Let us pray…

27 Nov

If I said I didn’t have a hand in this latest offering from the Church of England, I’d be lying:

I heard about the project via Churchads.net, the group I’ve been a member of for twenty years and which provides advertising ideas for the UK’s churches. Churchads weren’t formally commissioned to write the ad but we were asked to have a look at something that would appear in cinemas later in the year, before Star Wars: The Force Awakens.

The opportunity was huge – the whole battle of good against the powers of darkness is an area clearly rich with appropriate Biblical comparisons. I duly sent over a bag full of ideas, all of them  with the volume set to eleven and shot in epic widescreen.

However, the Church of England was fixed with retelling the Lord’s Prayer before the movie, and so any ideas that didn’t involve ‘Our Father in Heaven’ were out. I’m still not certain why, without making any nod to Star Wars, nor a force of any kind, or light, or darkness, that this ad’s spiritual home should be in a cinema immediately before a showing of The Force Awakens.

Not only this, the ads that immediately precede an event movie like Star Wars  are cinematic in their own right. The thirty minutes of trailers and advertising that herald in the main feature are a feast of filmic excess and properly show off the film makers’ craft. Any ad that sits amongst this hallowed company needs to wear its best clothes.

My advice, initially, was for them not to advertise. I could foresee embarrassment – a low budget advert sitting amongst multi-million blockbusters could make the church a laughing stock. The prayer wasn’t being unpacked, or re-appropriated, or subverted. No new meaning was being given to it, it was simply being prayed.

Once I realised that they were pushing ahead with it, I could still imagine how it might look if it were shot beautifully; if the settings were somehow resonant of a Star Wars movie, or Lord of the Rings, or Game of Thrones; if each shot was art directed and photographed brilliantly, if it was given space to breathe. In its own way, I believed, it could be epic.

However, the Church of England was set on using a chap they’d worked with before and who shot corporate videos for a living. They had also only booked thirty second slots in cinemas, as that was all they could afford. Imagine if the Popes and kings of the renaissance had decided to use some painters and decorators on the Sistine Chapel, when the greatest artists in the world were queuing up to paint something spectacular. I know any number of directors who would have killed to shoot this ad for the same money, yet none were asked.

And then it happened, as often happens in things of a Christian nature. God stepped in. God took a potentially unremarkable piece of video which might otherwise have led a quiet life on Youtube, and did something spectacular with it. I don’t believe this ad would ever have gone on air. There is no way the Church of England would have had the budget to run a minute-long commercial before Star Wars. My belief is that the ad was banned before the film was completed, and the story of the ‘ban’ leaked by clever press secretaries. There was never a thirty second commercial of the Lord’s Prayer – time it yourself – it’s so fast as to be irreverent. Once it was clear that the ad wouldn’t run, time length ceased to be an issue and the prayer could be as long as it liked.

I first saw the finished advert in church a week ago. The minister played it and announced that it was causing a storm for being banned. My first reaction to it was surprise – it was actually pretty good. It still looked more documentary than film, but it was nicely paced and had impact. The least surprising news was the ban – the Church of England knew that cinemas don’t accept religious advertising so it was always a punt. But it is by spinning this story to the press that has made it fly.

The online chatter has been phenomenal. Everyone, for once, seems to be taking the side of the church. This is currently the most famous cinema ad in history. People in the Guardian are discussing the revolutionary challenge to world order contained in the prayer’s words. People are assessing the Lord’s Prayer properly for the first time since they mumbled it in a school assembly or the wedding of a Christian friend. The Lord does indeed work in mysterious ways!

Can I take credit for any of this? Not at all, I was against it from the start. Will I take credit for it if anyone asks? Of course I will – I’m in advertising!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Guns are Cool

23 Oct

There is one ad campaign that is up at the moment that is showing no signs of coming down soon. It has been running for years, it is nationwide and a couple of new executions go up every week. I have no idea who the agency is, and a number of clients appear to be involved but the brief is as simple as it gets: Guns are cool.

It’s a brave strategy, but one which seems to have met with approval from the Government, the anti gun lobbyists and the Police. Consequently, guns are advertised vigorously, alongside soft drinks, trainers and snackfoods that young people can’t get enough of.

