Looking to the Future

In new book ‘This is Advertising’, CR’s Eliza Williams surveys the work that is changing the industry and talks to its leading innovators. In this extract, Williams discusses advertising’s future with Mother founder Robert Saville…

EW: How do you think things in advertising have changed since you started?

RS: It’s always a difficult question, isn’t it … has it changed? I suppose it has, and I suppose some quite significant structural and social changes are happening. I think if you analyse them, you’ll be able to identify them in very specific terms, and I’m sure there are people within agencies all over the world who are doing exactly that. I’ve never seen it that way though, because I think that change is incremental.

People have started to question almost everything that they’ve always believed was true, which is ridiculous. There’s such panic among clients and creative communications communities that they’ve started thinking that posters don’t work, that a person can’t be interested or beguiled or captured by something that’s good on a poster site, that everyone’s rushing headlong towards the digital revolution, and suddenly TV is rubbish and radio doesn’t make any sense. Everything is very reactive and reactionary because the nature of the change is invidious, and therefore for large organisations it comes at them in a really uncomfortable way because they are structured to work against systems. Mother never did that; we’ve only ever made it up as we’ve gone along.

When we started the agency, it was really about a group of people, including clients and some design people and some PR people and some media specialists, sitting around a table seeing how you might get to change people’s attitudes…. Our structure has always been about greeting each problem as it comes and trying to be conscious of what we may or may not do to solve the problem. So I don’t really acknowledge or think about major tectonic shifts in how communication works. I think it’s the same thing it always was, which is that people need to be persuaded, people don’t want to give you their time willingly – and never did. In the past they’d pick their nose and go and make a cup of tea, now they press the fast forward button.

People don’t do stuff they don’t want to do – even in the digital environ-ment. Just because its ‘gone digital’ and something happens in a digital frame-work, if it isn’t any good, you don’t do it; in fact you definitely don’t do it because you don’t have to. So that contract, which always existed, still exists, and I think people knew that contract years ago.

If you look at the classic advertising creative people, whether they’re the Charles Saatchis or the John Websters or the David Abbotts, everything they did was about engagement, and capturing people’s imagination and rewarding them. So I don’t think in that sense the thing has changed, I just think it’s come as a surprise to some structures, and they’ve done exactly the wrong thing, which is swing radically in a completely different direction…. We still do work that looks as if it was made 40 years ago. Where John Webster did the Cresta Bear or Smash Martians, we do Alan Monkey [for ITV Digital] or Harry Fitzgibbon-Simms [for Pimm’s] … as the supposed enfant terribles of British advertising we tend to do quite traditional stuff.

EW:  But you are also doing things like Mother Comics, Mother Vision (which made the Somers Town film with Tomboy Films, left)…

RS: Again, I don’t think that’s necessarily different. The job of an advertising agency has to be the same as a brand, which is to encourage the right kind of people to want to be here, whether they be clients or whether they be creative people. So part of the encouragement of keeping and encouraging creativity in an organisation has to be to find a framework where people can express their creativity. Salman Rushdie worked in advertising at one point, so did Ridley Scott, so did Alan Parker…. Our job really is to try and make sure that people are able to explore their creativity in different ways, sometimes on their own behalf, to pursue their dream of writing a book, or making a comic or creating an event, and sometimes in association with clients. And clients want to know that they’ve got access to those people, so they want to find a place that is sympathetic to making sure that there’s the right environment for those people to come, because creativity has phenomenal value.

So, Mother Vision, which makes films and TV programmes and books, is sort of what we’ve always been doing. We’ve formalised it a bit because we want to put a bit of a rocket behind it, but I don’t think it’s different from CDP when Ridley Scott and Alan Parker were directing their stuff and then making movies. They just had to leave to go and do those things and I want to create an environment where they don’t necessarily have to leave. The brand can stretch far enough.

EW: That’s quite a shift though, to do them without having to leave.

RS: Yeah, I think so. It is a shift, but it isn’t a shift in the creative psyche. Creatively oriented people like finding different places for their creativity and, as they get older, they like finding deeper and longer forms, and stuff that they have more control over. I believe if you can create an environment where they can do that and do other things as well, then everybody benefits, because ultimately commerce needs to find the best ways of engaging consumers in conversations with their brands. Yes, there are going to be new opportunities and new places where they can do those things, because there is a change in the media landscape, but, most importantly, it’s going to be about where the right people are – that is what will help them to realise those things.

