Why advertising should be more Mrs Brown's Boys and less Fleabag

Has advertising become too knowing for its own – and consumers’ – good? Planner Paul Feldwick suggests that adland needs to forget about high art and aim for a more popular appeal.

Why advertising should be more Mrs Brown's Boys and less Fleabag

“In advertising, if you can do something that is classy and popular, that’s wonderful. But if you’re going to have to choose one, choose something that’s popular.”

That’s the message from esteemed planner Paul Feldwick, who believes that adland’s preoccupation with creating “cool” brands rather than famous brands with popular appeal is causing it harm. He says evidence suggests today’s advertising is less liked and less effective than ever before. 

In his new book, Why Does the Pedlar Sing? What Creativity Really Means in Advertising, Feldwick explores the nature of fame, how it is created and why the industry needs to redefine creativity. He urges adland to rediscover and embrace its showmanship roots and reset its priorities to ensure it creates work with mass appeal. 

To illustrate his point, he draws an analogy with TV show Fleabag. “Everybody talks about how wonderful the TV show Fleabag is and they are quite right. But the audiences for Fleabag are tiny compared with the audiences for Mrs Brown’s Boys, which is a programme that the Fleabag fans probably wouldn’t touch with a bargepole,” he says. 

“But judgments about what is cool, or high or low art are quite illusory, and they’re certainly very illusory from the point of view of what advertising should be trying to do.”

Feldwick argues adland should remember that, on the whole, the bigger the audience you appeal to, the better: “Trying to appear cool and please your friends in Hampstead or Greenwich Village is a distraction.” 

He has enjoyed an illustrious career, including 30 years at BMP, one of the birthplaces of account planning, where latterly he led the planning department. Feldwick’s own campaigns include the Barclaycard work with Rowan Atkinson, which won Gold at the IPA Effectiveness Awards, and Hellmann’s “Don’t save it for the salad” campaign, which trebled its sales within 18 months. 

He cites VCCP’s “Compare the Meerkat” and the “Should’ve gone to Specsavers” work as his most admired campaigns of recent years for their charm, humour, popularity, fame and success. 

To mark the launch of his new book, Feldwick (above, right) was interviewed by Engine’s chief strategy officer, Gen Kobayashi (above left), for Campaign


Reclaiming creativity

Gen Kobayashi
We talk a lot today about advertising and marketing being in an existential kind of crisis. We’re perpetually asking ourselves questions – should we be more like the consultants, should we learn from big tech, should we pivot? But reading your account of the industry, it sounds like we’ve been in this existential crisis from day one. Could you talk a bit about that tension that has always existed with the advertising culture?

Paul Feldwick From just after 1900, advertising agencies desperately wanted to be respectable and professional. So they started distancing themselves from anything to do with popular entertainment and their antecedents in the travelling medicine shows or street entertainers. 

In 1903, the idea of salesmanship in print became very influential. All the theories of advertising after that tend to be dominated by the idea that an advertiser is a salesman; you’re outlining facts about a product and are rationally trying to persuade people why it is better than others. But that only describes one aspect of what advertising does. It denies that there is this carnival or showmanship aspect to advertising. 

Since then, we’ve been in this strange paradoxical situation. Advertising has continued to use the devices of popular entertainment – song and dance, sex appeal, talking animals, cartoons and celebrities. When I was at BMP in the 1970s and 1980s, particularly, we did all that all the time with the Cresta Bear or the Smash Martians. Everything was funny, amusing and, above all, popular. 

And yet even then, there was this strange double-think where we got very skilled at pretending to our clients and ourselves, that we were communicating a product benefit. Whereas, in reality, we were doing something more important – entertaining people. 

At the time, [one of the BMP founders] Martin Boase said, if you’re going to invite yourself into somebody’s living room, you have a moral duty not to insult their intelligence or shout at them. But if you put a smile on their face, then they might like you and be more inclined to buy your product. I remember thinking, well that’s not what it says in all the advertising textbooks, so that’s just old Martin being a bit eccentric. I now think it’s incredibly profound.

Because how do you create mental availability? The best answers draw analogies with the whole world of popular culture. What makes something a hit record? What makes something a film franchise? What makes one individual into a celebrity who’s known the world over? 

I’m sure there are things we can learn from science, but we should be learning from the Kardashians or the James Bond film franchise, because they are among the mega brands of today. And that is the same psychology that we work in when we’re creating our clients’ brands. 

GK In your TED talk “Aesthetics, Jugs, Rock ’n’ Roll” and in your new book you have highlighted a disconnect between your view of what creativity means versus the strongly held view of what creativity is in our world. What do you mean by reclaiming the word creativity?

PF The word creativity only really comes into use in an advertising context around 1960, and it’s very much associated with Bill Bernbach. Other ad men of the time, like David Ogilvy and Rosser Reeves, were dead against it. Right from the start, it set up a slight tension in advertising, because creativity became something that was to be pursued in its own right. And it became increasingly detached over the decades from the important thing: creating work which is popular; that is comprehensible; and enjoyable to the public.

