Cash out and proud

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As the Sydneysiders among you know, the Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras is a massive deal over here. It’s on this weekend and it feels like the whole city is gearing up for a party. I love this celebration of the festival from ANZ bank – these colourfully-decorated ‘GAYTMs’ have popped up all over the city.

Brands trying to jump on board cultural events can often be a great big cringe but this feels just right. With the colourful cladding, bespoke messaging and rainbow-design receipts, the tonality and the execution are spot on. And with all ATM operator fees going to Twenty10, a charity for young people struggling with gender/sexuality issues, the initiative feels credible rather than opportunistic. Judging from the groups of people I see taking pictures of them on their smartphones, these GAYTMs are a massive hit. Nice work, Whybin/TBWA.

Hey, Andrex, I’ve come up with your next campaign for you!

over vs under final

Regular readers will recall that I’m not a fan of Andrex’s recent campaigns, particularly the wannabe social phenomenon that was #ScrunchOrFold. I know you’re probably bored of me banging on about it – “Let it go Ant, we don’t want to hear about bum-wiping ads anymore!” I hear you say – but I’m still fascinated that anyone could think it’d be a good idea to gauge the public’s arse-wiping techniques over social media.

After #ScrunchOrFold Andrex did a public service-style campaign warning about the evils of ‘Rollaphobia’ – the irritating phenomenon of people not replacing finished toilet rolls. If Andrex did want to continue their run of toilet-based social memes and go for a hat-trick, how about #OverOrUnder? We could go back to the stars of the #ScrunchOrFold ad to gauge their views on the best method for hanging a toilet roll. I can see the vox-pop montage ad in my head – the whacky IT guy with the pink tie would grin and say “Don’t make a massive blunder, hang your loo roll with the paper under!”; the macho squash guy would sharply assert “It’s gotta be over…just like this conversation”; the inappropriately seductive girl would take a suggestive sip of an Old-Fashioned and flirtatiously murmur “Definitely under…”

The ad would spark a national debate which would spill out onto social media via #OverOrUnder. Print and broadcast media would be all over it, news channels would cover it, there’d be heated debates on shop floors, in schools, offices…Parliament. The debate would have such impact and resonance that it would become a global issue, discussed by the WTO, IMF and at the G8 Summit. @BarakObama would tweet I’m an ‘over’ man myself…always telling Michelle, it’s gotta be ‘over’. #OverOrUnder and his 40 million followers would go nuts. The Pope would Instagram a picture of his bog roll in The Vatican, captioned It’s the duty of all good Roman Catholics to go ‘under’. Jesus Christ himself was an ‘under’ man. #OverOrUnder 

The campaign would win Cannes Lions, D&AD Black Pencils, BAFTAs, Grammys, the Nobel Peace Prize. But, most importantly of all, we’d finally come to understand wha…aargh sorry, I got carried away for a minute there. I’m becoming obsessed with toilet roll advertising. Right, enough, stop! This is my last ever post on Andrex campaigns, I promise.

Is this the cleverest ad ever or just a massive pain in the arse?

 

A couple of years ago, I worked on a campaign for Sony Mobile based around their sponsorship of the James Bond movie, Skyfall. The process was fascinating, we got some good work away (including this ad) and, along the way, I got exposed to very interesting details around how these kind of movie/brand tie-ups work. As anyone who’s seen Skyfall will attest, it’s one of those movies which are clearly part-funded by brands in exchange for prominent product placement. I enjoyed the film and, in my previous role as an advocate for Sony Mobile’s brilliant smartphones, the lingering shots of Daniel Craig staring at his Sony Xperia were a win…sort of.

I say ‘sort of’ because I’m not a lover of product placement. While I’m not sure how effective it is for brands I am sure that it fatally compromises the artistic integrity of any creative endeavour. For example, I’m a fan of House of Cards. Some absurd plot twists aside (Season 2, Episode 1 = jumped the shark), I really like it as a dark counterpart to The West Wing. However, I find the constant Apple product placement both distracting and infuriating. It was the same with The Wire – brilliant, game-changing show but utterly compromised by the long, lingering shots of Heineken logos every time McNulty had a beer or even went anywhere near a bar.

