The ten bravest ads of all time

Whether they ripped up the rules or just ignored the naysayers, these clients and agencies proved that bravery can often be a catalyst for great ads.

In September 1979, the director Hugh Hudson was due to film the now famous "hand-built by robots" commercial at Fiat's factory in Turin. It was a time of near civil war in Italy, the workforce was on strike and just days before the shoot, left-wing extremists gunned down the Fiat marketing director, Carlo Gighlieno, on his way to work. The strikers set up pickets to prevent anyone entering.

Hudson negotiated with the pickets, and after a week, he and his crew were allowed in to the factory. The unions reckoned that with no workers and no actors, the ad could not be made. But Hudson wanted to film robots, not people, so the absence of workers suited his purposes perfectly.

Once the strikers got wind of what was happening they were furious. They tried to break into the factory and sealed exits with burning barricades to prevent the crew from leaving. However, Hudson and his crew were smuggled out of a side entrance.

Advertising is a cerebral endeavour that rarely calls for such physical courage. Nonetheless, there's a widespread feeling that there isn't much bravery of any kind in adland these days. Sometimes it seems as if the industry has gone all "health and safety", with clients clustering to the middle ground of their markets, while agencies feed them creative work that takes no risks, but rarely falls flat on its face either.

Perhaps that's why so much advertising is so uncreative at the moment, Sir Frank Lowe, the founding partner at The Red Brick Road, suggests. He says the question of bravery isn't simply one of pride or machismo, it is indivisible from the well-being and standing of the whole industry. "We are not in a rich period creatively speaking. Fear has permeated our industry. Agencies have two aims these days; to hit their profit margins and to give clients whatever they think they want. I'm not sure that these attitudes go hand in hand with creativity."

He is entitled to the role of brave advertising knight because, as the managing director of Collett Dickenson Pearce in the 70s and of Lowe during the 80s and 90s, he was involved with many of the bravest, most entertaining and most creative campaigns in British advertising history.

True, it was a time when agencies were strong and clients were relatively weak. Today, however, clients have the whip hand, they have greater commercial power and they tend to know more about advertising than they did. So how do you persuade them to buy riskier or braver work?

If you think it's about persuasion or selling, you've missed a fundamental point, Martin Jones of the AAR says. The idea of the handsome account director standing up and persuading the client to do something he doesn't really want to do through sheer force of personality is just fanciful.

He nominates another Hudson spot, Saatchi & Saatchi's 1989 British Airways "face", as one of the bravest ads of all time, "for its logistical bravery. With all those people, it could have gone hideously wrong. But brave advertising doesn't happen because of the presenting skills of one person. It happens because the client trusts you. And trust can only be earned as the result of a good relationship."

The Cadbury "gorilla" ad illustrates the importance of relationships in producing brave ads. Cadbury originally gave the brief for "advertising that is as enjoyable as the product itself" to Publicis, which in Cadbury's view, it failed to crack. The account was then handed to Publicis' stablemate Fallon. "After 20 minutes they just wanted to get on with it," the Cadbury marketing director, Phil Rumbol, recalls.

Fallon presented what it calls "more sensible ideas", but Rumbol chose "gorilla". But that would have been inconceivable had the former InBev marketer Rumbol not already worked with the Fallon chairman, Laurence Green, on Stella Artois at Lowe.

As Sony's vice-president of marketing, the former Fallon client David Patton, now the chief executive of Grey, oversaw the making of two outstandingly original commercials, last year's Bravia "balls" ad and the 1998 "double life" spot for PlayStation. He puts it even more starkly. "Even though Bravia was a billion-pound launch, we bought the 'balls' idea on the strength of a one-line description and a mood reel. But we knew we had the strategy right (colour) and we had complete confidence in our creative agency."

So how do you develop that relationship? Paul Arden, the creative director of Saatchi & Saatchi from 1980 to 1993, suggests passion and time are the key factors. "If you are passionate enough, the client will give you the benefit of the doubt. But it'll take a good two or three years working together, and you have to pick the right client. It's no use trying to get juniors to buy daring work. They don't have the judgment and often they are only empowered to say 'no'."

Perhaps the fact that senior clients only stay in their jobs for an average of 18 months these days is a serious obstacle to building trust. But trust starts being built before the client and agency team have even met. For an industry that lives off its advice on brands, but rarely bothers to brand itself, it may come as a surprise to learn that the role of the agency brand can be crucial in determining whether the client will ever trust you enough to allow brave work.

"As a client you go to certain agencies for certain things," Anthony Simmonds Gooding, the D&AD chairman who has been a senior client and agency chairman, says. "I have noticed that clients will accept work from one agency that they wouldn't consider from another. I'm certain, for instance, that had Lintas proposed the current Lynx campaign when I was chairman, they would have rejected it. But they bought it from Bartle Bogle Hegarty."

Which brings us to the final truth about brave advertising. Bravery is related to what you stand to lose, and agencies stand to lose a lot less than clients. As Jones says: "Agencies need corporate courage. If a campaign goes wrong, they might lose 15 per cent of their income. Clients need personal courage. If it goes wrong, they can destroy the business and lose their jobs."

HEINEKEN - 'Refreshes the parts other beers cannot reach'


Citation: Defied research

"In 1981, beer ads were either blokes enjoying a pint while gazing down a busty barmaid's cleavage, or about provenance," Sir Frank Lowe recalls. "But I thought refreshment was the main benefit, so I wrote Terry Lovelock's line on the back of a sick bag while travelling to Leningrad with the client. Millward Brown swore that it would never work. But the client was amazingly trusting, he ignored the research and backed our judgment." Sales subsequently rocketed from 100,000 to three million barrels.