Here’s a great example of a gun advert. It even has celebrity endorsement – that’s Emily Blunt wielding a Glock 19:

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And here’s Daniel Craig in a slightly more sophisticated ‘man about town’ advert for the Walther PPK:

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And here’s a gun advert aimed fair and square at children – it’s an antique flintlock, but it can probably still propel a lead ball through a man’s skull at fifty paces:

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The good news for gun lovers is that the campaign is working. To the year ending December 2014, there were a healthy 4860 gun related incidents in the UK.

It’s admirable of the advertising bodies to turn a blind eye to what is clearly such a lucrative and well-loved business, despite guns on TV commercials being outlawed several years ago.

I’m such a fan of gun advertising that, a couple of years ago, I started a blog called Guns are Cool. So if you’re a fan of guns, and advertising them, and the carnage they bring, then come on in!

Can Advertising Be Rock ‘n’ Roll?

1 Oct
The Arkwright van, being expertly parked at the Hotel du Cap, Antibes

The Arkwright van, being expertly parked at the Hotel du Cap, Antibes

Years ago, I made the foolhardy decision to launch an advertising agency. High on the successes won at the legendary HHCL, Jim Bolton and I felt we were invincible. What could possibly go wrong? Well, not involving a planner, account exec or new business director for starters.

We floundered. The money we sunk into Arkwright sunk without trace. True, we picked up bits of Unilever and even Dominos Pizza, and the kind (exHHCL) folk at Michaelides and Bednash used us as their in-house creative department. We shared office space in Camden with Karmarama who had set up a couple of years earlier (Dave Buonaguidi and Naresh Ramchandani were our mentors at HHCL). On paper it all looked great but without the business sense and silver tongue of, say, Rupert Howell or Robin Price, we struggled.

My salary dropped by 90% in 3 months. We were stung with a massive tax bill as our accountant turned out to be an incompetent ex-con. When my flatmate moved in with his girlfriend, I ate all the food he’d left in the flat and got ill as some of it had gone off. I had holes in my shoes and no money to get new ones. And I made myself a promise, that however much time passed, whatever happened to me, and however I looked back on what we achieved in the three years of Arkwright, I would never, ever be nostalgic. I hated spending 24p on a tin of tomato soup and a roll from Safeway in Camden because I had no money for anything else. It was brutal. I saw no future. Two years earlier, I was on the red carpet on the Croisette; now, the advertising dream was over.

But when I look back on some of the things we did at Arkwright, I feel quite proud. Jim and I had recently met a young rocker called Justin Hawkins, and he and I had driven from Las Vegas to San Francisco with ex Leo Burnett legend, Trevor Webb in a three-wheeled Reliant. Justin had recently formed a band called the Darkness who were pulling in crowds in the bars around Camden and Kentish Town. He lived just up the road from the Arkwright office in a tiny bedsit in Belsize Park, and we would meet in Starbucks, write songs then go back to his flat where he would record them. All during the working day. Often, Justin would come into the office for a cuppa and, realising his musical ability, Karamarama asked him to provide the music for their new IKEA campaign. Justin obliged and the £20,000 cheque paid for the first Darkness album, ‘Permission to Land’.

It’s fair to say that Jim Bolton is a metal fan to the core. I couldn’t stand the stuff but I liked the lunacy of it, and I particularly liked that the Darkness were playing alongside Britpop and bands like the Libertines who were just so darned serious. We went to every gig. We pooled money and bought Justin appropriate outfits that we saw in the shops close to Arkwright HQ. One time, we got so carried away, we put money behind the bar at the Camden Barfly and bought every Darkness fan a drink, as it seemed the right thing to do. It only cost us £50.

Justin designed the Arkwright website and, in return, we gave him half of our van. We’d read of an interview with Razorfish on the US current affairs show, 60 Minutes. The founders were grilled on exactly what it was they did. They threw jargon at the interviewer who played dumb. Finally, one of them offered:

“We create solutions that allow our clients to run their businesses better.”

“So does a trucking company,” he growled back.

That weekend, we went out and spent £500 on a battered VW Transporter, and put a sign on the roof saying ‘Arkwright.’ We drove the van to Cannes purely to enjoy some free parties, playing ACDC and Meat Loaf from speakers mounted on top of the van. It was only when we returned to London that we realised we’d won a Lion for a website that Justin had provided the music for.

A few months later, the Darkness were the hottest band in the UK. The Sun newspaper flew them out to Hollywood to take pictures by the sign before they headlined at the Roxy on Sunset Strip. I used the last bit of my overdraft to fly out for the night and got drunk with Dominic Mohan, the Sun’s future editor. I spent the night sleeping on Dan Hawkins floor and in the morning he played me the song they’d just recorded for Christmas – ‘Don’t Let the Bells End’.