That’s what we’re doing, but in quite a loose way. There are a lot of people who have big divisions doing branded content, I’m not quite sure what that means … we call it entertainment, branded or otherwise. The idea that brands need to find entertainment to engage consumers, because they have an off button and can turn away, they have to work to make sure the consumer has got a reward out of it … well, great, that’s what we should have been doing in the first place. If advertising wasn’t doing that, it wasn’t doing its job.… You can’t create a division to do it, you just have to do it. We didn’t create a division to create Somers Town, we had an idea and we had a brilliant client who was really excited and interested in the idea and we made a feature film.

EW: I agree with what you’re saying in terms of how in some ways the developments in advertising aren’t new, but I feel things had got lost along the way, in terms of what people were expecting from ad agencies, so this new era of creativity does feel quite exciting and new.

RS: British advertising was at its absolute pinnacle probably in the 1970s and 1980s. Now I’m not sure whether there was better work out there at the time; the commercial breaks were probably filled with rubbish, but I don’t care. The agencies on the worldwide stage that demonstrated the brilliance of British advertising were the agencies that were run by creative people. They were run by great creative people who built agencies around the idea that creativity unlocks consumers and allows you to communicate messages to those consumers. And that it has to be entertaining, it has to be beguiling, it has to be impactful and it has to be persuasive. It certainly wasn’t invented here – there were many, many great exponents of it in other parts of the world, but there was this kind of hotbed of brilliant, brilliant creative thinkers here, hundreds of them, actually.

When I started, they ruled the roost, they were the people in charge, and you did not move in our business unless you were conscious that that art, that crafting, that spark was what we ultimately were there for. And I think that they made an awful lot of money, they floated or sold their companies, and set a very bad example to the creative communities that were going to follow, which was that the product is a means to an end, and the end is to sell out and make large amounts of money.

You can only serve one master – if quality, and the craft and the art is the master, that’s what will come through. And I think for quite a while the master was scale, was globalising, was selling out … it’s a different agenda. Of course no one’s stupid enough to think that creativity doesn’t play a part in that, and that you have to have good product and do good work and be forward thinking in order to achieve those things. But it’s not the reason you get up in the morning, it’s the deceit you use in order to achieve financial success.

When that contract changed, and it did change, I think our industry changed quite significantly. I think the losing its way has largely been about the emasculation of creativity within the culture of an agency. I see magazine articles where they talk about the succession – the new hot kids on the block – and it’s all pictures of people who are businessmen, not necessarily creative people. And there’s nothing wrong with that – that’s someone else’s model. But we shouldn’t then be surprised when we don’t neces­sarily, as an industry, believe and deliver. I think there are some people coming through, and there are some changes and there are some characters and some cultures that are fighting that trend again. I hope, I really hope. Clients aren’t stupid – they’re choosing them, so I’m hopeful that it will come back again.

This is Advertising is published by Laurence King.

This is Advertising
To promote gaming site Gnuf.com, ACNE rolled a pair of two-ton dice (shown above) down a mountain: all in a day’s work for today’s ad agency.  This is Advertising features over 80 such leading-edge projects.

Included in the book are the likes of Wieden + Kennedy Tokyo’s record label W+K Tokyo Lab (sleeve for Channel H by Hifana above) and Fallon London’s Tate Tracks campaign. For the latter,  Fallon commissioned pieces of music from a range of artists inspired by work in the Tate collection. Visitors could then listen to the music while viewing the art.

Some of the greatest innovation in ads has come in digital as agencies have attempted to be both useful and entertaining. In the former camp is AKQA’s PHOTOiD project (above). Users could take a snap on their mobile of a colour they liked, send it to the mobile site and see how it would look on a pair of trainers.

For Burger King’s support of the Simpsons Movie, agency Crispin Porter + Bogusky created The Simpsonizer (above): upload a photo and transform it into a Simpsons character, as we attempted with this well-known adland personality.

What's the story?

The Storytelling issue, Oct/Nov 2017, is out now.
We invited writers to respond to our cover image
this month: read their stories inside.
PLUS: Tom Gauld, Oliver Jeffers, Giphy & S-Town

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