© David Abbott

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David Abbott, who died on 17 May 2014, was the co-founder and creative genius at the helm of Britain’s largest and possibly best ad agency, Abbott Mead Vickers.

He did not achieve the name recognition of the Saatchi brothers, Sir Martin Sorrell, Sir John Hegarty or that of the other David (who he was famously trained by before leaving to work with Bill Bernbach), but he was widely regarded as the greatest copywriter of his generation, a man of high principle, and one of Britain’s cultural forces in the past 40 years.

He created some of the most memorable campaigns of his era for clients including Volvo, The Economist, Sainsbury’s, Chivas Regal and the Yellow Pages which came trademarked with his masterful combination of wit, intelligence and humanity.

He attributed his agency’s prosperity to the creative side of the business and believed that running a successful agency was not difficult. “You basically stuff the place full of talent and allow that talent to bloom,” he advised. “So you have to have something that makes the great people want to come and work for you. And it’s never money. You can always earn more money at a bad agency because they need you more.”

There is no better way for a copywriter to be remembered than through his own words. So the following paraphrased advice he penned in 1995 for The Copy Book (one of the two most closely guarded books on my office shelf) is the best explanation for his legacy:

“I write with an Artline 200 Fine 0.4 Pentel — blue ink, never black. I generally work on A3 layout pads but will sometimes switch to an A4. Definitely low tech stuff. I write with my office door open. I keep my jacket on. My feet are usually on the table.

“Whatever the size of the pad, I write copy in column widths. (It’s) easier to get the word count right. Alongside, I jot down thoughts or phrases. I also write all the clichés and purple bits that clutter my head. I find that only by writing them down do I exorcise them.

“I rarely plan the shape of copy. By the time I come to write, the structure of the argument is in my brain. I spend time fact-finding and don’t start until I have too much to say. You (can’t) write fluent copy if you have to interrupt yourself with research. Dig first, then write.

“I’m a fast writer and in a sense I am not interested in words. I don’t own a Thesaurus. Words, for me, are the servants of the argument. I like them plain, simple and familiar.

“A change in procedure is often a good idea when you’re not getting one. I’ve been writing copy since 1960. I don’t panic and I know the best thing for me to do when tired or thwarted is to walk away. I might rework a headline 50 or 60 times to get the thought and balance exactly right.

“Agency life rarely allows for this level of concentration so I also write at home, late, or I’ll book a hotel room and work from there. This piece, for example, is being written at the kitchen table. Great copy has been written in cafés, on trains, on beaches, on planes, in cars — even occasionally at a desk. How you do it is less important than what you do.

“I’ve never been much of a theoriser about copywriting, but here are five things that I think are more or less true:

“1. Put yourself into your work. Use your life to animate your copy. If something moves you, chances are, it will touch someone else, too.

“2. Think visually. Ask someone to describe a spiral staircase and they’ll use their hands as well as words. Sometimes the best copy is no copy.

“3. If you believe that facts persuade (as I do), you’d better learn how to write a list so that it doesn’t read like a list.

“4. Confession is good for the soul and for copy, too. Bill Bernbach used to say “a small admission gains a large acceptance”. I still think he was right.

“5. Don’t be boring.”

Don’t Read This

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Stop. Don’t go further. Don’t read this. Turn back. This is your final warning. This is not good. You’re not agreeing with me? You can’t act like this. This is a crime. Final call. Last hope.

People love negatives. There’s a reason why Pay Half doesn’t work half as well as Half Off. A placard saying Peace Always doesn’t have the whack of Say No To War. The way Smoke Free doesn’t inflame the corrective abruptness of No Smoking. And Private Property doesn’t have the kick of No Trespassing.

But advertisers insist that using negation in any form is tantamount to brand suicide. In fact, many clients have a knee-jerk negative reaction to ads with negative headlines. Nobody Does It Better, in the hands of vanilla optimists would translate to Simply The Best, and rob the headline of its magic. They’ll urge you to be more positive, more upbeat — even though some of the most negative expressions are the stock-in-trade of the world of hard sell.

Just look at any supermarket shelf to see proof of products declaring themselves as not your ordinary…, or not for everybody…, thus boosting their desirability. So much so, that many concepts framed positively wouldn’t work as well as they do negatively: War Against Drugs. Don’t Drink & Drive. Life Sucks. Fear Factor. Trade Not Aid.