Sadly, Arkwright didn’t last. The Darkness went on to win the Brit Awards, the MTV Music Awards and the Ivor Novellos, then split up. Justin and I put an album together which he toured round the country with his new band, Hot Leg. The last time I saw him, he was in Antwerp having opened for Lady Gaga. Now he’s a recluse in Switzerland, but still leading what’s left of the Darkness to new glories.

It was a brilliant three years, but mainly because of the soundtrack. You can keep the poverty and bailiff’s letters and debt repayments. You can keep the office phone that never rang and the Safeway canteen. Arkwright lived for the evenings and the sweaty bars of NW1; for the beer, the adventure and the ear pounding music that accompanied them. We were part groupies, part roadies. We helped keep our favourite band on the road, with advertising as a sideline. And that has to be a little bit rock and roll.

OMG

17 Sep

OMG

I’m not usually a prude. I’m actually pretty open-minded and liberal. But I value and respect organisations like Clearcast and the ASA and the work they do to ensure that no one exposed to advertising is offended by what they see or hear. I imagine that if I described something as mad, mental or crazy, I would get a ticking off somewhere down the line, if not from the regulators then from mental health organisations who see nothing comic in schizophrenia.

Likewise, if any Islamophobia were to creep into adland, I imagine the work would get short shrift with the authorities. Now, more than ever, we are hyper aware of the sensitivities of others. Causing offence to the mentally ill, the fat, the short, LGBT and any number of minority groups is now front of mind for the authorities. Rightly so, we all believe we have rights, and it is our right not to be offended by advertising.

I have history with causing offense. It is inconceivable that a commercial as unashamedly jingoistic and rabidly anti French as Blackcurrant Tango ‘St George’ would get past a client, today, let alone Clearcast. And if that commercial were written today and the authorities asked for it to be toned down, we would have no choice other than to remove lines like “You’re one dissenting voice in a billion, Jonny French, you’re that”.

One group of people, however, remain ‘fair game’ in advertising – those Christians and Jews who do their best to live their lives according to the Ten Commandments. Commandment 3 (ie, quite high up on the list of ‘Thou shalt nots’) is the order not to take the Lord’s name in vain. Put simply, using His name flippantly is detestable to God. There is no grey area here, it is absolutely, properly and completely forbidden for Jews and Christians to do this. Many Jews and Christians are deeply offended when they hear other people do this. They teach their children never to do it. ‘O my God!’ ‘Jesus Christ!’ ‘Christ on a Bike!’ ‘For God’s sake’. Each of these – to stray into Mel Gibson territory – is a whiplash on the already flayed back of the soon-to-be-crucified Jesus.

Yet adland happily signs off ‘OMG’ as if no one minds. We do mind. It hurts. Despite having Jewish roots, I was ‘born again’ as a Christian in 1985. Like most believers, I genuinely believe that God has intervened in some of the bleakest situations that I have faced, and has pulled me through. Personal faith is a deeply sensitive area. I don’t expect others to empathise with this or even condone it, but surely if a 20 stone man has the right not to be ridiculed in advertising, I have the right not to read or hear ‘O…MY…GOD… either. Just because there are more of you than there are of me doesn’t mean I don’t matter.

The purpose of this blog is not to have a moan but simply to let you know (if you didn’t already) that OMG is a breach of a commandment that sits in a list that also orders people not to steal, kill or sleep with other people’s husbands and wives. Even if no offence is meant, offence is taken, and it’s over to the great and (hopefully) good in advertising to decide if defending blasphemy is more important than respecting the deeply held and cherished beliefs of the religious-minded. Over to you guys!

How a student ad saved the day…

17 Aug

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Over the years, I’ve lost count of how many student portfolios I have seen, but it must be in the high hundreds. Books have moved on from black A1 folders filled with hand-drawn layouts coloured in with magic markers to carbonmade websites filled with campaigns accompanied by slick films as if the plan is to enter them direct to the Cannes Lions. Of these portfolios, the vast majority have been instantly forgettable, although many improved dramatically after a few sessions [step forward Joe de Souza and Matt Fox] and quite a few ended up with the teams finding employment at good agencies.

