaining their roles which have been established over the years, the voice or delivery of that message changes with the times.
In post-Brexit decision Britain, it was tempting to ‘do an Oxo’ for Bisto, or to be Jingoistic with Wimbledon, but we resisted and instead brought (hopefully) the right balance of old and new.
"The together project" for Bisto harnessed the message of ‘togetherness’ – something they’d always been associated with, but never so overtly actioned. Today’s brands are doers, not sayers. With Wimbledon, we re-interpreted what makes the brand unique and targeted those who found the fashion and tech elements of the tournament more captivating than the tennis itself.
So, like anything in the creative arts, it’s the execution which separates the sheep from the shepherd. The execution which forgives unoriginality of concept. The craft. The timing. The detail. The selection of colour, form and phase.
And it’s these skills of advertising, underpinned by the science of selling that makes the discipline distinct – and its practitioners valuable. It’s why (good) advertising will remain the most beautiful creative process of them all. Aristotle would certainly not disagree.
Rob Doubal is co-president and co-chief creative officer at McCann London