This week, movie-goers can watch the reincarnation of Barclaycard’s Richard Latham as Johnny English. Could the spoof spy character, who scores high in a Marketing Week popularity survey, along with the PG Tips chimps and Monkey, be the first of many Hollywood castings? asks Gemma Charles
Over the years the world of advertising has provided popular culture with a host of characters fit to rival those from television, literature and film. Creations such as Maureen Lipman’s Beattie and the madcap Martians of the Smash ads have captured the imagination of the British public despite having up to only 30 seconds to engage with them.
But one of these characters is daring to ask for more. This Friday, Rowan Atkinson’s bumbling spy Richard Latham, who featured in Barclaycard’s ads during the Nineties, will make the leap to silver screen in the feature film Johnny English. Although Latham is now called English, essentially the film is an extension of the BMP DDB ads. The move is being billed as the first of its kind.
ICM research commissioned by Marketing Week indicates that the film-makers behind Johnny English may have picked the right man. In a poll of more than 1,000 people, the Barclaycard character was named as the second most popular British advertising character of all time, after the PG Tips chimps. ITV Digital’s Monkey came third, ahead of the Oxo family. In naming an advertising character they would like to see in a feature film, the respondents’ choice wavered little from their favourite advertising characters, although the Honey Monster shot up the table into fifth place. Humour won the day, with the largest proportion of respondents (54 per cent) saying that the reason they chose their favourite character was because “it makes me laugh”. Interestingly, only one per cent made their choice because they liked the product.
Interbrand chairman Rita Clifton says: “Icons get you instant recognition, and having something like that is clearly a fantastic advantage because you have to keep building awareness from scratch.
“The Tango Man [tenth favourite in the poll] was just such a brilliant example. It actually was the brand. If you consider the chimps, they didn’t personify the values of PG Tips, whereas the Tango Man, who was round, orange and cheeky, did.”
Which of these is your favourite British advertising character of all time
1 PG Tips Chimps 19% 2 Rowan Atkinson (Barclaycard) 11% 3 Monkey (ITV Digital) 10% 4 Oxo Family 7% 5 Howard Brown (Halifax) 6% 6 Tetley Tea Folk 6% 7 Milky Bar Kid 5% 8 Beattie (BT) 5% 9 JR Hartley (Yellow Pages) 5% 10 Tango Man 4% 11 Smash Martians 4% 12 Gold Blend Couple 3% 13 Captain Birdseye 3% 14 Honey Monster (Sugar Puffs) 3% 15 Flat Eric 3%
Source: ICM Research
The Richard Latham character was created to illustrate the benefits of Barclaycard in a rocky period for credit card companies. Explaining the climate that led to the character’s creation, Barclaycard head of brand marketing Mark Duckworth says: “In the Nineties there were profitability problems in the credit card industry, which at that time was made up of just Barclaycard and Access. We actually made a loss for the first time in 1990, which was a shock.” As a result, an annual fee was introduced, but so were a number of extras, such as holiday insurance, and the brief was handed to BMP to communicate this, says Duckworth.
Hence the birth of Latham, a character used in Barclaycard’s advertising between 1991 and 1997 and across 19 executions, backed by a total media spend of £60m. Unfortunately for Barclaycard, Atkinson eventually decided he wanted to pursue other interests. “The ads hadn’t become tired. We went out on top rather than having a slow lingering death,” claims Duckworth.
Barclaycard believes that it has no rights to the character Johnny English on the grounds that the character in the ads was called Richard Latham. Barclaycard was told of the plans to make a film right from the start and was given access to the script. No problems arose and as a consequence no attempt was made to explore the legal issues surrounding this unusual case.
Stephen Groom, the advertising specialist at law firm Osborne Clarke, says the ownership of the rights depends largely on the type of contract Barclaycard signed with Atkinson. Groom says: “It could be that Atkinson made sure he had the rights to the character.”
But, if Barclaycard had held Latham’s intellectual property rights, changing the name would not be enough to get the film-makers out of legal difficulties, adds Groom.
“This case underlines the immense value of rights and how important it is to tie up these rights into contractual arrangements,” says Groom.
Advertising agencies often sign over all creative rights for campaigns to the relevant client company, but last summer Mother claimed it owned the rights to the Monkey character. It became embroiled in a legal battle with Deloitte & Touche, the administrators of ITV Digital, for the rights to Monkey. The dispute was eventually resolved and the administrators sold Monkey to a mystery buyer, but the new owner has since allowed the knitted simian out to promote Comic Relief. Before Monkey’s retirement as the spokesperson for ITV Digital, there had been talk of creating a TV show starring him.
One character, which will not be appearing again in any way, shape or form is Levi’s head-banging puppet Flat Eric. Levi’s business director at Bartle Bogle Hegarty, Derek Robertson, says Levi’s holds the rights to the character and has no plans to resurrect him or push him into other media. “He’s legally protected and also legally dead,” quips Robertson.
Flat Eric, whom Robertson says is the “father of ITV Digital’s Monkey”, was created to move the jeans manufacturer’s advertising away from the typical 501 “boy meets girl” ads. “We made a number of ads and, to be honest, we weren’t sure whether they were great or a disaster. We were all taken by surprise by their success.”
Robertson attributes Flat Eric’s success in 1999 to the fact that “there was nothing much happening at the time”. Levi’s bowed to pressure and produced a number of record bags and puppets, but decided not to take up the offers from Holly-wood to explore Flat Eric’s cinematic potential.
