Guinness’s ‘Surfer’ ad didn’t do that well in research ‘but we ignored it’

When Guinness first showed its now famous ‘Surfer’ ad to audiences they weren’t impressed but both brand director at the time Andy Fennell and AMV’s Walter Campbell were convinced they were on to a winner.

No list of the greatest ads of the past 40 years would be complete without Guinness’s ‘Surfer’ ad. The TV spot was creatively brilliant, commercially successful and helped propel the careers of everyone behind it – the brand marketer Andy Fennell, AMV BBDO’s Walter Campbell and director Jonathan Glazer.

Little did the team know they would be making a classic when AMV pitched for the Guinness business in late 1997. The agency of record on the brand for a dozen years had been Ogilvy & Mather, which was behind iconic ads including ‘The man with the Guinness’. But when Fennell joined Guinness (which was not yet owned by Diageo), he says the brand’s performance was “lacking somewhat”. And that while he worked hard to avoid changing the agency, they just couldn’t make it work.

“The ad communication was not as strong. The campaign at the time was ‘Not everything in black and white makes sense’ and it was trying to cause reappraisal. We wanted something that would get back the product truth,” he explains.

The brief for the subsequent pitch was simple: to get the brand growing faster. And four agencies were called in to see if they could find the “product truth” that would catalyse sales. The only presentation Fennell remembers is AMV’s, given by then CEO Andrew Robertson and founder David Abbott, to a number of Guinness execs, including the CEO, who was there because “it was quite an important decision for us”.

They had booked a two-hour meeting, but within 25 minutes Fennell says he knew they had found their new agency.

So often ideas get diluted down because people are worried about what the public will think.

Andy Fennell

The product truth AMV honed in on was the time it takes to pour a pint of Guinness and how they could make a virtue out of this using the strapline ‘Good things come to those who wait’. AMV’s Campbell says the inspiration for that line indirectly came from Abbott, who had written a few straplines with the word ‘good’ in them: BT’s ‘It’s good to talk’ for example.

The pitch included seven minutes of strategy and then some scripts for TV ads and posters that aimed to dramatise that product truth in an engaging way. The first script was for a spot called ‘Swim Black’, which Fennell recalls was the “only time in my entire career when I’ve commissioned a script as it was presented”.

There was also a poster showing a man sitting on the beach looking out to sea waiting for the perfect wave. There is a little disagreement between Fennell and Campbell as to whose idea it was to turn that poster into a film, but as Fennell says “it doesn’t really matter now”. But what was decided was that Swim Black would go first and Surfer would go second.

It is in part the success of Swim Black that ensured Surfer got made. Campbell claims the ad led to a 12% uplift in Guinness’s sales; Fennell is a little less forthcoming with actual figures but says it was a commercial success, beating all its internal targets, helped by the launch of a new innovation at the same time – Guinness Extra Cold. But it was the success of the first ad that gave both brand and agency the confidence to do Surfer.

Guinness surfer

And it needed confidence. The ad would end up costing more than £1m to make – almost half of which went on post production and adding in the horses. Fennell admits to asking if the horses were really needed because of how much they cost. But AMV was insistent.

“There was quite a few times when we could have made easier choices and we didn’t,” recalls Fennell. “Surfer was a special moment when all the stars aligned and it just worked.”

That isn’t to say the spot came together easily. Campbell recalls a trip to Cornwall to find people surfing and says initially he had the idea of a pod of whales creating the waves. But as part of the creation of Swim Black he asked a researcher to get a picture of Neptune, the god of the sea in Roman mythology, for the bar in the ad and he came back with an image of Neptune’s horses. “This image popped up and I knew it was the image for Surfer,” he says.

Pitch perfect

Finding the music was also tricky. Campbell estimates he listened to about 2,000 tracks, searching for “the sound of the blood in the surfer’s head when he’s on the waves and he knows he could die”. It was pure chance he came across Leftfield’s ‘Phat Planet’, it hadn’t been released yet but came recommended by someone he knew who had worked on the film ‘Breaking the Waves’. The voiceover, Campbell was clearer on: he wanted someone unknown and not Irish. “The one thing you don’t need to tell people about Guinness is that it’s Irish.”

Twenty years on the ad still resonates. Of people questioned by Marketing Week and YouGov Omnibus, 48% remember the ad, rising to 72% among those aged 35 to 54. And among people that recognise it, 57% attribute it to Guinness (although quite a few thought it was for Old Spice). Asked to name the ‘best ad’ of the 1990s, 25% say Guinness’s Surfer, ahead of Tango on 15% and Wonderbra on 8%.

But why does the ad work so well? Fennell describes it as a “product truth dramatised in a really surprising way”, while Campbell says it harks back to an era when brands had the aspiration to make ads that were “as entertaining as the TV programmes and films they were shown around”. Both talk to the confidence of the teams too, a momentum that had built around the campaign.

“The agency had a really good idea and then we all just protected that idea until the public had a chance to see it,” says Fennell. “So often ideas get diluted down because people are worried about what the public will think. It didn’t do that well in research, actually. But we ignored the research. That’s not me being an advocate for ignoring research, but sometimes you have such a profound belief in what you can produce.”