Wake up and smell the cardigan

Andrew Cracknell’s history of adland’s creative revolution recalls a time when clients trusted agencies to do great work: where did it all go wrong…

I have a suspicion that Andrew Cracknell’s book, The Real Mad Men, may have had a previous life under a different name – probably something pleasantly single-minded like ‘The Creative Revolution’. This book, a meticulously researched, engagingly written labour of love, might have languished forever in the slush-piles of publishing. But then along came the hit series, Mad Men, and some bright spark at Quercus has a brainwave: change the title, add the appropriate graphical cues to the cover, a sprinkling of quotes from Don Draper and Peggy Olsen, and, hey presto, what we have here is an eminently saleable cash-in book.

I mention this, not because these feature ruin the book, but because the Mad Men schtick stands out in a familiar way: it has that client-mandate feel. It serves a purpose, but one that is irrelevant to the thrust of the narrative. And this is ironic given Cracknell’s subject matter: an extraordinary period, when a few agencies were trusted to do their jobs with relatively little client intervention and, to everyone’s amazement, it worked.

How did they do it? We learn that when pitching for the Avis business Bernbach made a few simple demands: “What you have to do is let us have 90 days to learn your business, and then you run every ad where we tell you to put it and just as we write it. You don’t change a thing.” The reuslt was We Try Harder, a frank admission of Avis’ market position geared into a brilliant piece of strategic thinking. No one stopped DDB running the campaign because it seemed ‘a little bit negative’ and Avis turned a $3 million loss into a $3.2 million profit in a single year.

Nor was this the only example of chutzpah in action. “DDB’s head of art Helmut Krone believed that including logos in ads was unimportant, a turn-off in fact, because as soon as a logo hit the retina it signals ‘advertisement’ and thus becomes an invitation to turn the page,” Cracknell tells us. Krone even managed to pass this conviction onto clients, using the sensible argument that the Beetle was so iconic that it could serve in place of the VW logotype. And what return did they get on this investment of faith? Did confused consumers run screaming through the streets burning VW franchises? No, their sales continued to rise steadily.

So the good guys were victorious, they proved their point and the industry moved forward, building on their brilliant discoveries?  Well no. As any modern creative will tell you, these battles decisively won in the 60s are routinely lost today. We’re like doctors who have to prove the effectiveness of antibiotics every time we want to prescribe penicillin.

Who’s to blame for this appalling state of affairs? Among the many heroes in this book Cracknell also frames a villain: Marion Harper, a visionary wonk who rose from the post room of McCann to become head of his own think-tank, the Institute of Communications Research. From there he hatched his evil masterplan: several agencies owned by the same company, with functions like research and production shared between them all. And so the holding company was born.

It is with these, and with the trend for stock market flotation, that Cracknell places the blame for the revanchist tendency that succeeded the creative revolution. As he puts it, “creative endeavour will never full flourish when the only imperative is profit”. While this is self-evident, I don’t think it explains his story. After all, as he notes, competently managed, most of the creative agencies of the 60s were hugely profitable. Because good creative advertising is profitable.

So why did the clients take the extraordinary risks that made these particular ad men and women famous? Why was Mary Wells allowed to repaint Braniff’s aircraft in colours usually reserved for transvestite poodles? And why, when George Lois pointed at a layout and said “And if you don’t buy this, you can kiss my ass”, did the majority of his clients agree to his demands?

I believe there is a reason, and it has nothing to do with the unappetising state of Lois’s behind. While, as Cracknell notes, the creative revolution in advertising was just one aspect of a wider creative explosion, Helmut Krone’s layouts have far more in common with the ads that preceded them, than with Andy Warhol’s soup cans or John Coltrane’s sax. The important thing about the 50s wasn’t their effect on advertising creatives, but on their clients’ attitude to advertising creatives. During this brief period of cultural upheaval, perhaps unique in history, the only guy who looked like he knew what was going on, was the guy wearing the cardigan.

Gordon Comstock is a creative at a London-based ad agency. He tweets at @notvoodoo and blogs at notvoodoo.blogspot.com

 

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