Shrewd, righteous, and utterly stupid

An A-Z of lessons learned in advertising

[T]he most cynical and potentially dangerous business in the world. Telling people what to think and what to believe. It has been frightening me ever since I’ve been in it, which isn’t long. It’s the power that frightens me. There’s more power in Manhattan, more power over the human mind, than in any city since the dawn of time….

[He] was so sincere about it. I felt he had latched on to some greater truth, some massive justification for what he was doing that far out-weighed all my petty little fears…. He’s sold himself utterly and completely on the idea that he is doing a Good Thing. He’s a shrewd and self-righteous and utterly stupid man. He hasn’t a trace of cynicism. He’s the high priest of his own mission. And those are the dangerous ones.

John D. MacDonald, A Man of Affairs (1957)

I get the impression that JDM wasn’t a big fan of the ad business.

After twenty years, I’ve certainly had my own ups and downs. The ups - the people, the pace, the variety. The downs - in many ways, the same three things.

Right now, I’m feeling a little nostalgic, so I thought I’d stress test the variety of a career in advertising, and see if I could think of 26 lessons from 26 projects.

Airbus A380: Pan Am carry on advert “well… they were flying...

A - Airline. An old boss once told me that to be a real agency, you needed the following clients: a bank, a beer, a car and an airline. By that reckoning, I’ve only worked at one real agency in twenty years.

B - Baseball. My work on a baseball team was very early on, and mostly memorable because the client liked my extremely random idea of having an ‘indoor rain delay’. (Alas, never happened. But shows that no matter how much effort you spend cooking up the big idea, sometimes all that sticks is the parsley garnish.)

C - Cars. Like airlines, necessary to be a real agency. A lot of people love working on cars. I feel a fraud whenever I do - probably because I haven’t been behind the wheel of one for so long. I get that ‘immersion’ has its limits, but never having tried the core product definitely makes for imposter syndrome.

Also, Christmas. If you think Christmas starts early as a consumer, think about the advertisers that are trying to extrapolate trends a year in advance, and ordering baskets of fake snow for shoots in April.

D - Dog food. The products are pretty same-y and the end-user isn’t wildly articulate. Also shoots with animals are notoriously difficult. Counterpoint: dogs are great.

E - eBay. In an era where agencies still saw campaigns from a ‘TV-first’ perspective, it was eye-opening to have a client that spent a hundred times as much on search ads as all their offline media combined. I learned a lot from eBay, and it helped me over ‘above the line’ thinking very early in my career.

Despite launching a small core team in the UK, eBay bought an entire building. When a new employee joined, they ripped the wrapper off the fully kitted out desk-chair-and-IT-setup that was waiting for them and got straight to work. Walking through that ghostly, empty office was uncanny, but also an exercise in projected confidence. This was a company that knew it would not fail.

F - Failure. On the other hand… my (conservative) calculation is that I’ve worked on 400 pitches. I’ve not had 400 clients. I’ve written more about this elsewhere. 

Also, fashion. Fashion is a massive exception to all the rules and codes of advertising. It is less like learning a new language and more like travelling to a planet where gravity is inside-out. I have genuinely loved my forays into fashion advertising.

G - Gambling. A very brief engagement. The client quickly realised that there was no point in commissioning ‘creative’ work when they could spam ads that said ‘PLAY SLOTS ONLINE!!!!!!’ and get an exponentially better ROI. They were right.

H - Hair salons. Another briefly held account, albeit a fun one. We had some fantastic ideas about layering data with interactive outdoor placements: e.g. ads for blow-outs that would only appear on windy days. This sort of contextual advertising is more common now, but we felt pretty clever at the time, and the idea came from a great partnership with media, creative, and data teams. Always nice when that works.

I - Internet safety. I’ve worked on a plethora of industry-funded campaigns encouraging ‘responsible’ behaviour - from healthy eating to safe travel to avoiding fraud on the internet. These are great briefs for strategists. True behaviour change: you develop and test heuristics in order to figure out what you can say to folks to get them to shift their habits. Fun! These campaigns are less enjoyable for creatives, as the ultimate task is to tell people that ‘X’ is horrifically dangerous, but please, for god’s sake, don’t stop using ‘X’ because the economy depends on it. Industry-funded campaigns can also be nightmarish for the account team, who get the pleasure of navigating a ‘complex stakeholder environment’. (RUN!)

