Sony & Fallon: The end of adland’s beautiful relationship

As Sony parts company with its ad agency, Fallon, James McNulty wonders what it all means…

Fallon’s loss of the Sony advertising account to Anomaly is an ice-pick in the skull for every creative in the UK. They did the best ads in the country – maybe the world – and it wasn’t enough. This was a partnership that produced Balls, Paint and Play-Doh: a partnership that ranks alongside Hamlet and cdp in the 70s, Silk Cut and Saatchi in the 80s, Levi’s and BBH in the 90s.

It’s hard to over-state how shocking the news is. Flagship creative accounts normally have much longer tenures than the seven years Sony stayed at Fallon, because the agency deploys its best talent on the business and therefore keeps cranking out great work. And clients understand it doesn’t make sense to leave an agency that is so devoted to them, sometimes to a degree that’s irrational. How much money does AMV lose on The Economist every year? Often it takes some major external factor to end these partnerrhips, the way the tobacco ad ban did for Hamlet and Silk Cut. But that wasn’t the case here.

So why did it happen, when the work was still strong and there had been no falling-out, as far as is publicly known? First of all, we shouldn’t discount the possibility that the appointment is – forgive me – an anomaly. A blip. A client wanting to make a name for himself, by making an oh so radical move (that will end up being reversed in a year’s time when it doesn’t work out).

But Sony’s stated reason was that “we were looking for a new advertising model that puts brilliant people, who instinctively understand digital but who have an agnostic view, at the heart of our approach,” according to Sony’s top European marketer, Ben Moore.

It did seem to be a tv-only account at Fallon: the print, in particular, felt as if the cleaners had done it. But why Anomaly? Couldn’t they have got media-neutral thinking from Mother, which has made feature films for Eurostar and a Pot Noodle musical? Or bbh, which has yellow pencils for digital as well as TV? Or W&K, a shop that feels as much like an art gallery or youth club as an agency?

Sony has surely just given itself the mirror-image of the problem they had before. Instead of a great tv agency that doesn’t do media-agnostic thinking, they’ve hired a media-agnostic agency that doesn’t do great TV. (There isn’t a single tv ad on Anomaly’s website, just some guff about brands they’re co-developing).

And why an agency that has done no work of any kind in Europe, at all? Apparently the London office consists of only four people. The pitch work was done by freelancers. Yes, Anomaly have some good guys in the States, including Mike Byrne, the former Wiedens cd who did Nike Tag, and came up with the Livestrong wrist­band. But is Mike Byrne going to move over here? I doubt it.

So what have Sony actually hired, if it isn’t a track record of great work, or even a group of great people? My guess is they’ve hired a philosophy. A philosophy that puts digital, events, and social media at the heart of a brand’s activity, not advertising. A hyper-modern communications philosophy that is less about ‘coming up with advert­ising ideas’ and more about ‘coming up with ideas we can advertise’.

The example of an advertiser which already does this is Nike, which now spends most of its energy creating events such as Run London and content like the Cesc Fabregas TV show.

“We don’t do advertising any more. We just do cool stuff,” Simon Pestridge, Nike’s UK marketing director, told Revolution magazine. “Advertising is all about achieving awareness, and we no longer need awareness. We need to become part of people’s lives.”

This may sound a bit wanky, but it’s probably the future. And it’s a wake-up call that a brand as savvy as Sony feels they can’t get it from any existing agency in London – even one as good as Fallon.

So just how good was the work? The answer is, pretty damn good. Balls was arguably the ad of the decade. Paint took a critical mauling at the time it came out (wtf was that clown doing?) but it still ended up being the world’s most-awarded tv ad of 2007, according to the Gunn Report. And Play-Doh was an excellent commercial despite causing sourness over alleged similar­ities to bunny pictures by LA-based artists Kozyndan. Foam City and the Walkman Music Pieces ad were also good, though not ‘great’. My assessment is that overall, it was the second-best TV campaign of the decade, behind only Honda.

It was certainly the decade’s most influential campaign. Balls began a trend for acoustic folk noodlings that has become the default TV ad sound­track; it also initiated the ‘event’ spot, whose influence pervades Saatchi’s
T-Mobile Dance ad and many others.

And yet, this is not a campaign that will leave a lasting legacy, as for example the ddb Volkswagen ads of the 60s did. Musical trends never last, because when over-done, they inevitably become naff. And I think I can safely say we’re all tiring of the ‘passers-by standing open-mouthed in astonishment’ before a giant zoetrope, 100ft marrow, etc. I personally feel like dropping these characters with an AK-47, before they even get the chance to film it on their mobile. 

The legacy I wish the campaign would leave is the awesome simplicity it displayed. Human beings in general are scared of purity, but especially planners. If they haven’t added lots of layers, with accompanying diagrams, they fear they don’t deserve to draw a salary. This is extremely sad. The proposition for Sony’s three best ads was simply ‘great colour’, hardly a revolutionary insight. But it was enough. We all talk about the need to be single-minded, but how often are we? No, I speculate that the biggest impact might not come from the work that Sony did, but from the effect on the industry that moving their account to Anomaly may have.

Could it herald the long-rumoured end of the Big Commercial? The idea seems insane, when we’re living in an era of 90-second master­pieces like Cog, Gorilla and Grrr. Even Nike, the star pupil of the new school, still does the occasional big ad. But it’s doing fewer. Nielsen UK figures show Nike has reduced its tv ad spend by 80% in the past four years.

So while the big ad isn’t dead, it has a nasty-sounding cough. I dread to think what the consequences for the industry will be when it dies. Wasn’t it a ‘big ad’ that made most of us want to get into advertising in the first place?

Which one was it for you? Levi’s Odyssey? Guinness Surfers? Dunlop Tested For The Unexpected? I can trace my own ‘big ad’ epiphany to the exact moment when Eric Cantona turned up his shirt collar and blasted the ball right through the chest of a demon goalie.­ “Au revoir,” he said.

‘James McNulty’ is a creative at an ad agency in London

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