Still not convinced? How about a short walk down the street: Don’t Walk. No U-Turn. Danger. Deadend. Stop. No Entry. No Parking. Wrong Way. If it wasn’t for negatives, the newspaper industry would shut down: Three Die. Man Commits Suicide. Unemployment Soars. So would the cigarette industry: Smoking Kills. And promotions wouldn’t be the same without Limited Time Offer, Last Days, Final Offer and Closing Down.

Famous brands have been launched on negation: Lemon, Think Small, and Ugly, But It Gets You There, said a lot about VW’s self-effacing attitude. I Never Read The Economist (Management Trainee, aged 42), did the same for The Economist. And Probably… gave Heineken enormous possibilities. To a degree, the lackadaisical emphases of our vanilla optimists has worked: Hospitals have Visiting Hours. Banks have Banking Hours and commercial outlets have Business Hours — when an Opening/Closing Hours sign would work more effectively. And that’s just one example.

Why the sensibilities of ordinary people have to be indemnified against negation is anybody’s guess? Perhaps it’s indicative of the frailty with which organizations have come to consider their prospects: we’re not a ‘target’ audience for nothing. Or maybe they think that the looming shadow of Dr. No may infiltrate their brand’s veins and make its complexion unattractive for consumption. Perhaps the resilience, tenacity and resourcefulness of ordinary people is not something our brand corps wish to consider in their warlike stance. But if they did, they would merely stoop to conquer.

Negations work precisely because they go against the grain of expectations. A well-placed negation is almost always a strategy for wider participation. More than reverse persuasion, think of it as a reverse-invitation. You’re only allowed in if you’re cool enough. No minors allowed. Eighteen and above only. Exclusively for the privileged. In fact, brands that ‘get’ the negation culture identify more with a young and media-savvy audience who willingly rebel against the trappings of the previous generation while trying to create and make some sense out of their No World Order.

May be we confuse excessive negation in our lives with religiosity. As though there is some moral shortcoming in breaking The Law where The Bad will be punished. But negation isn’t bad. It is the shortest distance communicators travel to spark our minds, thrill our hearts, wake our passions and shake our systems out of sleep mode. When ideas behind brands stand brazenly corrected, they lean towards an ultimate state of sterile uniformity. Instead of breaking the system (the rules), they become a systemic function of it — indivisible, inebriated and, ultimately, ineffective.

No?

A Statesman’s Sartorial Statement

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Can you really ever say good-bye to a force of nature?

Nelson Mandela, affectionately known as Tata Madiba, dedicated his life to political struggle, to human rights, to rid society of discrimination, injustice and inequality — and rounded it with love, forgiveness, wisdom, character and determination. The list of tributes will never end for South Africa’s greatest son.

But there was something else the statesman used to make a statement. It was his flamboyant wardrobe of signature printed shirts that came to be known as the Madiba Shirt throughout Africa and the rest of the world. A set of dynamic, patterned graphics and earthen colours that showcased Mandela’s identification with his people, his cause, and the ground beneath his feet.

Yet, when you look back at him as young lawyer and vigilante of the ANC in the 1950s, Mandela was seen in bespoke double- and single-breasted suits in the tradition of Savile Row, a throwback to formal British colonial authority. Early photographs, such as that of him after the Sharpeville Massacre in 1960, where 69 protestors were shot and, in turn, galvanized anti-apartheid world opinion, show him on bended knee, burning his passbook, focused on a mission to free oppression — in his elegant and tailored shirtsleeves.

Several decades later, however, the irony of that image was corrected when Mandela refused Giorgio Armani’s generous offer to design for him. After all, for Mandela to wear Armani, a label that denotes glamorous elitism, would have been a political disaster.

Mandela was as perceptive about sartorial language as he was about politics. He must have felt that anyone imposing a style on him (especially after 27 years of donning 46664*, the number on his prison uniform) was in fact creating another act of imposition, another set of imported restrictions, however subtle, that he had dedicated his life to eliminating. He needed a new way to be seen as a man of the people.

So he settled on an original set of visual cues. He focused on local produce, wearing suits by long-term tailor Yusuf Surtee, whose father had made clothes for Mandela before his imprisonment, and later working with South African designers Desré Buirski and Sonwabile Ndamase who evolved his trademark look: a loose-fitting, comfortable and visually arresting garment cut long so it hangs over the trousers, both coloured and plain, with a conventional pointed collar — effectively, a twist on the long-sleeved baggy khaki shirts worn by black South Africans in the 1940s and 1950s.