J - January. January is the Christmas for non-retail brands. As soon as December 25th rolls by, all the ‘new year, new you’ campaigns begin. Tis the season for regret and self-reflection, and diet, health, gym, employment, study, and volunteering brands are READY. (Pity the agencies working on these, as they’ll be spending their holidays on ‘a few last-minute tweaks’.)

K - Kids. The first time (sadly, not the last time), I lost sleep over a campaign, simply because I was so worried about the results. If a campaign for underarm deodorant doesn’t work, teens are stinky. If a fostering campaign doesn’t work out, teens don’t have families. I then realised I liked the anxiety of working on campaigns that mattered. Go figure.

L - Luton. I’ve not had a lot of international travel. I have, however, criss-crossed the UK time and time again. Newcastle, Bradford, Glasgow, Leeds, Inverness, Bolton, Cardiff, Belfast, Southampton, Leicester, Derby, Manchester, Birmingham, York, Derry, Portsmouth, Liverpool, all over London, and, of course, Luton. I enjoy pitches in cheerfully-branded corporate offices, meetings in 2* hotels, focus groups in shopping malls. Plus, UK cities are pretty walk-able (sorry, cars), so there’s always a chance to yomp around and explore.

Luton in particular is the subject of many of my talks as it a young, diverse town [NOT a city, which is a point of rightful aggravation for its citizens] that, in many ways, demographically and beyond, reflects the future direction of the UK. My advice has always been to study Luton, because if your brand can’t figure out how to ‘sell’ there now, they’re really going to struggle in the years ahead.

M - Mortgages. My very first account in the UK: Halifax/Bank of Scotland. Twenty years later, not only is the campaign gone, but so is the bank. Not my fault. My first ad was a rate change announcement (do those exist any more?). I bought a newspaper and clipped it. I still have it around somewhere. Take pride in your work!

N - North, The. I’ve worked on ‘place-making’ campaigns - for advocacy, development, tourism, business development, and more. They reward an outsider’s perspective: it is actually useful to be the naive American. It encourages local audiences to explain what makes their home special to me in simple sentences. Our work for the North remains one of my favourites. I got to spend a lot of time Up North for this, met a minister for the first time, and ate my body weight in buns.

O - The O-Word. Selling sneakers that were, purely coincidentally, also adorning the feet of the world’s best athletes at a global, quadrennial sporting event. However, you need a very special and expensive license to say the ‘O’-word. This was a small brief without much budget or resource behind it, as it was absolutely pushing uphill against much bigger and, er, officially-blessed competitors. The constraint of not being able to do any of the easy and obvious things led to a tidy, slightly bonkers proposition that resulted in a few awards and a lot of shoe sales.

P - Publishing. Very few marketing campaigns for books have the budget that allows for an external agency. This means my book-flogging has come a) at smaller agencies and b) on the biggest books. I’ve still worked on a range: Bibles and science books, crime and YA, celebrity biographies, Narnia and 007. No romance, sadly enough.

Books are complex products: there are many ways in to each book (author, subject, history, theme…), each with its own potential audience. Plus, you really only get one shot at it - a single campaign burst for publication. The strategic challenge is often around being decisive, and choose which horse to back.

Although I’ve not done much romance (alas!), I have worked on a few fantasy books, including…

Q - Quidditch. I’m cheating a bit, but it flows nicely. I have worked on one Rowling-adjacent marketing campaign. There’s a lot to say about the author and her rotting legacy, but the emotional power of her creations is undeniable. The campaign involved a public event, and we watched people - of all ages, shapes, backgrounds - come together to play with Potter-y stuff, bond with one another, and talk about how much it meant to them. It was a genuinely lovely experience. Rationally, it is all ridiculous. Emotionally, this was (and is) a brand that means the world to people.

R - Recycling. I find it amazing how recycling has gone from a niche activity to the absolute mainstream in under a generation. There’s a classic pile of ‘big behaviour changes that occurred quickly enough to merit being in Powerpoint slides a lot’: gay marriage, drink driving, smoking cessation - you’ll see these all the time. As you should: they’re great combinations of attitude, behaviour, and policy change, with lots of cultural levers all working together to make a huge (and fast) difference. Recycling belongs there as well. (I’m saying it was all our work - you’re welcome! - more that we were one of the thousands of agencies doing working in this space it is fascinating to think about the push behind the push.)

