September 17, 2010

Rise and Fall of the (digital) Adman?

Last night I watched a fascinating BBC documentary called “The Rise and Fall of the Ad Man” which, as described by the BBC, was an “insightful and witty look at the changing fortunes of British advertising with the story of the personalities who led it through its highs and lows”. It was quite timely since the Saatchis are busy celebrating their 40 years in the business and, in many ways, the story being told in the documentary seemed to reflect what is happening now with the digital revolution in advertising.

The 60s advertising scene was a backlash to the 50’s style of advertising which was run by ex-army majors where creativity took second place. Alan Parker is best known as a film director but he started out at one of the 60s and 70s leading London agencies Collett Dickenson Pearce & Partners. In the documentary he talked about the emergence of the colour suppliments of 60s which allowed ad agencies to escape from the small black & white ad in the bottom corner of a newspaper to full page glossy spreads which could now be as interesting as the content of the magazine itself. Hasn’t the web provided a creative escape for a new generation of advertising people bored with the 30 second TV ad or print advertising?

Also appearing was Frank Lowe who, talking about the 60s, said that the new generation understood TV and created ads that were often more creative than tv shows. Once again, we are seeing something similar online with branded content being a destination in itself rather than being pure advertising. We have our own new generation of creative people doing some amazing work in digital branded experiences.

Fay Wheldon is better known as an author but was a copywriter in during the boom years of advertising. She said that customers knew they being sold to but just needed to feel good about it. Not much different from today’s social media campaigns where customers become fans of brands.

One interesting comment in the documentary was about how some campaigns were so successful that TV comedy shows copied the commercials with parodies. Today anyone can parody a popular viral video hit and become one itself.

Alan Parker pointed out that the people in the business at the time were¬† “having fun doing it – clients loved it and business grew”. Clearly there is some of that same vibe around now in the digital ad business although not to the point of the crazy times advertising lived through in the 70s when many of the personalities lived the life of kings. Yet the 70s were also grim times in the UK and the advertising being developed represented a kind of escapism. It isn’t much different from the current world financial crisis with people seeking alternate realities in online games.

As the 70s rolled into the 80s admen branded themselves wanting to be celebrities. Peter Marsh was the worst example of this while the Saatchis took the world by storm with their creative and commercial bravery. They came to embody the greed is good 80s lifestyle.

These people were larger than life. Some said of Tim Bell, Saatchi MD at the time, that “dogs would cross road to be patted by him”. We don’t quite have the same personalities in the digital ad world today but people like Mark Zuckerberg can easily attract a panting crowd at something like the Cannes Lions.

The advertising industry didn’t look like it would stop growing. TV ads became more epic in 70s and early 80s looking more like movies.

Meanwhile Charles Saatchi fed stories to press and used Campaign magazine as springboard into the national media. Not much different than digital agencies using blogs, Twitter and Facebook to make a name for themselves today. In an interesting parallel with the Obama campaign the Saatchis¬† helped change politics allowing Margaret Thatcher to move into 10 Downing Street. In the documentary we see her talking at the Press Advertising Awards in 1979 saying that “it does pay to advertise”. In the same way that an ad campaign got her into power would Obama be in the Whitehouse without the ability of social media to change the mindset of the majority?

In the 80s British advertising became extravagant and indulgent… and sloppy. The people running these hugely succeful agencies wanted to be master of universe. To dominate the world. They started to believe that they could they run industry not just campaigns? In 1987 The Saatchis tried to buy Midland Bank – pure hubris as the documentary pointed out along with an ironic comment by Martin Sorell that they had “delusions of grandeur”.

Makes you think about AOL buying Time Warner at the height of the dotcom boom.

So the ad industry had become too powerful and they were put back into their box by the business world. There was just no accountability. The Saatchis suffered a drop in revenue of over US$100 million. They had to readjust and the figureheads were forced out. The bottom line took over with the business was now led by managers and accountants. It was like going back to 50s with “suits” in charge. Creatives were no longer king.

The advertising revolution that started in the 60s was over by the end of the 80s and the beancounters took over. Now we sit in the middle of a new revolution which already suffered one bust at the end of the 90s but is now stronger than every. Traditional advertising is being overrun by digital with many agencies scrambling to keep up. Google are the new Saatchis with a bloated sense of importance and value. Will the digital ad industry keep growing in the coming decade or suffer the same fate as the British ad industry in the 80s? Perhaps with a little wisdom from past experiences we can avoid the same fate.