BENSON & HEDGES - 'Iguana'

Collett Dickenson Pearce

Citation: Deliberately meaningless

In the 70s, Benson & Hedges was seen largely as a "party" cigarette, smoked to impress on special occasions. It needed to widen its appeal. But new rules made it difficult for cigarette ads to say anything coherent. So Collett Dickenson Pearce came up with this piece of surrealist glamour to promote the brand. "I'll never forget first seeing it in the cinema," Malcolm Duffy of Miles Calcraft Briginshaw Duffy recalls. "My God, it was sexy, the photography was stunning. It established that viewers would and could work at unlocking meaning and didn't have to have the message rammed down their throats."

DUNLOP - 'Tested for the unexpected'

Abbott Mead Vickers BBDO

Citation: Gratuitously arty

Most tyre marketing is aimed at the trade. In this case "the trade" consists of poorly educated young men with crowbars. The idea that the tyres might be tested for the unexpected, was perhaps not so revolutionary. The idea that the creative execution should illustrate the strategy, was. "Everything about it was unexpected: the idea that tyre ads should be aimed above groin level; the choice of director in Tony Kaye; the soundtrack; the bizarre imagery and perhaps most of all, the acid-tinged post-production conspired to make this a totally unexpected and, therefore, very brave commercial," Duffy says.

MARMITE - 'You either love it or hate it'

DDB London

Citation: Dissed the product

Until this campaign aired, there was a conceit in mass marketing that anyone and everyone might buy your product. The truth is, of course, that even the most popular products are bought by only a fraction of the market. The dirty work of segmentation is usually left to media. "Polarising attitudes has become common place on the internet these days, but this was the first campaign to publicly acknowledge that some people might not like the product. It built a strategy out of that observation and spent millions telling people so. Super brave, especially for a multinational such as Unilever," Laurence Green, the chairman of Fallon, says.

ORANGE - 'The future's bright, the future's Orange'


Citation: Breaking and entering the category

By 1994, the UK mobile phone market was nicely sewn up by three operators, boasting about functional benefits and technology. Orange cut through all that with a brand based on fruit and a promise: "The future's bright, the future's Orange." The first ads were derided as obscure and irrelevant, not least by the ad community. "This was a category filled with ads featuring people carrying brick-like handsets looking cool. Orange launched with a floating baby, chanting numbers and not a handset in sight. If it had gone wrong, Orange would have lost tens of millions of pounds," Debbie Klein, the chief executive of WCRS, says.

ORANGE - 'Gold Spot'


Citation: Dissing the client

The idea of featuring the client is not exactly new. Baxter's Soups do it, Remington did it, Tango did it twice. But few campaigns have the bottle to present the client as a complete berk. And few clients are brave enough to be shown that way. The campaign shows A-list stars pitching ideas to the Orange Film Board, a group of hideous corporate yes men whose philistinism destroys every idea put in front of them. But by ridiculing themselves, the ads position Orange as a cool, socially responsible, corporation, completely in tune with modern attitudes.


HHCL & Partners

Citation: Reckless xenophobia

Tango always broke the conventions of soft-drink advertising. But the sight of the Tango "marketing director" big Ray Gardiner, standing on the cliffs of Dover, clad in purple shorts, gut billowing in the breeze as he screamed xenophobic abuse at a French exchange student who had the temerity not to like blackcurrant, was arguably its finest moment. "It was executionally brave. This was a tiny variant of a tiny product. It was the most triumphantly brand-led product film you'll ever see," Green says.

SONY PLAYSTATION - 'Double life'


Citation: Exposing unspoken product truth

All of the information about the product and the brand is in the copy - it's just presented in a more poetic way that doesn't need to shout. TBWA's award shelf buckled under the weight of the gongs this campaign won and, most importantly, sales rocketed. It broke the mould of gaming advertising. It showed that it could work without the need for endless action shots from the games themselves. Most importantly, it presented an attitude that resonated with a different audience and by positioning the brand as directly opposite to the Nintendos of this world made it acceptable for me to buy the product. Genius. This campaign marked Sony's first venture into the gaming world and billions of pounds in future revenues were riding on its success. It broke with category convention in not showing the product or the games. "Instead it told an unspoken truth about gaming, which was generally considered a childish waste of time. The advertising dared to say that there are deep and noble things going on in gaming. It opened up a whole new affluent adult audience for PlayStation," David Bain, the planning director of Beattie McGuinness Bungay, says.



Citation: Bet the business on a gorilla

Cadbury's Dairy Milk is Cadbury's master brand. Sales had tanked, it had recently given up its prestigious sponsorship of Coronation Street, there had been a series of public relations blunders over the previous year and the company was due to split its operations on the stock market. It is no exaggeration to say that this campaign was crucial to the future of the company. So what did Cadbury do? Put out an ad that broke all confectionery conventions, it had no "yum moment", it didn't mention the product and scarcely mentioned the company.

MERCEDES - 'Lucky Star'

Campbell Doyle Dye

Citation: The ad wasn't an ad

Lucky Star was designed to look like a trailer for a new Michael Mann film, in which Benicio del Toro flees government agents. It had no logo, no sign-off line and no endframe to indicate it was a ad or had anything to do with Mercedes. It relied on PR to tell you that you had been watching a car ad. "It was a branding campaign that didn't mention the brand, disguised as a trailer for a film that didn't exist, in which the car was the hero but looked like a piece of product placement," the writer Walter Campbell says. "It was risky, but with our small budget, not as risky as failing to stand out."