Agencies forced to break taboos

In the second of a series of articles examining the effects of the harsh conditions of the Nineties for agencies and clients alike, Sharon Marshall asks whether agencies are being pushed too far.

Saatchi & Saatchi’s proposed use of a porn actress in a pastiche of a pornographic film for a future Castlemaine XXXX ad is the latest instance of an agency aiming to wring every last ounce of impact from a campaign (see page 7).

There is an argument that many advertisements are created as much for the agency trophy cupboard as for client sales, but the real issues run deeper. Taking risks may be the only way for agencies to hold on to business.

Agencies have broken practically every taboo possible. Teenage suicide was adopted as a theme by Pepe, Tarantino-style murder by Don’t Tell It magazine, AIDS by Benetton and transvestites by Levi’s and MAC cosmetics. Elsewhere, Guinness came, however briefly, out of the closet with its “gay” ad (MW last week), whereas Club 18-30 simply came.

“After the recession, clients are demanding more and more value,” says Steve Grime, creative director for Leagas Shafron Davis Ayer. “Agencies cannot afford to produce wallpaper ads. We are being watched like hawks.”

Grime, who as part of the team behind the Sun Alliance and British Knights ads has attracted his fair share of controversy, adds: “Some agencies take the short-term view that it is best to do dull, safe work. I would argue this is far riskier. Someone else is going to come up and tell your clients they can do stuff which is twice as effective for the same money.”

Breaking taboos may not be the only way of making an impact, but agencies say clients are often convinced that this is the case.

“Clients come and say, ‘I’m after a controversial script, I want a Tango ad’,” says Viv Walsh, art director for Saatchi and part of the team behind the controversial Great Frog jewellery store and Don’t Tell It ads. Walsh says that other media break down barriers which advertising must follow in order to be noticed.

Controversial advertising doesn’t harm agency business in the short term. Indeed, none of the aforementioned hotly debated “shock” ads cost agencies the account, although Leagas Delaney has dropped its suicide ads for Pepe. But as Graham Hinton, chairman of D’Arcy Masius Benton & Bowles, points out: “You can be sure that you’ll get fired for dull advertising.”

It is difficult to see which taboos are left. As Saatchi & Saatchi copywriter Jo Tanner puts it: “You have got to do what hasn’t been done.”

Tanner suggests two likely scenarios. The first is that the industry goes back to “happy, smiling Coke ads”, in an attempt to differentiate. On the other hand, he muses, “There’s a Lolita film coming out soon…”

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