Wearing an informal garment was Mandela’s way to sartorially identify with the majority who could never afford suits. The story goes that President Suharto of Indonesia presented him print shirts in October 1990 and he liked them. The fabric was batik, decorative and distinctly un-Western, in natural fibers. They inspired him to seek more. And that inspiration came in the form of a gift by designer Desré Buirski who was attending one of Mandela’s speeches to a local Jewish community.

“When I returned to the motorcade,” Mandela reflects, “my driver handed me a gift from a women who had attended the synagogue that morning. It was a beautiful black shirt, with a colorful design of golden fish across it. I chose to wear that shirt to the opening of parliament of our new democratic government.” It was a powerful statement: the president in a hand-painted silk shirt on the cover of an Afrikaans newspaper looking both relaxed, contemporary, and distinguished — even from a distance. “After I had worn that shirt, this same woman would continue to send me shirts. We become good friends, and she designed hundreds of shirts for me. These shirts help me carry my message all over the world.”

Without taking credit away from its designers, if anyone is responsible for the Madiba Shirt, it is Mandela himself. “Appearances matter,” Mandela famously said, “and remember to smile.” Rather than being evangelized as a fashion icon, the shirt is a tribute to Mandela’s expansive spirit of independence. “He changed the dress code for men in South Africa overnight,” believes Lucilla Booyzen, director of South African Fashion Week, giving them “the right to wear a shirt without a tie, without being seen as trendy or super-fashionable.”

By carrying his beliefs in his pocket and by wearing his heart on his sleeve, Nelson Mandela brightened the lives of an extraordinary diversity of races, tribes and creeds that make up The Rainbow Nation and, in doing so, harbored them with a hope that remains equally wide.

 

*466/64: Nelson Mandela was sent to prison on Robben Island in 1964; he was the 466th prisoner to arrive that year. He was given the prison number 46664.

The Great Brand Stand

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Here are seven notes every brand should scale.

So imagine that you’re a conductor. In the middle of a park. Standing on the edge of your band stand. You’re accompanied by an erudite group of musicians proficient in their instrument of choice. They all know the score. But you know the audience. That’s the lot loitering in the park, looking at you with the passive amusement reserved for animals in a zoo. And why not? You’re oddly dressed, surrounded by a chorus of alien sounds, caged for entertainment, and making a living by being out of place and out of your comfort zone. If this sounds like advertising, it is.

Because as a brand manager, you know that the secret of reaching hearts is through the power of feelings. And as a conductor, you know how to orchestrate those feelings. Which is why the Great Brand Stand is composed of seven key notes. Each note, if tuned, stretched and struck with felicity will lie in perfect order and pitch a perfect melody. But should even one note fall out of place, it takes your reputation with it. So you tap your podium. Take a deep breath. And begin:

Note 1. Does it inspire?
At first glance, your brand should inspire choice and trigger the imagination. Send it out into the world beautifully dressed, immaculately groomed, harnessed for attention and adulation.
Note 2. Does it deliver?
Can your brand’s cosmetics deliver the cosmic? Charisma, after all, only goes as far as character. Your brand’s promise should be as hard to break as its quality, reliability and reason for being.
Note 3. Does it standout?
It’s easy to be a star at home. But to standout in a galaxy comes with self-luminous brilliance; with the kind of personality we can trust to help us navigate and see the world around us more clearly.
Note 4. Is it meaningful?
With the fragmentation of traditions, brands (or, ideas that brands stand for) are providing us with contemporary life’s governing ideas. How does your brand strike its chord of relevance?
Note 5. Is it entertaining?
It’s amazing how many cultivated professionals excel at cultivating boredom. Boredom never sold anything. When you bore people, they fall asleep. And nobody buys anything when they’re asleep.
Note 6. Does it conspire?
Every institution (including friendship, marriage, etc.) has its share of indelible secrets. This bond excites a daily dose of loyalty. What’s the secret, binding ingredient — the kick — in your brand?
Note 7. Is it consummate?
And, lastly, is your brand the best that it can be? Is it really without equal? Does it leave your prospects wanting more? Is every inch of its emotional landscape groomed, managed and policed?

That’s it. You’ve scored. But isn’t all of this just a little too ‘musical’? Where are the hard numbers? The concrete objectives? The solid, quarterly results that prove without doubt that all this emotional laissez-faire has a place in business?