“Hollywood can make even the slimmest premise last 90 minutes,” Robertson says, when asked whether the Henson-crafted puppet (maker of the Muppets) could have made the leap. He languishes at the bottom of the ICM survey, but Robertson says he is surprised the character made it at all as he was “a moment in time”.
Howard Brown, Halifax’s brand icon, could one day front a money programme or a children’s show says Greg Delaney, the chairman of Halifax’s agency Delaney Lund Knox Warren. “He’s really likeable and confident, he’s got a great voice and those trademark specs.” Brown has appeared in yellow submarine-style animation of late, prompting whispers he couldn’t act and had piled on the pounds: both rumours are flatly denied by Delaney. “See for yourself in the next ad,” says Delaney, which, he says, will feature Brown back in the flesh.
Whether many brand icons will follow in the footsteps of the Barclaycard character remains to be seen. A foray into the small screen is probably the more feasible and likely step in most cases. Latham’s spy had more apparent personality and potential than the poll-winning PG Tips chimps, which at the end of the day, were good at monkeying around but not much else. Third-placed Monkey, on the other hand, has more stage presence than his tea-drinking cousins, but the message is that any moves to stretch the character should be made sooner rather than later as he may quickly lose popularity. It could be a while before another brand owner contemplates its ad star becoming a star of the silver screen.
FOLLOWING IN ROWAN ATKINSON’S FOOTSTEPS?
PG Tip chimps
The chimps first appeared in 1956 but were revitalised in the Seventies. Last year Unilever Bestfoods finally killed them off. John Webster from BMP DDB, the agency responsible for the characters over the past 15 years, says: “The whole climate has changed. I think they’re best consigned to the past.”
Rowan Atkinson’s spy was the face of Barclaycard for seven years. He followed in the footsteps of Alan Whicker and Dudley Moore; and Angus Deayton picked up where Atkinson left off. However, the former presenter of the BBC’s Have I Got News For You is unlikely to appear as Barclaycard’s front man again following his recent indiscretions.
Monkey appeared in the summer of 2001 to announce the rebrand of ONdigital to ITV Digital. Sales went up by 65 per cent, free Monkeys were given away to subscribers but none of this was enough to prevent the platform’s demise.
Milky Bar Kid
The bespectacled hero was introduced in 1961 and is still going strong. NestlÃ© claims he is now the longest-running ad character. The strapline: “The Milky Bars are on me”, has been used in every single ad.
The Oxo family went for 17 years before an emotional last ad in 1999. Richard Saunders, a J Walter Thompson creative stalwart, says the ads at first attracted complaints for their realism, but later won over viewers. A new Oxo family, created by Abbott Mead Vickers.BBDO, has been universally panned.
Howard Brown (Halifax)
Brown was discovered after a company-wide talent search, and the rest, as they say, is history. Brown has fronted a number of commercials and features across many levels of Halifax communication, and even provides the voice for the bank’s automated system at its call centre.
Tetley Tea Folk
The adventures of Gaffer, Sidney and Maurice were cut short last year when Tetley began an ill-fated push on tea’s health benefits. The factory workers still live on through Tetley’s website and are said to be enjoying “a well-earned rest”.
Perhaps there was little in the way of news at the time, but the antics of the Tango Man provoked a tabloid frenzy in the early Nineties. Banging of the ears in ads was swapped for kissing, for fears of copycat actions in school playgrounds.
Gold Blend Couple
Sharon Maughan and Tony Head attracted 30 million viewers when they shared a kiss in 1993 after five years of flirting. This year, NestlÃ© returned to the theme of romance and couples in a bid to boost sales.
The salty old sea dog, who made his television debut in 1967, sailed back onto screens last year after spending four years as a young hunk. Birds Eye felt the younger seafarer was viewed as less trustworthy than his older counterpart.
Yet another Webster creation, the yellow monster, created for Sugar Puffs, has been going since the mid-Seventies and went from being a geek obsessed with honey to the striker for Newcastle United.
Intended to last only one ad, but such was the puppet’s popularity that he was revived for a second. Flat Eric was created to promote Levi’s new Sta-Prest jeans. Once the launch was done, the death knell sounded for Eric.
Maureen Lipman’s Jewish mother Beattie was used to communicate everything from BT shops to privatisation. Long after Lipman gave up the role, sociology students were claiming they were scientists because of a Beattie ad, in which she says to her grandson, who had scored a C in the subject, “you get an ology? – you’re a scientist!”.
One old man’s neglect to keep a copy of the book he wrote captured the nation’s heart between 1993 and 1995 when JR Hartley appeared in TV ads for Yellow Pages. Bookshop owners, however, were less enthralled when they found themselves deluged with requests for the mythical fly-fishing tome.
The Martians with the famous laugh, created by BMP’s Webster, have had three resurrections, the last in 2001. Inspired by space exploration, Webster says the client favoured an educational campaign, but the Martians’ popularity in research left only one choice.
Taking the example of Rowan Atkinson’s Johny English, which other ad charater would you like to see in its own feature film?
1 PG Tips Chimps 33% 2 Monkey (ITV Digital) 27% 3 Oxo Family 25% 4 Tetley Tea Folk 23% 5 Honey Monster (Sugar Puffs) 20% 6 Milky Bar Kid 20% 7 Gold Blend couple 19% 8 Howard Brown 19% 9 Tango Man 18% 10 J.R Hartley (Yellow Pages) 18% 11 Captain Birdseye 17% 12 Beattie (British Telecom) 16% 13 Flat Eric 14% 14 Smash Martians 12%
Source: ICM Research