A couple of years ago, at my old agency’s summer party, I got cornered by the creative director. I was standing on the stairwell, and he backed me against the banister, his eyes glaring, and the veins standing out on his neck. “All ads are shit,” he began.
“If when I die, all that’s written on my tombstone is ‘he made some good ads’, I’ll kill myself….” Some time later, when I had prised his fingers from my lapels, I had time to contemplate what he might have meant. Because, even though it made no sense, I think he did really mean it.
Advertising For People Who Don’t Like Advertising, the new book from the Dutch agency KesselsKramer, sets out its stall on similarly paradoxical ground. It’s a kind of repair kit, in four kit-like parts. The first two parts, written with the breezy clarity of the best long copy, offer a brief potted history of the industry, the state it now finds itself in, and the genesis of KK as a response to those conditions. The third, and by far the most interesting part of the book, contains a series of interviews with a select but very high-powered group from the worlds of advertising and design, including KK’s Erik Kessels, Stefan Sagmeister and Alex Bogusky. The final part is a set of Laws for Creativity, which, naturally, we are invited to read and then break.
So what’s with all these haters? If anyone might be expected to feel well-disposed toward advertising, surely it’s KK and their pals? Highly-paid, highly-awarded and, something that few people in the industry can ever hope to be, respected outside it, these are the people who have made it work. So when Stefan Sagmeister includes a little design project called Money Doesn’t Make Me Happy, or explains that he likes to take a sabbatical every seven years, we might be forgiven for thinking ‘Yeah, alright for some, Stee-Sag’. It’s one thing to dislike the industry you work in, quite another to dislike an industry you have conquered.
But perhaps we could all do with a little more hate. Steve Henry, founder of HHCL and one of the luminaries interviewed here says, “I think the best people in our industry are very ambivalent about it. They like it and they hate it at the same time.” What this book suggests is a sort of causal relationship between the two. A healthy disregard for conventional advertising as a sort of prerequisite for making the very best stuff.
If you want to dislike advertising, you needn’t look hard for reasons. This book concerns itself with three in particular. Firstly, the majority of advertising is bad. And not even really bad, just lazy, stupid and tedious. Whatever the creative pursuit, only a tiny proportion of work is excellent, but in the case of advertising we’re exposed to the total bandwidth of quality, all the time. Under these conditions, there’s a kind of Coldplay effect, where even the blandly bad, becomes intolerable. The second reason has to do with effectiveness, or lack of it. As Henry puts it, “the return on investment for a conventional advertisement in the UK is 56p in a pound…. That’s worse than the banking industry. It’s a fucking scandal.” And the third, the huge woolly mammoth in the room, is advertising’s moral status. If anyone has a right to talk about this it’s Alex Bogusky, a man who resigned from one of the world’s most enviable creative roles because of his scruples over selling fast food. At its most basic level, he says, advertising is amoral – it is merely attracting attention. But then, in one of several startling insights in the book, he starts talking about the seven deadly sins:
“In the business we call it ‘aspiration’,” he says. “It’s the basest form of advertising, the one that the bigger clients usually want to push you into. ‘Aspiration’ is a more palatable word for promoting lust, gluttony, greed, envy, pride. So when you stoke the fires of those things in a culture, it’s not something that feels good.”
If we can assume that bad advertising, which is nearly all advertising, ticks all three boxes, that would make it a tedious waste of money that serves no purpose other than to propagate unhappiness. ‘People who don’t like advertising’is starting to look like a pretty ripe market.
But take heart, all this negativity has a purpose. “As creative people our job is simple: to search for unused ground … and then use it,” says Kessels. If we know what bad advertising looks like, good advertising will be that much easier to find. Much of KK’s best work has been the result of this hunt for virgin territory. Their notorious campaign for the Hans Brinker Budget Hotel, for instance, uses one of advertising’s last unexploited resources: honesty.
And perhaps this will be the industry’s saving grace. The fact that, written into its DNA, is a desperate need for originality. It simply can’t stay this bad for long, if only because it can’t stay anything for very long. Bogusky seems to think so. His new enterprise, Common, aims to prototype social projects so that big brands can introduce them as part of what they do. A new kind of advertising based on the total transparency produced by the internet, where people will judge brands based not on how good they look, but how good they actually are. Idealistic perhaps, but an admirable intention. The kind of thinking to which, if we want to change things, we could all aspire.
Maybe this is what my old CD was trying express. More than just his exasperation with the industry, the stifling conditions that we work under, the terrible clients, the horrible compromises. If advertising is going to be any good, then it really needs to start being useful. And, to do that, it needs to not be advertising anymore. This book is a manifesto to help us get there.
‘Gordon Comstock’ is an ad creative based in London. He tweets at @notvoodoo. Advertising For People Who Don’t Like Advertising by KesselsKramer is published by Laurence King; £19.95. See dontlikeadvertising.com, laurenceking.com