The Sunday Times

50 years special

A mad mad mad mad world...

Except it’s not. Rita Clifton, the brand expert and a former Vice Chairman at Saatchi & Saatchi, looks at 50 years of advertising.

I’m going to sit in the middle of the last 50 years of advertising to talk about this subject - ie circa 1989 – for a number of reasons. Not because I harbour a secret desire to return to big hair and padded shoulders, but because it was a pivotal time for the advertising business as well as the wider world and it's a good time from which to look back and forward. 

Even Time magazine said that 1989 was ‘the year that changed the world’. It was also the same year The New York Times featured a front cover proclaiming ‘”Brits buy up the ad business”. That was the news about British agency groups like WPP taking over major US agencies like Ogilvy & Mather. Their illustrious founder, David Ogilvy, infamously called Martin Sorrell an ‘odious little shit’. He hasn’t done too badly over the best part of 40 years. 

Advertising may feel like a parochial and self-reverential business sometimes, but it has also become increasingly professional and accountable. It has had to be. Despite the image of ‘wacky’ creative types (and there have been many over the years, some with monstrous egos, cars and pay packages to match their rock star status), the advertising business was, and is, a generator of hard economic value and influence. It symbolises the social and economic times and it generates real wealth. So here’s the commercial break for the advertising business. A study by Deloitte last year credited advertising with generating £100bn impact on total UK GDP. That £1 in advertising spend generates £6 for the UK economy. And that 550,000 jobs are supported by annual ad revenues. 

Britain’s good at advertising. Really good. 

The company that was particularly good by 1989 was Saatchi & Saatchi, and in 1989 I was working there as a strategist. My main account was British Airways and that year we produced an ad that was hailed as the ‘ad of the decade’ – the one where hundreds of people came together to form a face in the desert, to the Malcolm McLaren-arranged rock-opera soundtrack of Lakme. It ran around the world, and caught the zeitgeist as well as people’s imagination at a time when the Berlin Wall was coming down and people were protesting to be free even in unexpected places.  

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British Airways ‘Face’ commercial (Saatchi & Saatchi)

Saatchi & Saatchi was the first household name in advertising, largely as a result of being seen to have helped Margaret Thatcher into power with iconic ads like ‘Labour isn’t Working’. They also handled many of the newly confident and ambitious British companies in the 1980s, like BP (‘Britain at its best’), ICI (‘World Class’ ) and BT (Stephen Hawking), and Saatchi’s was seen as a great British business success story in its own right – with its own right to be in the boardroom and in No.10.

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Election ad for Conservatives (Saatchi & Saatchi)

British advertising style actually had a lot to thank New York for in the early days. The Madison Avenue Mad Men era of the 50s and 60s (and particularly the late, great Bill Bernbach) inspired a generation of copywriters and art directors in London, but with added British wit and humour.  London was having its own creative flourishing from the 60s with fashion, photography and graphic design, and one agency, Collett Dickenson Pearce, dominated the era with surreal ads for Benson & Hedges and iconic campaigns like ‘Happiness is a cigar called Hamlet ‘. A host of later stars were involved in the creation of those campaigns, including Lord Puttnam, Sir Alan Parker and Ridley Scott; the advertising business was a creative talent magnet and incubator.

Charles Saatchi was at that agency for a while, and took the profile and drive of creativity to a new level with his own first consultancy ‘Cramer Saatchi’....where the famous ‘Pregnant Man’ ad was created, and where he was joined for a while by a young creative guy called John Hegarty...who later set up his own agency Bartle Bogle Hegarty...which produced what for many was the iconic ad of the 80s, the Levi’s ‘Launderette’ ad. (And coincidentally, BBH have the British Airways ad account these days. It’s a tough old competitive world).

One way in which British advertising was also different was in its invention of ‘account planning’, where the agency strategist (like I was) conducted deep and meaningful research into consumer behaviour, both qualitatively and quantitatively, and helped the agencies produce advertising that was highly relevant, engaging and demonstrably effective. Boase Massimi Pollitt epitomised this, and produced some of the most charming advertising of the 1970s like the Cadbury’s Smash ‘Martians’ and the Sugar Puffs ‘Honey Monster’. The culture of British advertising was to entertain and engage, something that works in any age and time.

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Cadbury’s Smash Martians (Boase Massimi Pollitt)

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Pregnant Man. (Health Education Council/Cramer Saatchi)

But back to the future from 1989. It was also the year when media planning and buying got split from the creative element of ad agencies. Whereas up until the late 80s, the dominant forces had been ‘full service agencies’ like Saatchi’s, J Walter Thompson and McCann Erickson, the opportunity for buying scale tempted agencies to spin off their ‘media’ functions – which, with delicious irony, were later viewed as more influential with clients than the creative elements, as they were better at demonstrating hard value and cost efficiencies. This was divine revenge for those media specialists who had been consigned to the back end of the agency pitching process (I can well remember how many times the creative section of a pitch would run over time, and the poor media executives were relegated either to ‘can you do your bit in 5 minutes’ or worse ‘don’t worry, the media plan is in the document’...)

The ad business became both more consolidated at one end (WPP, Omnicom, Interpublic and others buying up well known agencies, setting up media conglomerates and acquiring broader marketing services businesses), and more fragmented at the other, to reflect the burgeoning media channels and the digital revolution. Terms like ‘360 degree marketing’ and ‘integrated communications’ meant a new generation of agencies, who promised that they were ‘media neutral’ vs the old ad agencies which seemed obsessed with traditional media like TV, posters and press. As though to signal a new era, rather than collections of founders’ names (which could get ridiculously long in mergers), agencies appeared with names like ‘Naked’, ‘Mother’ and ‘Karmarama’. 

And the seeds for change were there in 1989; Tim Berners-Lee produced the proposal that led to the worldwide web...and we know where that went.

Today, all the world’s a screen, and advertising has taken on a broader meaning. In today’s digital, e- and m-commerce world, there’s a complete blurring of above, below and anything in- between lines – and around the world.

But critically, the thing that matters, that has always mattered, across the past 50 years and many more, is the brand.  

It’s particularly important to recognise all this today, because, for any organisation, everything you do and make is your communication – and can either build or damage your brand (which is after all your most valuable and sustainable asset if you look after it properly). 

When people ask me to talk about ‘branding in the digital age’, they might well expect sexy Youtube videos, interesting ‘branded content’ and social media campaigns. Which I’m obviously happy to show, and there are some wonderful examples like Volvo Trucks (OK, it’s not British, but check out Jean Claude Van Damme doing the splits with over 70 million viewings ...) and the Lego Movie is probably the best example of branded content I’ve seen. Back to Britain, and even a Meerkat has a Twitter account these days. 

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Aleksandr the Meerkat on TV...

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...and on Twitter.

However, here’s the, er, killer insight about branding in the digital age. You’ve got to be a bloody good business, where all your people are clear and motivated about what you stand for, and know what they need to do to deliver a distinctive and special experience right across everything they do for customers. Because if you don’t live up to your promises as a business, if you don’t treat and train your own people in the way you want them to behave towards customers, if you’re not producing good or distinctive enough products, then no amount of expensive, paid-for advertising is going to save you. 

And that is, and has always been, the best advertising insight of all.

“Advertising may feel like a parochial and self-reverential business sometimes, but it has also become increasingly professional and accountable. It has had to be.”