Close Up of Maggi Meat Soup Cubes Advertising in Vintage Magazine from the Sixties Editorial Stock Image - Image of business, food: 202841069

S - Stock cubes. I’m big believer that you really need to know the product, so I asked for a factory visit. The client said we were better off without one. I didn’t press it.

T - Three-D (3-D) film. A favour for the CEO’s friend. But as a reward, I got to go along to the premier of Inception. I accidentally photobombed Pixie Lott on the red carpet. Sorry, Pixie. I’m not sure what the lesson is here.

U - Underarms. The vast amounts of mental and financial resource that major corporations put into selling aluminium paste for your armpits would terrify you. But, at the same time, that relentless pursuit of an incrementally-sharpened competitive edge is what makes FMCG brands such a fantastic training ground for advertisers. The highlight of my ‘deos’ experience was working with a legendary product designer, and watching rooms of people sit on the edge of their chairs, breathlessly taking notes while he demonstrated clicky tabs. Everything matters.

V - Vaccine misinformation. Covid was a frustrating time as everyone suddenly agreed that misinformation was a ‘communications problem’, and a lot of ‘experts’ suddenly leapt out of the woodwork ready to save the day. Totally coincidentally, we also saw a lot of examples - around the world - of (well-intended) communications exacerbating the problem. I’m really glad more clients and governments see the value of communications, but it still needs to be done properly.

W - Wildflower planting. One of my first ‘behaviour change’ campaigns, in the sense that the call to action was not ‘buy something’. Getting people to take on a new activity, that takes time, that they’ve never tried before, that may or may not work, and that won’t produce results for months is a big ask. But the bees appreciate it.

X - X-Men. Sadly, I can’t share much. And none of my ideas came to fruition, but… damn this was fun. Sometimes working on a thing you love really is its own reward.

Y - Yellow apples. Core challenge: People think yellow apples are ‘squishy’! Nobody likes them! This was a delightfully tricksy challenge for a planner, and the pilot we devised drew heavily on some fairly, um, ‘lightly evidenced’ behavioural theories. Newton would approve. It worked - very well! - but the brand still packed up and rolled out of the market. A good reminder that marketing is often a very small, and occasionally insignificant, part of the business.

Z - Zombies. I actually did some work on The Walking Dead - admittedly one of those products that was selling itself by that point. It was great to engage with a global fandom, and, equally, see how that fandom engaged with one another and the core product.

I was also, randomly, once hired to put together a presentation on all the ways the world might end, including an estimate of the probability that each might happen. (Zombies: 1/1,000,000,000. Expansion of the Sun into a red giant: 1/1. Hyperintelligent squid wipe out humanity as punishment for overfishing… more likely than you’d think.)

That feels like a fitting note to end on. It also perfectly encapsulates the best part of working in an agency: not simply the variety, but the unexpected.

In advertising, you never know what you’ll be working on, who you’ll be working with, or where you’ll be headed. You get to become briefly and powerfully engaged in the most strange and serendipitous subjects. One day you’re watching people do laundry in Nigeria, the next you’re dodging Pixie Lott.

I recently took a fascinating course on systems planning, and one of key lessons for complex systems is that expertise is less useful than experience. We live in a world where most things are unpredictable and ambiguous. Being able to navigate and adapt is more useful than mastering the theoretical. And, as I prefer it: curiosity is more valuable than certainty.

More curiosities:

Our cyberpunk life:

I called the help number. The recorded greeting offered no clear option for ‘This is an emergency and I need to speak with a human asap.’ Monzo asked if I had access to the app; I pressed “2” for no. A blandly inoffensive English voice directed me to Monzo’s emergency website. I pressed “1” for “having trouble logging into the app,” which proved a dead end. I tried again, pressing “4” for “something else,” followed by “1” for “if you’ve lost your card or phone.” This time the recording suggested I log into the app from someone else’s phone before conceding that I could stay on the line if I still wanted to speak with someone. “Please note that our phone lines are particularly busy at the moment, and wait times can be near 20 minutes during peak times,” the recording intoned…. I waited on hold with Monzo in the restaurant where I was robbed for 28 agonizing minutes, but no one answered. Then the police arrived, so I crossed my fingers the thief wasn’t actively draining my account and hung up.

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