Steve Henry: Rules are made to be broken
A view from Steve Henry

Steve Henry: Rules are made to be broken

Never mind the slip-ups - good stuff happens when we challenge convention while connecting emotionally with the audience.

When I went on stage to receive the D&AD President’s Award from Andy Sandoz, I realised that my career has been a long list of fuck-ups. 

But then I thought – WTF – maybe we all need to fuck up more.

HHCL is now garlanded with accolades but, in the first three years, we were a laughing stock. Every ad we produced was ridiculed in Private View; eventually we learned not to care what the industry thought.

We always wanted to break the rules and sometimes we fucked up. A nice example was Pepe Jeans. We took a bunch of ordinary-looking kids on to Tooting Common and I think they might have got stoned. The ad showed 50 seconds of them laughing hysterically and then the endline came up: "Pepe Jeans. Because one day you’ll die."

I can remember saying to the TV producer just before the pre-prod: "Can I look at the director’s reel, please ?" She replied: "Unfortunately not – he hasn’t shot anything before." 

I think we were trying to break too many rules at the same time there. (But we did give Jon Glazer and Frank Budgen their first jobs, so the desire to find new directing talent worked out sometimes.)

Despite the fuck-ups, good stuff happened because we learned to break the rules but connect emotionally with the audience. And we were a great team – starting with co-founders Rupert Howell, Axel Chaldecott, Adam Lury and Robin Price. 

And then there were the creatives. Whenever people talk up HHCL, they tend to show the ads I didn’t write. So, disclosure: Maxell Tapes (written by Naresh and Tim); Orange Tango (Trev and Al); "The Fourth Emergency Service" (Liz and Dave); Blackcurrant Tango (Jim and Chas). There’s a bunch of other brilliant work written by people like Dave Buonaguidi and Jonathan Burley.

It was about building a culture, which was built upon collaboration. Work with brilliant people; let them be brilliant. 

My favourite work at HHCL was for the launch of First Direct. Interactive ads running concurrently on two channels and then 75 ten-second ads. Absolutely mould-breaking, but it never got any awards. I’ve always been ambivalent about awards – but maybe that’s just me being snotty. When Maxell Tapes won the Grand Prix at Cannes, it changed the fortunes of HHCL and my CV isn’t above mentioning a few gongs.

For instance, working for Dave Trott, I won three yellow Pencils and a black Pencil in my first three years at GGT. HHCL won Agency of the Year several times and then Agency of the Decade.  In my two years as executive creative director at the School of Communication Arts, it was the most-awarded ad school in the world.

Re-engage with creative people

There are a couple of other topics I’d like to touch on. This industry has lost the plot on creativity – most creative people feel marginalised and ignored. But the one thing client companies can’t replicate in-house is great creative resource. So the industry needs to re-engage with its creative people.

At 18 Feet & Rising (where I’ve just started in a non-exec role), they’re drafting a new creative contract to address this issue.

And a huge problem (for creatives, but not just for creatives) is the lengthy, dysfunctional approval process. The answer to this is rapid prototyping. It’s the way the tech sector – the fastest-growing sector in the world – works. Decoded does a course on this called Innovation in a Day; lots of client companies are trying it, so I really hope the ad industry embraces it too.

And finally – ethics in advertising!  I’ve been talking about this, ineffectively, for about 15 years. But what better way to build a brand in the age of transparency than by using your marketing budget to make the world a better place for your customers ? 

However,  "marketing for good" needs to be great – it needs to be engaging. In other words, it needs creativity. Without that, it’s just corporate social responsibility, the three most boring words in the English language. 

Of course, nobody has found all the answers to this challenge yet.

But so what ? As General MacArthur said: "You are remembered for the rules you break." So, come on, ad industry. Let’s go break some rules.

Steve Henry is co-founder of Decoded and founding partner of HHCL.