May be Sir Colin Marshall, who inherited a sluggish and brittle brand, can help answer how he transformed it into “the world’s favourite airline.” British Airways understood that it was dealing with people’s impressions and feelings. In fact, all of us in this business do. But that’s very little concrete evidence to go by — as your sales guys and accountants will not miss an opportunity to tell you. But impressions and feelings prove that people don’t actually buy an object (they never have). People buy an experience. BA clearly realised that their product was not a seat but more comprehensively an experience being orchestrated across the airline. “That orchestration,” Sir Colin Marshall explains, “is the brand.”

Over to you, Mr. Conductor. Play that song, once more, with feeling.

A Taste for Quality

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People have an eye for everything.

An eye for talent. An eye for value. An eye for an eye. Likewise, many of us in advertising have that ubiquitous eye for quality. Example: “Why will a picture of this peanut cost me a bomb?” Answer: “Because we can give you…” (wait for it), “… Quality.”  And so the billing begins.

The lure of quality, no matter how ephemeral, rakes in the bucks. It is, after all, a noble pursuit. The art director who will travel 10 miles out-of-town to look for that perfect prop knows the anguish of quality. The typographer who will spend hours kerning a headline knows the frustration of quality. And the copywriter whose lucidity is blocked with ‘white paper blues’ knows the terror of quality. For many creative professionals, quality trademarks our passions and benchmarks our aspirations.

Once the relentless drive for quality has been driven by the few and the determined, its grip is unwavering and accumulative. The creatives who straddle mind-bending, life-changing ideas will rarely lasso a livestock of clichés. The designer who swims in the translucent ease of the latest Mac will question the sophistication of its predecessor. And the publisher who raises a dead word to a breathing experience on handmade paper will cremate its flat, matte counterpart — well, at least in spirit.

To be a charsee of quality, to use the vernacular, is an act of evolving dependence of psychotropic involvement. Like thick smoke, discoveries in one circle merge with and inspire discoveries in yet another. Onwards and upwards until there is a signature reel of connectivity. Perhaps this is why agencies that do ‘good work’ multiply their ‘goodness’? Good clients, good people, good standing and good omens seem like a natural extension of their good fortune.

Similarly, people dedicated to the pursuit of professional quality enjoy a higher, more personal quality of life. From their wardrobes to their living spaces, there is a seamlessness of association that seems to be the hallmark of their individuality and reputation. I know you can hear the ‘but’ just around the corner.

But an eye for quality is not the same as having an eye for taste. There is no guarantee, after all, that the guy who buys the finest brand of family car will deface it with a tail-fin and a leopard-skin interior. Or the client who wishes to amplify his sterling product strengths will romance them skilfully enough into our lifestyles. Or the account executive who gets an approval for an inventory of benefits will deliver them in single-minded doses. All of this requires what Brett Anderson, editorial writer at Robb Report, calls “the organizing faculty of taste.”

Assessed distinctly from the virtues of quality, taste is not a personal pronouncement, he explains, but “a principle of selection that guides our choices in order to accentuate the intrinsic value of an object, as well as its harmonious relation to other objects with which it is associated.” Which suggests that both quality and taste are neither contrived nor relative. But, like languages, they are a consolidated means of articulation. Objects (watches, ads, clothes, etc.) of high quality possess a natural syntax that governs the ways they communicate to people and to each other.

Taste, then, is merely a matter of detecting and respecting the grammar of this logic, such that, Anderson adds, “…our pleasure in and understanding of these (objects) transcends the sum of their parts.” At the end of the day, it is erudite distinctions such as these which point to a taste for quality in the first place.

So as we brace ourselves for the next few years of challenges and opportunities in advertising in Pakistan, we should dedicate our professions to the quality of what we do. Not in the TQM or ISSO way espoused by management journals, but, increasingly, as a measure of our collective vision. And, more importantly, the taste with which we administer such quality. Perhaps, then, some of us will find that the “organizing faculty” of this ability will reveal itself as a natural talent for our growth and legacy.

 

The Beautiful & The Damned

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Why Shakespeare wrote something about how beauty lies in the eye of the beholder is beyond me. Because, five centuries later, his literary injection of self-serving individualism continues to be used liberally by the ugly to defend the ugly. May be I’m being too harsh. But a miscarriage of aesthetic justice such as this wrongly implies an open door policy that suggests anything goes, everyone’s invited, anybody will be welcomed.

Because when people complain that it’s so hard to get ads noticed these days, they forget that good design — a function of beauty — is not a choice that is governed by varying, independent tastes. Instead, it is hardwired into our brains through biological programming, administered by hypersonic circuits, and shaped and reinforced by natural selection over thousands of years. People naturally gravitate towards the beautiful. Not out of choice. But out of instinct.

