WCRS 1979-1999: Interrogating the product - WCRS follows a simple principle in its advertising - discover an unequivocal truth about the product and exploit it to its fullest extent

’So what do the plankton eat?’

’So what do the plankton eat?’

Francis Bacon famously said knowledge is power. If you were being picky

- and as an ex-planner old habits die hard - you could argue this is a

tad simplistic.

In actual fact, since there is no true way of defining knowledge, the

only thing you can confidently say is that power lies in the search for


As a result, those people and companies who commit themselves to this

search most strenuously tend to be the least complacent and most


And, of course, this search is based on questioning. Lots of it. As the

ancient Chinese proverb goes: ’He who thirsts for knowledge must

question the earth, the sea, the moon and the stars.’ (Source: made-up

Chinese proverbs, May 1999.)

At WCRS, we reckon that questions are the most valuable weapon in the

communications armoury, bar none.

Which is why, perhaps more than anything else he has achieved over the

last 20 years, Robin Wight is famous for defining the principle of

’product interrogation’, with its attendant exhortation to ’interrogate

the product until it confesses to its strengths’. That, and the bow


Given Robin’s general fanaticism, it is virtually impossible to get an

ad off the premises until it has been questioned to within an inch of

its life. The result is what we call hard-centred advertising.

Scrape a WCRS ad, we like to think, and you’ll soon be scratching your

nail against a substantial and compelling product truth. Call us

old-fashioned, but we still believe this is the first obligation of

advertising - to supply people with a solid and unequivocal reason to


It’s not rocket science, but you would be surprised how often

advertising seems to stray from the point.

As our founding client, BMW is a classic example of hard-centred


For 20 years the campaign has been providing concrete evidence of why

BMW is the ’ultimate driving machine’.

And yet, in the world of car advertising, it remains something of an


As an advertising sector it is awash with borrowed interest, lifestyle

flannel, and flimsy user imagery. BMW is not the only exception to the

rule: Volkswagen, Land Rover and Volvo build their campaigns around

solid product claims. But, curiously, the club is a relatively small


So, if product interrogation seems a rather obvious place to start, it

remains an entirely valid one which can still be surprisingly


But it is not sufficient in itself. For all the BMW factory visits,

cam-shafts, cylinder heads and carburettors, our campaign has never been

an encyclopaedia of product nuggets. By far the most important word in

the endline is ’driving’ - the intangible and emotional side of the

product story.

BMW owners are not distinguished by their superior mechanical knowledge

of automotive science, they are distinguished by the fact that they love

driving and by their corresponding desire for a car which actively

involves them in the driving experience - as opposed to an armchair on

wheels designed to obviate the unpleasantness of getting from A to B (if

you want that, buy a Merc).

So, product interrogation is only one part of a restless questioning

process. There is no point in having a strong product claim if it isn’t

strongly connected to an over-riding emotional need.

Thus, when we talk of hard-centred advertising, we don’t necessarily

mean that the centre should slavishly involve a tangible product point.

(Mind you, try telling that to Robin.) It can just as well be

intangible, if this is the richest source of competitive advantage.

Our work for Camelot is a good example of a re-engineering exercise

which shifted the centre for advertising away from tangible towards

intangible claims.

After weeks of intensive questioning, we began to realise that the

problems the Lottery faced stemmed largely from a positioning which had

increasingly begun to emphasise the tangible outcome of playing - namely

winning and, more specifically, winning the jackpot.

The problem, of course, is that the odds of this tangible outcome are

rather long - and the more our hopes are built up, the greater our

disappointment each successive week.

As we started to get the answers to our questions, we realised we needed

to re-frame people’s expectations. Instead of selling jackpots we needed

to sell possibilities: unresolved, intangible and, as a result,

sustainable week after week.

The hard centre in this case involved the nerve to re-introduce doubt

into a product which had become too closely associated with likelihood

in millions of individual minds.

