This morning I was reminded of my first ever advertising planning meeting.
I was 18, on my own in bedroom and wearing just my pants.
I’d recently launched my first-ever business — a free football magazine — that was seeing little to no success through its primary marketing channel, selling b2b ad space.
A full two weeks into the launch plan, I decided to do change tack.
It was time for something drastic. It was time for our first consumer play.
Backed by a modest budget of about £280 (production, media etc.) it was clear I needed to tap into the ceiling-less potential of organic digital.
In short, I needed to go viral.
To be honest, I needed a fucking miracle. And for millennial non-trepreneurs like me, in lieu of true divine intervention, I took a pew at the church of St. Google.
Armed with the creative lethargy normally reserved for buying sink sponges, I duly punched in ‘how to make an ad and go viral’ to the search bar. No Google, I wasn’t feeling lucky.
And yet, to my great surprise, I was met with a treasure-trove of hints, tips, lists and general must-read advice on the subject. Looking back, I can only presume these were all published by previous exponents of highly successful viral ad campaigns? I was doubtful.
And my suspicions were seemingly supported as the majority of links weren’t pointing to separate pieces of work, but seemingly just to one. An ad, I would soon learn, that in viral terms was the pioneer, the daddy, the holy grail – all rolled into one. It was, of course, the famed Dollar Shave Club ad.
I watched the spot in awe and in that moment, in my head, I wrote my first ever creative brief. It went something like: “Well let’s just do that then!”.
Ever written a brief wearing only briefs?
I watched the video back, pausing at regular intervals, excitedly scribbling my scene-by-scene interpretation which, in fact, took the form of unbridled thievery:
· I walked myself through my magazine printing house
· I bantered my way through a couple of key product benefits
· I even made a left-leaning immigration gag
However, I soon come to the abrupt realisation that what I was doing was shit and scrapped the campaign — its cycle lasting a full twelve minutes.
What’s the point of all this?
Well this morning it was raining – the only time I dare get the tube to work. I hate the tube.
But one saving grace from the misery-faced, coffee-on-your-crotch, bad-breath-down-your-neck drudgery of the Central line are the ads – I feel slightly more culturally in-tune once cuddled from all sides by star-studded film releases, chart-topping pop albums, and even those shitty English crime novels called something like ‘He Watched Her Leave’.
I feel a subconscious sense of being both in the know and in the now.
I feel inspired.
But this morning, one ad this morning caught my eye for a slightly different reason.
Let’s play billboard spot the difference:
To the left, an example of the pretty much the most omnipresent advert currently in circulation at tube stations, from Jack Daniel’s.
Uniquely bold form (copy-heavy, they often take a couple of minutes to fully digest), famous enough that there’s even a VICE article written about them, and effective enough that I actually read the buggers.
To the right, a very similar advert from Timothy Taylor’s Landlord.
Here they are in-situ:
Make your own mind up. But for me, when such a celebrated work shares the same backdrop, design structure and TOV whilst telling the same type of story, in a similar category, in the same place, it begs the question of whether someone, somewhere, has spouted that famous line: “Well let’s just do that then!”
Either way, it got me thinking about how certain types of ads look and feel so similar to one another:
· ‘Shiny new car driving around the Swiss alps’ TV spot
· ‘Hollywood A-Lister looks nice so must smell nice’ perfume ad
· (Sadly) 90 % of all TV charity ads
· Every radio advert ever made
It was early in my career that I realised how generic consumer insights can drive generic brand or campaign strategy.
It was the 2014 World Cup and three ads in a row told me (me the archetypal independence-and-empowerment-yearning millennial) to go ‘All in Or Nothing’ (Adidas), ‘Risk Everything’ (Nike) and then, most bizarrely, that my Dorito’s were in fact only ‘For The Bold’.
Without strong creative executions, the manifestations of these messages may be blurred and their effectiveness lost.
Jim Carroll, BBH’s former London Chairman, discusses this as an example of ‘wind tunnel marketing’: the thinking that, as approaches to strategy and measurement have become more sophisticated and standardised, we find ourselves in a culture of codification that has ‘lost faith in the power of difference’.
The upshot of this is, in his words, a ‘numbers game, where the scale of resource wins’.
Using the perfume example, the consensus is that brands like Chanel or Dior can afford to create adverts in the pursuit, principally, of ongoing brand awareness and recall. In short, they can afford to be ‘ignored’ because to our subconscious, in truth, they’re actually not.
A 2016 report from management consultancy firm A.T. Kearney supports this, finding that an annual spend of £647 million in fragrance marketing changed very little in terms of cut-through: four out of five of the top-selling fragrance brands have remained at the top for five years.
So, for relative small players in the marketing world such as Timothy Taylor’s Landlord, let this be a cautionary tale.
The risk of being complicit, either consciously or not, in a homogenized [insert brand here] advertising culture, is unlikely to be as forgiving, not even at Christmas. As my girlfriend reminds me repeatedly, Timothy Taylor is not Chanel.
Further, consumers know when they’re being sold to, especially when they’re being sold to badly. There’s inspiration, there’s imitation, and then there’s downright intellectual property violation.
I often have to remind myself of Mark Ritson’s first rule of marketing: “you are not the consumer” which is true — I will undoubtedly look at these things in a different way.
Time will tell if the Timothy Taylor ads will be effective or not but, somewhat ironically, I can call upon my own experience to make a case for brand recall.
For that very same morning, sodden from the rain but with my mouth frothing from lamentations of the state of modern marketing, I had a sudden urge for a drink.
“Shit!” I thought…had my marketing peers successfully got into my head? Was I playing the role of unwilling consumer? Was this their plan all along coming to fruition?
At 8.58am, on a Tuesday, I walked into an off-licence and I made the most unprecedented of moves:
“Bottle of Jack Daniel’s please mate”