I’m well aware that the world is changing rapidly and that the relationship between creativity and money is in a state of flux. Everyone’s searching for the perfect paradigm. Between organisations like iTunes, Spotify, Google, Amazon and so on, who knows where we’ll end up. Just recently the ‘chief content officer’ of Netflix, Ted Sarandos, said “The goal is to become HBO faster than HBO can become us.” So it’s game on and, hopefully, while the platforms and producers fight it out, the artists and consumers can be the winners. However, at the same time, I’m not naïve and I understand that intelligent, challenging work needs financial backing to find its way to market. But I believe that, just like church and state, brand and creative end product should be kept fundamentally separate. Once you open the door and allow product in, every artistic decision in the creative work is open to question.

This thinking reminded me of the time at Saatchi London years ago,  when Lee Daley came in as the new CEO. Lee was a fascinating, charismatic, energetic bloke, bursting with new ideas for the way the industry could and should work. He was a big advocate of product placement and felt that, in a world of TiVo and other ad blocking technologies, traditional advertising could be on its way out soon to be replaced by the working of brand messages into entertainment. So ardent was his belief that a special branded content division was set up and creatives all over the agency were formed into groups tasked with coming up with product placement ideas for the various brands we worked on. Some interesting bits and pieces came out of it – most memorably the world’s first girl group available for hire by brands – but nothing that set the world alight.

Perhaps product placement can be intelligent ad powerful. Perhaps the movie Castaway resonated more with viewers by featuring FedEx rather than a fictionalised dispatch company. And perhaps the infamous Johnnie Walker Blue Label product placement (above), which was clearly written with genuine insight, generated a kudos and credibility that no telly ad ever could. But for me, the bottom line is that when I’m listening to/looking at/reading/watching a work of creativity, I want to soak up the creator’s vision. I don’t want the world that they’ve painstakingly created to have been influenced by anything other than creative considerations or to be polluted by elements outside of that vision. I want to get lost in their world and be seduced by their imagination, rather than pulled back to the cold hard world of commerce by a ridiculously overlong shot of a logo on a laptop.

“Nobody knows anything.”

mornington-crescent

Do you know the game Mornington Crescent? It’s a regular feature on the Radio 4 comedy panel show, I’m Sorry, I Haven’t Got A Clue. For those not familiar with the show, ISIHGAC is a kind of satirical piss-take of panel gameshows, with the main aim being for the contestants to be amusing rather than actually winning anything. Mornington Crescent is a game often ‘played’ within the show – the objective is to give the appearance of a game of skill and strategy, with complex and long-winded rules and bye-rules. Contestants name London landmarks in an apparently strategic sequence, utilising various gambits and manouevres along the way. For example, players might use the Kentish Town Defensive Opening or the Mortlake Play. They might invoke Trumpington’s Variations, Tudor Court Rules or the Martello Convention and they may put opposing players ‘in Nidd’. The aim is to be the first to announce “Mornington Crescent!”

The joke – which everyone except uninitiated listeners is in on – is that the various strategies, rules and variations are all completely improvised. While all of the contestants sound like experts in this arcane, labyrinthine parlour game, no-one actually knows how to play Mornington Crescent – because there’s no actual game, just a long-winded, absurdist in-joke. The ‘winner’ is the contestant who ‘plays’ with the improvisational dexterity, confidence and self-assurance. Or, to put it another way, the best bullshitter.

