Caged creativity

At the end of 2016, the brilliant and mercurial Alan Waldie passed away. How would he – and his ideas – survive in today’s advertising industry?

Weird isn’t it. How quite so many incredibly talented people have sadly passed away lately. Most recently, the great art director Alan Waldie.

Whilst he may not have been a household name, his ads are certainly famous to pretty much everyone of a certain age. Even decades after they first ran. Unlike the hundreds of commercial messages you’ve no doubt seen within the past few hours but already forgotten.

His extraordinary work for Benson & Hedges cigarettes has certainly secured a place in advertising history. It’s a campaign that was created in response to new Government rules that outlawed showing or saying pretty much anything about the product. The resulting posters were radical in 1978. They would seem even more radical if they ran today, such is the ocean of piss-poor mediocrity that passes for poster advertising in 2017.

Photographed by the brilliant and also sadly departed genius Brian Duffy, the images are a series of surreal optical illusions featuring the pack. Just look at the example featured here [Birdcage, 1978. Agency: Collett Dickenson Pearce] – the composition, the lighting, the colours. And of course, the idea.

To summarise, he worked in an era when advertising was not largely controlled by a handful of greedy, multi-millionaire, data-craving, creative-hating accountants. And boy does it show in the work.

Personally I’ve never felt the urge to smoke. But as a kid, I think it was this campaign that got me addicted to the possibilities of the commercial arts.

Unfortunately I never met the great man behind it, so I cannot really share any useful insights about how he created such masterpieces (apart from stratospheric talent obviously).

But I’m pretty sure he was never asked to cram his beautiful work into a 234 by 60 pixel web banner. He was never told to email a PDF of some wonderful art direction to a client for them to judge on their tiny smartphone screen. I’m certain he never had to endure daily creative reviews with ‘planning’. And I doubt he was ever ordered to ‘Mac up’ a mountain of fodder to be butchered by some visually illiterate research group.

He was never forced to use a cheap stock shot instead of being given the time and budget to photograph something properly. He didn’t have to sit in an open plan office. I’ll wager he was paid well. He was probably never summoned by HR for returning a few hours (or days) late from lunch. And of course he wasn’t remotely familiar with the arse-end of advertising that is a social media carousel.

To summarise, he worked in an era when advertising was not largely controlled by a handful of greedy, multi-millionaire, data-craving, creative-hating accountants. And boy does it show in the work.

The Kool-Aid purveyors are constantly telling us that with all the latest tech developments, there’s never been a better time to work in advertising.

Really..? Look around. I beg to differ. Do we learn nothing from history? 1978. What a time to be alive.


Alan Waldie’s archive is available via the History of Advertising Trust, see hatads.org.uk

Paul Belford is founder and creative director of agency Paul Belford Ltd. See paulbelford.com and @belford_paul

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