Looking back down the last 70 years, the one constant seems to have been change.
Radio was the dominant medium before, during and immediately after the second World War (WWII).
Then along came television, followed by commercial television.
Black and white at first, but in colour from the mid-60s.
In the 70s in the USA, cable TV began to offer variety to viewers.
In the 80s, newspapers began to print in colour too.
In the 90s, SKY TV launched and grew in the UK.
For advertisers, there was a cornucopia of channels through which they could reach their target audiences.
For agencies, it was a bonanza time. The way they made money was through commission.
Clients didn’t pay agencies. They paid the media owners. They, for their part, said thank you to the agencies for making and placing the work by paying them up to 17.65% of the money.
Everybody was coining it. Ah, those were the days!
Then clients began looking at their agencies through narrowed eyes. Instead of being small, creative businesses run by colourful people, agencies became publically quoted networks.
The suits moved in. The holding companies became bigger and bigger.
Suddenly, WPP was a bigger company than many of its clients. That’s when procurement became a fact of life.
No marketing director wanted to bankroll Sir Martin Sorrell. Arguably, though, it was Charles and Maurice Saatchi who did the most damage to agencies when, in 1987, they put in a bid to take over the Midland Bank in the UK. Genuinely mad men.
Saatchi’s share price was over £10 at the time. Within months it had collapsed to below four pounds.
When I finally flogged my shares in the mid-90s, I got well under one pound for them.
Why was this so damaging?
Well, Sir Frank Lowe, Founder, Lowe Howard-Spink, which morphed into the Lowe Group, once said: “I am in the business of making advertising from which I make money.”
The Saatchis had switched this.They seemed to be in the business of making money by making advertising. In other words, advertising was a business like any other.
Calling time on creativity
Charles and Maurice could quite easily have been flogging ball bearings.
What this meant was that clients were no longer buying ideas. They were buying time.
Today, creativity is a commodity.
Fees are negotiated on a take-it-or-leave-it basis and only a tiny handful of ultra-creative agencies are able to charge a premium for their talent. Which means that the talent pool is shallower.
Advertising has slumped down the pecking order of desirable careers. No advertising role gets a ranking in the top 100 jobs in America. Marketing Manager comes in at #66.
As I say, there have been big changes.
And I haven’t even got onto digital yet.
Just think, Google turned 19 in September. Facebook is 13. YouTube is 12. Amazon looks positively ancient at 23.
These companies are both the harbingers and the manifestation of transformation.
But I want to talk about an idea which I believe has been even more influential. An idea so massive we don’t even see it as an idea. Yet, it has added trillions of dollars, pounds, euros and rupees to the valuation of companies in every single nook and cranny of the world economy.
From USP to ESP
Seventy years ago, businesses made products.
And, according to Rosser Reeves of the Ted Bates agency, every product had a USP hidden away within it. The agency’s task was to find that one thing and demonstrate it again and again in every ad and every commercial.
Then 56 years ago, DDB created an ad for Volkswagen. ‘Think small’.
You could argue that it obeyed Rosser Reeves’s dictum in that the VW Beetle’s USP was its size, especially when put alongside Detroit’s wallowing whales of the period.
But there was something else.
A tone of voice. An attitude. A brand personality.
In the 60s, the big marketing-led corporations all began developing the art and science of brand management. As important as how their customers used their products was how they felt about them. Successful brands today are injunctions.
‘Just do it.’
In the late 60s and early 70s, JWT London catapulted the role of the agency into the completely new discipline of brand building.
Creative Director Jeremy Bullmore and Strategy Director Stephen King, arguably one of the most dynamic duos ever to grace the UK advertising scene, began creating brands out of thin air.
The milling company Rank Hovis McDougall went to see the pair in 1966.
“We’ve got quite a lot of flour. Any ideas?”
Mr Kipling’s Cakes was the result, currently worth over £160 million.
Bullmore and King invented After Eight Mints as well.
In the 80s, a new kind of advertising began to emerge. It was designed to elicit a purely emotional rather than a rational response.
Nescafé stopped telling us about beans and created a romantic soap opera of ads that lasted for 11 years.
Absolut didn’t bother telling anyone it was a Swedish vodka made with winter wheat and water from a well in the village of Åhus. They just made the bottle one of the most noticeable bottles in the world.
In many ways, there were practical reasons for the rise and rise of the ESP, the emotional selling proposition.
From 30 seconds to three and more
In almost all markets there is product parity.
A Toyota will get you from A to B in as much comfort and in the same time as a Ford, a VW or a Suzuki.
All TVs give you pretty much the same picture.
All teas taste much the same.
The iPhone. Now that was new. That was different. For a few months.
Now all smartphones look pretty much the same and fulfil the same functions.
If you do come up with a genuine innovation, it will be copied almost instantly.
I had an idea for an insurance company. To encourage people to take out home insurance with my client, we created a product that offered additional hole-in-one cover. If the insured person was a golfer and got a hole-in-one, the policy would pay out immediately to cover all the expenses incurred at the bar.
Two weeks. That’s all it took before I saw an ad from another company offering a similar deal.
Reebok, Adidas, Nike. Their shoes are all brilliantly designed and engineered.
How do you choose between them? By what you feel about them.
Today, consumers are ad averse. They have ad blockers on their laptops and mobiles. They use the remote to zap the ads on TV and on their TiVos and DVR boxes and they skip after five seconds on YouTube.
Unless what they see is interesting.
Unless what they see looks as if it could be amazing or hilarious or extraordinary.
Unless it’s a really great story.
And that might be three minutes long as in any of BMW films mini-masterpieces. Or 90-minutes long, as in Critical Assignment, a movie from Guinness that has made £42 million at the box office in West Africa.
Pushing and pulling
No one chooses to watch an advertisement.
But people will watch advertising. They aren’t the same thing.
An advertisement is pushed out at you.
Advertising, or branded content as it’s come to be called, pulls you in.
If the ad is still often about the product, branded content is about shared values.
Dove’s concept of real beauty, real women has helped them launch 14 new lines in the last 10 years.
Every brand is at it now, creating content not just for their own websites, but for their Facebook pages and their YouTube channels.
People don’t want to read about it, they want to watch it. So marketers are spending more time and more money on video.
The ‘Hero, Hub, Help’ model is providing a useful framework for many.
Take P&G’s Always brand. ‘Like A Girl’ was a hero(ine?) video with a total of around 200 million views on YouTube alone. It led people to Always’ YouTube channel, the hub, where there were other inspiring stories of girls achieving their ambitions.
As for help – ‘First Period Advice’ has had 18 million views.
Even so, it’s still a fairly conventional and, dare I say it,
old-fashioned idea of brand communication. Very much the TV ad refined and redefined for online.
Elsewhere in the rough and tumble of modern marketing, a handful of brands have discovered that they communicate as much in what they do as in what they say.
For instance, I’m told that L’Oreal were disappointed at the number of women who downloaded and used their ‘Makeup Genius’ app. However, to some surprise, a few months later, tracking studies revealed that L’Oreal’s image as a brand relevant to Gen Z has ratcheted up several notches. The very idea of the app had communicated a modern, forward thinking company.
And, no doubt, sales followed on.
My point is that over the last 70 years, technology has brought astonishing changes to how brands reach their core target groups and where. But what a brand is hasn’t really changed at all.
Let’s see what happens in the next 70 years.
Patrick Collister is a Creative Director in The ZOO at Google. He is also the editor of Directory (directnewideas.com).