Nancy Etcoff, author of Survival of the Prettiest, writes: “Good looking people are more likely to win arguments… persuade others… get away with anything from shoplifting to cheating at exams… attractive people tend to be more confident… more likely to think they’re in control…(W)e expect attractive people to be better at everything from piloting a jet plane to making love… (F)or practically any positive quality, people will assume that good-looking people have more of it, do it better and enjoy it more….”  Likewise, founder of US-based Artificial Intelligence, Marvin Minsky, says all human cultures are beauty cultures. Apart from being attractive to the eye, beauty neutralises. The sight of beauty tells the mind to stop evaluating, selecting, criticising. And start acting.

Design, which is best defined as 98% common sense and 2% aesthetics, is an open door to basic attraction. Paulina Poriskova, once billed as the most beautiful woman in the world during her modelling career, was quick to point out that the hype is a result of the distance between her features being mathematically desirable — unless her mom made love to an inch-tape.

The perception of beauty, its logic and its flawless absolutes, applies to people as well as things. Norio Ohga, then CEO & chairman of Sony, explained that they didn’t see themselves as a technological company but rather as being in the design business: “At Sony, we assume all products of our competitors will have basically the same technology, price, performance and features. Design is the only thing that differentiates one product from another in the marketplace.”

Michael Newman of the international ideas consultancy, Brandnewman, agrees: “Flowers don’t attract bees with a list of their pollen’s attributes.” Tom Peters adds: “Design is advantage… (it) is wildly under-appreciated as a strategic opportunity… especially in service firms.” Similarly, Christoper Lorenz wrote: “No longer can comparative advantage be sustained for long (in the marketplace). The design dimension is no longer an optional part of the marketing and corporate strategy, but should be at their very core.”

In Marketing Aesthetics, Bernd, Schmitt and Alex Simonson devote chapters to concepts like “managing aesthetic experiences,” “aesthetics strategy,” and “mapping strategic vision to sensory stimuli.” They talk about the look, feel, sound, taste, texture, colour and smell, and fold it into the vividly singular and pleasurable brand “experience.” Proving that these are no longer disparate presentation and packaging issues, but core advertising considerations.

The point is that your ad is one of your brand’s ambassadors. Send it out into the world clean and chiseled, beautifully dressed and in good humour. Not harrowed in detail and obsessed with itself. Not ridiculed with graphic distractions and irregular elements. Consumers consume advertising with their eyes. If your ads are sharp, clear and confident of success, then so is your brand. Professor Robert Hayes at Harvard Business School doesn’t doubt the importance of design either: “Fifteen years ago, companies competed on price. Today it’s quality. Tomorrow it’s design.”

Good design is the architecture of beauty. Beautiful surroundings, beautiful things and beautiful people suggest a sense of arrival, a willing ownership based on the all too human hypothesis that The Beautiful is also The Good. If it works for people, then it works for the advertising people consume. By policing and promoting beauty there will be no dearth of rewards as Anthony Patch, the glamorous character in F. Scott Fitzgerald‘s novel, The Beautiful and Damned, upheld when he declared, “The victors belong to the spoils.”

More proof, with due apologies to John Keats, that a thing of beauty is a ploy forever.

 

The Naked Ad

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The ad industry doesn’t succeed by being the add industry. Yet we continue to pound and stuff our ads with the entrails of detail that nobody is willing to digest. Until and unless ads are not stripped to their bare essentials, they will fail to seduce the consumer’s roving eye.

Advertising is seduction. It’s the tone, style, charm, presentation and timing that’s effective. It’s more manner than matter. And like seduction, you know when it’s been successful or unsuccessful, in good taste or poor. More importantly, it cannot be accomplished with numbers. By reaching for the hard data, we miss the human data. Just because we can’t measure and store big emotions, feelings or spirituality in a hard drive, it does not mean we can continue ignoring the most powerful components of powerful advertising.

Even though we know that we should keep ads simple and single-minded, what we often forget is that competing elements within our own advertising space are equally detrimental to keeping the prospect glued to the message once his attention has been flagged. American designer and illustrator, Bob Gill, explains, “There are thousands of images competing with yours for the audience’s attention. If and when the audience gets around to yours, make sure the elements within your design don’t compete with each other.”

