To get ahead in advertising, try sticking to what we know

The world of marketing and communications has changed dramatically in the last 50 years, but it is the ads that have remained consistent over time that we will remember, says Grant Duncan

Recently, ITV has been busy celebrating its 50th birthday. Half a century in which the world has changed dramatically; the twists and turns of geo-politics, technology and the climate are testimony to that. The world of marketing and communications has changed seismically too.

We don’t need to repeat the facts. We use them off pat in presentations every day – “from two television channels to 500”, “3,000 commercial messages a day”, not to mention the small matter of the internet and the fundamental change it has wrought on the way in which we communicate, transact and think.

Today, life feels like a film that has been speeded up: a series of “blipverts” created for a networked generation with alarmingly low concentration thresholds and brains that process at high speed. The survivalist world of advertising mimics this, restlessly jumping from one “big idea” to the next, as if consistency was somehow a genetic weakness to be eradicated in this new world of chameleon marketing.

And yet the recent slew of ITV celebrations has thrown up something rather intriguing. ITV’s 50 Years of Fame event, in the East End’s Brick Lane two weeks ago, showcased the 50 brands whose success and fame were attributable to their exposure on commercial TV. The choice of that 50 was underpinned by the “Fame Rating” research, a collaboration with Bartle Bogle Hegarty, designed to quantify the nature of advertising fame.

Walking around the exhibition, I couldn’t help noticing an emerging theme: the Andrex Puppy, Asda’s “pocket tap”, “Beanz Meanz Heinz”, Nestlé’s “Have a break, have a Kit Kat”, Stella Artois’s “Reassuringly Expensive” and the PG Tips’ Chimps. The most recalled and loved ideas were not the most recent, but the really rather old.

Just to be sure, I dug out the Channel 4 “100 Greatest TV Ads” series. It was the same thing: R Whites Secret Lemonade Drinker (1972), the Smash Martians (1973), Levi’s Launderette (1985), Hamlet Photobooth (1986), Renault’s Papa and Nicole (1991). The most recent ad in C4’s top ten was Boddington’s Ice Cream from 1997.

Surely, in our world of X-Factor-style instant fame, those ideas with currency and immediacy would be the ones people remember and talk about. Just why is it that these old ads are lodged in our collective consciousness?

Yes, it is about ideas that are universally insightful, entertaining, engaging and clever. It is also about weight. Two decades ago airtime was cheaper, ratings were bigger and there were fewer advertisers. But there is one thing that all these campaigns have in common – consistency. They and their iterations ran for ten, 20, even 30 years.

In turn, these campaigns have made their brands familiar, likeable, and part of everyday conversation – “shared experiences” for the mass population.

Call it serendipity, but there has been a spate of old campaigns coming out of retirement recently. There’s the return of “The future’s bright, the future’s Orange”, “You know when you’ve been Tango’d” and Coca-Cola’s “Hilltop”. This isn’t about sentimentality and, I hope, it’s not about creatives running out of ideas. It is an acknowledgment that great creative properties are like hen’s teeth.

So what are we to learn from this?

Marketers and their agencies are under tremendous pressure to perform in hyper-competitive markets. The pressure is to be new and different, but it is difficult and expensive to be new and different at product level. Research and development can’t always be relied upon (35 per cent of the packaged goods products launched each year fail). Service initiatives require fundamental cultural and operational change. And anyway, all of these can be copied by the competition, sometimes overnight. Too often the solution is a knee-jerk campaign – it’s cheap, quick (dare I say lazy?) and creates the impression of new news. But, quite apart from the “Chinese meal syndrome” (instant gratification, but all too soon the pangs of hunger), there is the loss of a great asset – an equity that is as tangible in people’s minds as it is on the balance sheet (ask the Orange shareholders who sold to France Telecom).

Of course, all campaigns have their time – arguably Tesco made the right decision to move on from Dotty. But it hasn’t moved on from “Every little helps”, which still sits at the heart of its communications. John Smith’s advertising has featured Arkwright, Jack Dee and Peter Kay over 15 years, but it still stands for “No Nonsense”.

A great campaign idea can’t be copied and it is relatively inexpensive to refresh or reframe. What’s more, it is the consistency and familiarity of that idea that will provide the coherence a brand needs as its messages fan out into today’s myriad channels to market, not to mention those that we don’t yet know about in the future.

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