In contrast to BMW, the process took us away from the product and into

the playing experience. But the end point was the same: a non-rejectable

proposition; in this case the simple observation that ’unpredictable

possibilities make life more interesting’. The greatest advantage of a

questioning approach is the simplicity it imposes on any given


Like a child’s reductive logic, it leaves no scope for ambiguity or

waffle, and it tends to lead to profound answers as opposed to

complicated ones.

Moreover, if you’ve managed to dig one, two or three levels deeper than

your competition, it’s likely to give you a disproportionate advantage

since, ultimately, their more shallow roots will come adrift and they

will be forced to reposition off you. Witness the flurry of rebranding

in the mobile phone market following the launch of Orange.

So what’s all this about plankton, anyway? Well, it relates to a story

my wife tells about a time when she was working for the World Wildlife


Every so often she had to give wildlife lectures to local schools where

she tended to fob the local youth off with a talk about the ocean’s food

chain; the delicate ecological balance between the predators and the

prey, the sharks, the fish, the whales and, of course, the plankton.

On one occasion she had just finished her talk explaining plankton’s

role at the bottom of the food chain, when an inquisitive but puzzled

seven-year-old enquired: ’So what do the plankton eat?’

Good question.

Charles Vallance is the managing director of WCRS


Advertising and archaeology may sound like strange bedmates. One

concerns itself with tapping into the most up-to-date market trends and

consumer needs. The other, the study of ancient and long-forgotten

cultures by digging up relics and remains.

At WCRS we think there’s a strong connection between the two, which is

why we like to look backwards before looking forwards. Excavate the

ancient remains first, and then work out if the brand needs a new idea,

identity or line. You would be surprised how often the consumer

remembers what client and agency have long since forgotten.

One of the first things we do is ask: ’Is there an old ad idea waiting

to be reconnected with the brand?’ Sometimes a gem of an old idea can be

buffed and polished and made to work harder than any new idea.

Ah, but what do the creatives have to say about their precious blank

sheet of paper, I hear you ask? Well, ’not invented here’ is a syndrome

WCRS is mercilessly free of. Proof of this is how comfortable the

creative director, Rooney Carruthers, is with sticking by an old ad

property if it is strong and can be built upon.

The creative challenge is often to keep those long-term advertising

properties fresh, not to try and recreate them. In 1979, when BMW

awarded us its business, the first thing that was done, along with some

consumer research, was an examination of the global markets and how the

brand was presented.

’The ultimate driving machine’ was a line used in the US, and was a

prime encapsulation of the thoughts drivers articulated about the brand.

It was adopted as a statement of intent of the brand’s future

aspirations and is now an enduring brand property. And when it came to

winning the Land Rover business in 1997, ’the best 4X4XFar’ was one

wheel we weren’t looking to re-invent.

So why are we so convinced that optimising returns from old brand assets

should be the first port of call? Because if we rediscover and reconnect

a brand to its founding principles, we will have a greater chance of

enhancing that brand’s footprint by building on what’s already


Getting people’s attention has to start with a relevant product message,

but that on its own is not enough, particularly when product

differentiation is harder and harder to find. The only way that

advertising will ever be effective is if each bit of it connects

together and is part of a long-term advertising property.

Obvious? Not when you consider how often brands chop and change their

advertising properties, often caused by a new team trying to make its

mark. Certainly not when you consider the usual situation we are in when

having this debate. It’s usually pitch time, and brave is the agency

that says it wants to resurrect an old line or campaign when the client

is there precisely because they want to move the brand in a different


It’s tempting to ignore when we know it’s inventive thinking that will

win the business.

Which is why it takes brave clients that think long term about their

brands. Clients who get out their shovel with the rest of us and start

carbon dating. This means putting as much energy into making old ideas

new as it does into creating completely new ideas. Creating enduring

brand properties is at the heart of what we do, and sometimes we have to

be brave enough to admit that one is staring us right in the face.

Debbie Klein is the planning director of WCRS.