But how can we resist? We’re greedy. We include everything that’s not wanted. An average print ad, for instance, usually features the following competing elements: headline; visual (sometimes more than one); bodycopy; tagline; logo; and miscellaneous subheads, bold telephone numbers, pack shot(s), dealer panels, disclaimers, coupons, etc. Yet, David Ogilvy, whose famous Rolls Royce ad ran without a logo, warned, “Never use more than three elements in your design.”

The problem with all these additions is that the more there is to pull and randomly distract the eye, the easier it is for the attention of the reader to slip right off the page. If your communication isn’t economical enough in the attention economy, your audience will take your money and leave you with a fat chance.

But when faced with the daunting task of stripping down, middle management insists that they have to justify their salaries. So they cover every inch of ad space to — in effect — cover their ass. Not realizing that in the attention economy, advertising is an US$ 500 billion (plus, plus, plus) industry that only buys you a shot at the attention zone of your target. To get beyond that, you need to simplify, simplify and simplify to keep their attention. But, “how difficult it is to be simple,” said Van Gogh.

The trick is to minimize the number of distractions within your ad by ruthlessly and brutally subtracting the elements. Someone once accurately billed this as being a “clutter-cutter.” Because, like the Chinese proverb says, “you cannot leap a chasm in two leaps.” You can’t be a little simple. Or kind of simple. Or may be, sort of simple. It’s hit or miss. After all, it’s what you remove from an ad that often makes it more powerful. Input and output travel inversely in advertising. Michael Newman, global industry star and longtime creative director of Saatchi & Saatchi Australia, wrote it more memorably: “The bigger the eyeful, the less the mindful.”

Agencies and clients bent upon considering ads as handsome unions of diverse opinions should turn to Nietzsche (a man who was known for sporting an unusually large moustache) who said, “In the eyes of people seeing us for the first time … usually we are nothing more than a single individual trait which leaps to the eye and determines the whole impression we make.” Or even Henri Matisse, illustrator and painter, who earned a reputation for himself by treating the page he illustrated (its edges, textures, dimensions, etc.) as one and indivisible from his image.

The point is that no matter how heavy the client brief, how deep and wide our creative resources, it is clarity, simplicity and cut-through we should aim for where the entirety of an ad telecasts our communication in one single rifle shot and not shot-gun blasts.

Then again, simplicity isn’t simple. “Writing music is easy,” said Johannes Brahms, “what is hard, is knowing which notes to use, and which to let fall to the ground.” Likewise, Ernest Hemingway, the king of vivid brevity, observed that “It’s a good thing for a writer to have a built-in crap detector.” Michelangelo said the same thing — only more delicately: “Beauty is the purgation of superfluities.” But it was Tony Cox, award-winning English copywriter, who said it best: “Inside every fat ad there’s a thin ad trying to get out!”

With your ad having less than 1.5 seconds to make its point and presence felt, strip it naked. Real exposure, after all, is shameless.

Iron Branding

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It was the ad that rocketed Margaret Thatcher to power and ushered in Britain’s first female and longest-continuous serving prime minister on three back-to-back victories and 18 years of Tory rule — with three, stinging words.

Labour Isn’t Working wasn’t just a political provocation. It remains the single most significant piece of political communication in British history. It was also an exposition of Thatcherism — that is, minimal government and maximum personal responsibility — designed to level up, to generate prosperity, which in turn could help the disadvantaged. As Margaret Thatcher summed up, “the facts of life do inevitably turn out to be Tory.”

Ironically, Thatcher proved smarter at recognizing the poster’s impact than the legendary Saatchi brothers. Charles Saatchi — the reclusive creative force of the agency — had rejected Labour Isn’t Working. But it was re-inserted into the final presentation by Andrew Rutherford — the anonymous copywriter who authored it. Thatcher is said to have called it “wonderful” the moment she held it — suggesting she had a better instinct for political communication than those hired to provide it.

The media sensation provoked by Labour Isn’t Working — which showed a long, snaking dole queue leading up to an unemployment office — thrashed Callaghan’s government forcing him to postpone the general election which only further aggravated his authority which had already been shredded by a series of labour strikes known collectively as the ‘winter of discontent’ — a Shakespearian reference to post-war Britain that was in the maw of national decline, throttled by socialism, and left to rot as the sick man of Europe.

Unlike their American counterparts, British political parties had never hired agencies to run campaigns which were developed pro bono by supporters. Thatcher, however, was persuaded that a trend-setting, creative agency could make all the difference. She was right, of course. But there are as many myths as there are truths about the precise role of the Saatchis. After all, they were credited with changing everything from her voice to her every move in their role as her closest advisors.