Agencies like Allen, Brady and Marsh produced hugely popular and successful campaigns like the “Wonder of Woolies”. [Co- founder] Peter Marsh had a pure showbusiness background and was a totally theatrical guy. He always wore white suits, drove around in a Rolls-Royce, and ran the whole thing like Sunday Night at the London Palladium

Those of us at BMP and CDP who were trying to do like “creative advertising, man”, looked firmly down our noses at an agency like Allen, Brady and Marsh. But looking back on them now, I think they knew something that we were already in slight danger of forgetting, that this is about being popular. They are a bit like Abba (pictured, above). Everybody used to think Abba was extraordinarily naff, poppy tat. Now everybody says Abba is genius and classic, which of course they are. 

GK Why has the industry moved away from making purely popular campaigns?

PF One of the mechanisms by which the industry became detached from popular appeal was the development of creative awards. It didn’t happen immediately. I can still remember when most of the winners were still basically popular advertising. But, over time, the awards became more driven by work that was new or edgy. By the late 1990s/early 2000s, all this strange aggressive language crept in of what good creativity was about – it had to be edgy, pushing boundaries, destructive, disruptive, shocking. 

Some of the award-winning campaigns are very clever but they have a sort of nastiness about them. Like the Volkswagen Lupo commercial from 2003, which is a weird bit of horror filmmaking. It’s brilliantly done, and everyone in the industry said it was fantastic, but I very much doubt whether it actually sold any Lupo cars to its audience of, basically, old-age pensioners.

"By the late 1990s/early 2000s, all this strange aggressive language crept in of what good creativity was about – it had to be edgy, pushing boundaries, destructive, disruptive, shocking" 

Awards can serve a purpose by encouraging craft and imagination, but they have gone wrong. Steve Harrison has a wonderful rant in his book about this and their current obsession with purpose-driven campaigns. I don’t agree with everything he says, but he’s making a very good point, which is complementary to mine. Purpose is another massive distraction, a way of being cool. Saving the planet is an important thing, but the idea that this is what advertising agencies do is completely illusory. 

GK The language the industry uses is very destructive. We talk about being in the trenches or blowing shit up. There’s a lot of traditionally male language. Would you say the industry’s male-dominated nature has had a long-term impact on the culture that exists around the work? Is there an opportunity to change this to promote diversity?

PF These are very complicated and subtle issues. But I think there is absolutely a connection between the fact that still only about 10% of creative directors are female in the UK and the language of machismo, which permeates talking about creativity and the culture of creative departments. 

We talk about how tough it is, how hard you’ve got to work, what you have to endure. But this idea that going into an office and writing a few 30-second commercials is the equivalent of a trip to the North Pole is a bit of a nonsense. It denies so many of the things that creativity should be about. It’s about imagination, trust, having fun. So many of the great ideas of the past came out of conversations in the pub. It’s that kind of relaxation that makes certain types of creativity possible and that is not celebrated.

It’s very easy to say that if you get the gender balance right, then everything else will be right. But gender imbalances are often more of a symptom than the cause. They are often a product of the way that the work has been defined. If you say, “this work is really tough”, that is a kind of coded message, given all that we’ve inherited from centuries of patriarchy, that this is a job for men, not women. It’s only a particular kind of personality (male or female) that is prepared to go for that. So I think the way it needs to be tackled is to redefine creativity and what the culture of a creative organisation should be about. 

GK As well as discussing popular campaigns like Sugar Puff’s Honey Monster, you talk about your own work you produced at BMP, such as the Barclaycard campaign with Rowan Atkinson. How has your own personal experience shaped this book?

PF Advertising for me has been a continual source of fascination, but also of frustration. Even in the 1970s, we’d create, say, an ad that shows a singing polar bear. We’d instinctively feel it was right, but we’d be unable to convince clients or researchers or even other people in the agency that it’s the right approach because it’s not doing the things advertising is supposed to do. 

What’s happening today is the logical progression of historic trends. As Thomas Frank writes brilliantly about in his book The Conquest of Cool, advertising found another way of not being vulgar – and that was it could be cool. It could do ads like Volkswagen’s “Think small”. It was great – another style of advertising that it could do really well, but it was not the same as creating [Leo Burnett’s] “Jolly Green Giant”. The ad industry celebrates Bill Bernbach [who created “Think small”] to idolatry and, of course, he deserves to be celebrated. They do not celebrate Leo Burnett, although in terms of popular campaigns and lasting brands that have actually generated fortunes for their owners, Leo Burnett did 50 times as much. 

I feel strongly about this. Good advertising is basically something popular, something that people like and something that makes brands famous. If those propositions are seen as in any way contrarian and/or provocative, then the advertising industry really has got something seriously wrong.

Read an extract from Why Does the Pedlar Sing? What Creativity Really Means in Advertising.

This piece was the first of two articles that ran in Campaign's March 2021 magazine edition, asking whether advertising has lost its purpose. The second article and industry response will be published tomorrow.