While I find most Radio 4 comedy panel games smug, annoying and – worst of all – utterly unfunny, Mornington Crescent is often hilarious. The idea of a bunch of clever people tying themselves in daft, esoteric knots, like some inverted comedy version of The Emperor’s New Clothes, is fascinating. And it really reminds me of advertising. So many times I’ve sat in bemusement as rooms full of extremely bright people have talked around and around a problem, throwing jargon and acronyms around like confetti and completely missing the utterly simple answer right in front of them. Just like Mornington Crescent, the ‘winner’ in advertising is often the person who can present their point of view with the most impressive balance of eloquence and confidence. But no matter how self-assured the brightest advertising people may seem, no matter how persuasive those articulate brainiacs fluent in marketing jargon can be, I find it liberating to remember that vast swathes of what we do are completely subjective. That most of the debates we have every day come down to ego and opinion. And that in advertising, just as the legendary screenwriter William Goldman famously wrote of the Hollywood film industry, “Nobody knows anything.”

Clothes. Words. Ideas. Passion. Soul.

 

Regular readers will know that I’m a Dexys (Midnight Runners) nut. The music, ideas and performances of this band are as precious to me today as they were to the 17-year old me whose mind got blown by a rubbish quality cassette copy of Don’t Stand Me Down. Which is why I’m ridiculously excited about this forthcoming new film. Check out the trailer and marvel at the intense passion and sobering honesty of one of the greatest ever British songwriter/performers.

When the product doesn’t live up to the idea

 

Bill Bernbach once said that great advertising makes a bad product fail faster, because it’ll get more people to know it’s bad. I think, related to that, there’s another pitfall for brands, along the lines of good ideas making not-so-good products look bad in comparison. This whisky ad is a perfect example. Great story and lovely piece of film-making but when the product line gets delivered at the end it’s jarring verging on laughable. It just makes me think, “Shit, after all the old fella’s gone through, you’re only going to get him a Bells?!” A bottle of champagne maybe. A Johnnie Walker Black Label – yes. A Jagerbomb even. A bog-standard whisky, not so much. You might argue that the ad raises Bell’s up to an aspirational level. (I see they’ve included a premium version in the packshot – maybe Bell’s is seen as an upmarket whisky in Africa?) But the whole thing just makes me think the son’s a tightarse, the dad’s been cheated and the brand manager’s completely deluded.

Utterly beautiful

 

I’ll never forget the day when, as a 15-year old Billy Bragg superfan, I was selling my fanzine outside his Hackney Empire gig and the big-nosed bard of Barking himself wandered up and bought a copy. Later that night, during Waiting For The Great Leap Forwards, when he sang the line about “the 15 fame-filled minutes of the fanzine writer”, he gave me and my mate a nod. Magical, unforgettable memories.

Another highlight among the many fond Billy Bragg-related memories I have was the show he headlined at the Dominion in 1988, with Michelle Shocked and The Beatnigs supporting. The performances that night blew my teenage mind.

Since those days he’s remained a permanent fixture in my life, a reassuring beacon of passion and integrity in a world of hypocrisy and compromise. From angry polemics to soulful melancholia and folky Americana his music’s always singular and inspiring. “Some people sing about love, some people sing about war, some people sing about a better world to come…well I sing about all three,” he says.

And from taking down the right wing press to supporting trade unions and fearless jousting with arseholes like the BNP, he’s always had his finger on the political pulse and walked it like he’s talked it. “The only antidote to cynicism is activism”, he once said.

Some of his songs about friendship and relationships are truly beautiful. And his latest album includes one that might go down as the most poignant and moving Billy Bragg song of them all. There’d be a few contenders – St Swithin’s Day, Must I Paint You Picture?, Tank Park Salute and Red To Blue spring to mind, and Goodbye Goodbye is similarly powerful stuff. Written back in 2008, it somehow didn’t make it onto his last album. Included at the end here, it manages to be both resigned and celebratory at the same time. Casting a misty eye back over the long and winding road that’s been travelled…while simultaneously wondering how the decades somehow slipped away in the blink of an eye. Gorgeous, lump-in-the-throat-inducing stuff. I just hope he isn’t handing in his notice and retiring.