While their campaigns are the stuff of legend, the truth is that Charles Saatchi had never met Thatcher having even declined to attend her celebrations at No.10 when she was voted into power. To this day, they have never shaken hands.

The public image of Thatcher was largely managed by Gordon Reece, a mediaman she appointed as her Director of Publicity in February 1978. In fact, it was one of his first decisions to appoint Saatchi & Saatchi Garland Compton as the party’s advertising agency. Moreover, it was his idea to present Thatcher doing the washing-up, shopping for groceries, fussing over prices, and to be seen as a working housewife.

Reece ‘softened’ Thatcher. He hired a National Theatre coach to train her to lower and deepen her voice, advised her on clothing, accompanied her to interviews, and steered her from belligerent interviewers who could make her sound or appear strident. Till her very last day, she was pitch-perfect — not a hair out of place — and a persona cast from hot iron. Thatcher agrees: On the unveiling of her statue at the Houses of Parliament, she quipped, “I might have preferred iron; but bronze will do.”

In his tribute, Prime Minister David Cameron called Thatcher, “… the least conservative Conservative.” For, politics aside, she had a full sense of the theatre of herself. She challenged consensus, fostered destructive dialogue for constructive ends, all the while fully conscious of her womanhood — holding her Cabinet in one hand and a cuppa in the other.

While millions view her as a force to be defined against, Maurice Saatchi (now Lord Saatchi, Chairman of the Conservative Party) explained Thatcher’s winning formula best — a secret that those of us who work in branding and advertising already know: “(She) understood that if you stand for something, you will have people for you and people against you. But if you stand for nothing, you will have nobody for you and nobody against you.

As a conviction politician, Margaret Thatcher took her stand and proved that when you do stand resolutely for something you believe in, history follows.

 

 

Noises On

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It seems that the very reason clients choose agencies which appear outwardly professional is the very reason they shouldn’t.

Quiet corridors, collared dress codes, time-recorders, contact reports (etc.) may run a business. But they don’t generate ideas. And agencies are citadels of ideas. They were born to be loud, vibrant, noisy, obnoxious places. The question, of course, is not one of professionalism, at all. But of freedom. The freedom to voice opinions, the freedom to exchange divergent views, the freedom to flirt with danger, the freedom to come late, the freedom to wear what you want, the freedom to be all your multiple selves.

Agencies which harbour freedom (that’s freedom, not chaos) set their people in motion. And motion doesn’t come without friction. A bloody nose in the name of freedom is better than the dry discipline of a workhorse. Consider what Salman Rushdie read at the International Conference on Freedom of Expression in Washington DC in April 1992:“Free people strike sparks, and those sparks are the best evidence of freedom’s existence. Totalitarian (societies) seek to replace the many truths of freedom by the one truth of power (be it secular in our case, or religious in Rushdie’s); to halt the motion of (society), to snuff its spark. Unfreedom’s primary purpose is to shackle the mind.”

Since so much of our business is about the produce of a free mind — about ringing facts with truth — it’s surprising how many agencies willingly muffle their voice with client-speak. Notwithstanding the natural tendency for agencies to please or cooperate, clients who are absolutely comfortable with the work of the minds they have hired to rock the market are doing their counterparts a disservice. Because they are dictating the rules of the game.

John Stuart Mill‘s great essay, On Liberty, explains why: “The peculiar evil of silencing the expression of an opinion is that it is robbing the human race, posterity as well as the existing generation — [robbing] those who dissent from the opinion, still more than those who hold it. [For] if the opinion is right, they are deprived of the opportunity of exchanging error for truth; if wrong, they lose what is almost as great a benefit, the clearer perception and livelier impression of truth produced by its collision with error.”

Agencies which harbour freedom do not preserve their freedom by pussyfooting around the opinions of others. Even around cherished beliefs. In free agencies, like free societies, there must be argument and a free play of ideas that must be allowed to collide with passion and division. A free agency, like a free society, is not placid. That is the kind of static and eventless environment dictators want. A free agency is dynamic, noisy, turbulent and full of radical disagreements. Proving again that skepticism is, after all, the Siamese twin of freedom.

At the risk of stereotyping, the born skeptics in our industry are primarily the creatives. And the creative process is similar to the processes of a free society where many attitudes rub against platitudes, where many views of the world are inflicted on, and conflicting within, the artist. And from these varying factions, the friction — the spark or work of art — is born.

