The tyranny of adland’s thought police

The ad listing the winners after D&AD this year summed up where the business has gone wrong: creatives are making ads to win awards and to impress their mums. Here, Richard Phillips (above), says that ‘pure creativity’ is killing advertising

The ad listing the winners after D&AD this year summed up where the

business has gone wrong: creatives are making ads to win awards and to

impress their mums. Here, Richard Phillips (above), says that ‘pure

creativity’ is killing advertising

I’m not, I freely admit, much of a mathematician. Scraping through O

level was the best I could manage. But one thing I do know about maths

is that if I’d been better at it, and gone on to A level, there would

have been two sorts of maths to deal with: pure maths and applied maths.

Pure maths, as I understand it, is the theory and the doing of maths for

its own sake while applied maths is about applying the theory in

practical situations.

It seems to me that creativity can be thought of in the same way.

There’s pure creativity - art for art’s sake - and there’s applied

creativity: creativity used in pursuit of another goal, such as

architecture or car design.

Sometimes people get the two confused. That’s when you get buildings

that look magnificent on a drawing board but turn out to be ghettoes in

reality. The whole point about applied creativity is that it must begin

with the problem for which a solution is required and you can’t properly

judge its worth without first assessing how well the problem has been

solved. It doesn’t matter how beautiful the building may seem to the

architect, or indeed to fellow architects - if the people for whom it is

designed don’t want to live in it, it’s a dog.

If anything ought to be about applied creativity, it’s advertising.

Creativity can legitimately only ever be a means to an end - that end,

in the parlance of the car trade, is ‘moving the metal’. If your ad

isn’t first and foremost about ‘moving the metal’, it’s about nothing.

As far as I’m concerned, you can’t have enough applied creativity in

advertising. The more crowded the market, the more sophisticated the

consumer, the more applied creativity you require.

The trouble is that’s not what we’re getting. People who should know

better have lost the plot. They’re confusing pure creativity with

applied creativity. In their judgment of what is good in advertising

they seem to have entirely forgotten what advertising is for.

Thus, in the world of advertising awards, the ingeniousness of the

problem solving - the idea - counts for bugger all. The appropriateness

of the tone of voice for the target market is utterly irrelevant.

Contemporary style is all.

Actually it’s worse than this: there is a sort of political correctness

in advertising these days. Although just about everybody I speak to

agrees with me, many are terrified of saying so publicly for fear of

being judged uncreative by the D&AD thought police. In the mad, looking-

glass world of British advertising, selling is out of fashion. And being

out of fashion is the greatest crime of all.

How on earth has such an absurd state of affairs come about?

At least part of the reason, I believe, is the rise and rise of

planning. Planners, being the supposed experts on the marketplace, are

the ones who write the briefs. Creative people are employed merely to

execute them. And they are rarely thanked for challenging the briefs

they are given. Instead of being encouraged to think about the

commercial realities they are positively discouraged. No wonder awards

juries seem more and more preoccupied with executional values alone.

Not that it would matter what awards juries thought, if they didn’t have

such influence.

Which brings me to Mrs Thatcher and one of the few sane things she ever

said: ‘You can’t buck the market.’

Every copywriter and art director believes that if you win lots of

awards you will be rewarded with better jobs and/or more money. The

result? Creative people are totally focused on the business of winning

awards. Not only do awards give you something tangible to show to your

mum (as that breathtakingly honest ad from D&AD pointed out), they are

also the single most effective instrument for advancing your career.

That’s why everybody is in thrall to the opinions of advertising juries:

pure market forces.

But instead we have great photography and wonderful production values -

which I’m all for - being mistaken for great advertising. Do I mean

Volvo? Among others, yes, of course I do. It is, after all, the campaign

that has won everything and it has set the style for so much mid-90s


Now please don’t misunderstand me. This is not - repeat not - another

attack on Tony Kaye, who is, unquestionably, an extraordinarily gifted

bloke. Moreover, I think these films - particularly ‘twister’ - are

tremendously impressive as pieces of film. But great ads? I think not.

To begin with, they are totally misleading in that they are put across

as true-life stories when, as far as I can gather, they are fiction.

That stuntman is not a stuntman, but an actor. If anyone deserves an

award it’s the person who got this campaign through the BACC.

Yet incredibly - to me at least - these commercials are showered with

prizes, and, according to current D&AD orthodoxy, are state of the

advertising art.

Yes, I know it’s not just D&AD who has lauded this campaign but everyone

knows that D&AD is the award that really counts. Besides, as every jury

seems to be composed of - or at least headed by - the same people, D&AD

and all the rest are, to all intents and purposes, one and the same

thing. No, on second thoughts, perhaps I am doing the others a

disservice. At least no-one else has yet descended to the embarrassing

lunacy of inviting Gilbert and George, Martin Amis et al to sit on their

juries. Does anyone seriously believe these people have any real

interest in advertising? What do you imagine clients - the ones whose

money we’re all taking - think when they hear that these people are

being asked to judge their work?

Which brings me back to Mrs Thatcher and the market you can’t buck and

my real concern in writing this article.

It seems to me that there is evidence that clients’ trust in agencies

and indeed, in advertising, is being eroded.

How many clients nowadays are willing readily to accept the creative

recommendations of their agencies? How many do not insist on having more

than one creative solution put before them? How many do not spend

endless time and considerable fortunes on research?

Look at the increasing importance of below the line. If you’re in

‘proper advertising’ you look down your nose at direct mail and shelf-

wobblers; it’s all a bit grubby, it’s almost ‘being in trade’.

Meanwhile, the below-the-liners have brilliantly turned this idiotic

snobbery to their advantage. What they tell clients is this: we’re not

self-indulgent arty-farty wrist merchants. Others may know how to paint

pretty pictures, but we know how to sell as they never can.

This, of course, is complete rubbish. They have no monopoly on the

ability to persuade. But they are sowing the seeds of doubt on fertile


Already, we see an advertising industry in which there are far fewer

jobs than, say, ten years ago. The result is that competition for those

jobs increases and salaries decrease. One of the reasons for this is

that agencies aren’t able to charge clients what they used to. And the

reason for that is that clients don’t believe it’s worth it. This is,

admittedly, a rather simplistic analysis, but the principle holds good

that the more you value something, the more you are prepared to pay for

it. And vice versa.

Creative people need to start looking beyond the ends of their noses.

The micro marketplace in which jobs are on offer only exists within the

real market for advertising. Put it another way: no clients, no jobs. If

those in the business continue to think only about how to do award-

winning work, when the criteria for making those awards has so little to

do with the real purpose of the advertising - moving metal, then clients

are going to wise up. The bottom line is this: you can only take the

piss for so long.

Richard Phillips runs the production company, R. J. Phillips and Co