Denis Diderot (novelist-philosopher of the French Enlightenment) spoke of the dispute within him between the commercial-rational and the moral-spiritual: “It infuriates me,” he said, “to be enmeshed in a devilish philosophy which my mind is forced to accept but my heart to disown.” Likewise, it is the innate disrespect creatives have — for hierarchies, for rules, for ideologies, for rank, for wealth, for inanity, for corruption, may be even for advertising — that we are capable of producing our best. It only makes sense that this fusion of positive and negative — this brand of electricity they generate — is plugged into every socket of agency life.

Like democracy, freedom’s anathema is purity. Purity of anything (opinion, orders, race, beliefs, etc.) sucks. Purity leads to wars. Which is why the exercise of freedom is freedom’s best defense. So go for it. Kick the door wide open. Raise hell. And make some noise. It’s the most professional thing you’ll do in your career.

 

Getting Laid: The Secret Behind Powerful Layouts

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My friend J — also known as J — was on holiday in the Maldives. When I received her beautifully handwritten letter of no less than 3000 words, I couldn’t believe how much fun she was having. The parties, the scuba diving, the cruises and the idyllic beauty were described lovingly in immaculate detail. I was really excited with J’s letter. Except I couldn’t get round to believing she was having fun. Because if she were, how did she find the time to write an exhaustively detailed letter? More importantly, why write to me? I only met her once, in Spain, over a Mimosa.

Meanwhile, my tutor Charles Parker — affectionately known as Charles Parker — was dying. When he sent me a postcard from his deathbed, I thought he was being ‘wicked.’ Then, when I missed his funeral and forgot to convey my condolences to his family, I was flummoxed. Because to this day, I cannot understand why the ‘wish you were here’ postcard was sent to me from his deathbed. It just didn’t make sense.

Then, during one of my ensuing crises of anxiety, it occurred to me that even though J. and Charles Parker selected the right medium (“the written word,” as someone said, “is the deepest dagger you can drive into a man’s soul”), they made a regrettable layout decision. J’s party-girl image and Charles Parker’s sincerity would have remained better intact had they chosen each other’s layouts to contain their respective messages.

Which is just the point. Letters and postcards define the two layout choices you have when you begin considering the visual direction of a campaign. It all boils down to whether you want the look of your print ads to be more visual or more verbal?

Here’s how it works. A postcard is a visually-led ad. Not always, but mostly. Big picture and very few words. That’s very, very few words. A letter, however, is copy-led. Letters have hundreds — even thousands — of words with no picture or a comparatively small visual accompaniment. A postcard is something you will send from a holiday. A letter, on the other hand, is something you might send from your deathbed. Between these two extremes of emotional experience lie the visual solutions to your ad. Which is to say, something that’s light, fun and not wholly important ought to be a postcard. The more serious it gets, however, the more like a letter it ought to appear. It’s that simple.

But whatever you do, be single-minded. Choose one or the other. Either the visual must dominate or the words. Because if there’s no emphasis, the effect will be totally lost. It’s like cramming a lot of copy beneath a big picture. An approach of ‘anything goes,’ with no regard to building relationships, will compromise your audience.

Examples? Well, there’s no hard and fast rule. But typically, lifestyle brands like beverages, perfumes, snacks, fashion and related accessories relish postcards. The images they create telegraph our fantasies back to us. But ingenious agencies have created stunning examples of postcards for brands that would normally fall in the letters category. Take the Economist campaign by Abbot Mead Vickers, London. From the once long-copy, letter ads to the revolutionary poster campaign which continues to evolve with witty one-liners against a red background. Notice: no pictures — but they’re still postcards (and it all started when David Abbott was staring at the magazine’s logo).

And so, the serious side of life is covered by letters. The financial and medical sectors, charities and lobbies, vehicle manufactures or any group that is asking us for a higher than usual investment prefer letters. But letters aren’t meant to be boring. London-based Leagas Delaney‘s beautifully crafted letters for English Heritage and Timberland Boots are part of classic advertising glory.

But isn’t a picture worth a thousand words? Why go ‘long’ when you can go ‘short’? Isn’t everybody saying that advertising today is visual and not verbal? This debate has gone on for as long as anyone can remember. But the fact of the matter is that certain propositions demand words, certain propositions demand pictures. And we must take the right decision based on the product, the market and the proposition.

Which reminds me, I have to write back to J and I can’t decide whether I should send her a letter or a postcard? You’re right: I’ll send her an e-mail.

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