Of the individual campaigns in these portfolios, only a handful remain front of mind. Remco Graham came in to HHCL with an ad for toothpaste to which he had attached a plastic specimen bag filled with dead bees. When we asked him what the bees were for, he told us he didn’t have any toothpaste. Tom Geens had a genius campaign for a comfy backpack, with a man waiting at an empty airport carousel for a bag that he’d forgotten he was already wearing. Alex Wilson-Smith and Sergei Ivanov had a campaign for Cadbury’s Dairy Milk which was so delirious that it remains one of my favourite ads, speculative or otherwise. However, the list of great student ads that I remember is a short one, but last week, one of them made all those hours of page turning and mouse clicking worthwhile.

As you can see from the picture, yours truly managed to get a motorhome wedged under a metal McDonalds awning. It’s easily done, especially when you normally drive a much lower vehicle and don’t read warning signs. The McDonalds staff were panicking that, should I moved the van forwards or backwards, I would rip their roof off.

It was at this point that I remembered an ad by a team whose names, to my shame, I can no longer recall. It was for the AA (I think) and involved a tall truck similarly wedged under a low bridge. In the ad, the AA man knows to let the air out of the truck’s tyres, thus freeing it. What in 1995 was an interesting piece of spec work became suddenly very useful in 2015. To the admiration of most of the customers and staff at the drive-thru, I let the air out of my tyres and was able to limp away.

So, creative team whose names I have forgotten, I salute you. If you read this and you’re in town, I owe you a beer. And if you’re a creative team in need of a crit, get in touch. It may end up helping both of us.

When Headhunters get Headhunted

27 Jul

Having been freelance for four months now, I’m getting the hang of recruitment companies. Initially, the sheer number of them was overwhelming. Along with the supergiant Talent Businesses and Major Players are a plethora of other agencies who, I guess, are as good as the work I get from them. And this is not in any way an attack on recruiters, far from it. For the most part, they do a great job, and the smaller ones are often far (far) better at keeping in touch, answering emails and generally busying themselves with keeping us freelancers employed

It is not just that there now seem to be a hundred recruiters where once there were two or three; there has been a far more significant sea change in the world of headhunters. Agencies have wised up to the fact that they pay small fortunes to successful recruitment companies when they hire talent. Agencies hate spending money on things that they think they can do very well themselves, which is why so many agencies that previously only created sales promotion material are now having a go at TV, and why so many ATL agencies now have digital, social, UX and other strings to their bow. We live in an age where we all believe that, if we hire the right people, we can do everything.

If only this were true with headhunting. More and more agencies have brought their headhunters in house, clearly to save a massive buck. They loved these headhunters because they had their ear to the ground. They were good at sniffing out talent. They scattered their nets far and wide and formed excellent relationships with people who they might one day be able to place in agencies. But now, at least to those of us on the outside, it feels like these headhunters have been trapped. They are no longer on the radar.

How do I know this? I don’t know for sure, but it’s just a hunch. Since going freelance, I have been bombarded with headhunters linking in with me. Hello all of you! Thanks for making the effort, I do appreciate it. It suggests that these people are looking for talent to fill gaps in agencies, ie, doing their jobs. In four months, not one in-house recruiter, head of talent, creative producer (or whatever title has been given them) at an agency has made contact. The few that I have unearthed have not accepted my request to link in. It could be that they have looked at my work and thought ‘nah’, but no, LinkedIn logs every visitor, and they haven’t even got this far.

So now we seem to be in a situation where recruitment has been taken in house, but in-house recruiters are either impossible to get hold of, or reluctant to look outside of their existing circle of connections. Why do in-house recruiters not want to expand their network while other headhunters spend every waking hour doing just that? And can you really have your ear to the ground once you are out of an environment where you have access to every agency and every creative, and are now attached to the HR department of a multinational? I’m not sure how this new world order helps agencies do anything other than save money. If saving money is more of a priority than getting in the kind of talent that will win business and make money, then the system is fine. I just can’t help feeling that the system it replaced wasn’t broken.

I heart JD

17 Jul
Jack Daniels cross track

Jack Daniels cross track

As I mentioned in a recent blog, I have just celebrated 25 years in our great city. And as long as I have been living and working here, there has been one constant. Not so much a red thread running through the timeline as a black and white one. I’m talking about the Jack Daniels adverts on the tube. I have no idea how many I must have seen or when exactly the campaign started. It has survived yuppies, grunge, Britpop and hipster. It has seen the government go from blue to red to blue again. It is recession proof, fashion proof and futureproof. It is not bothered that some brands choose to advertise on Snapchat, or demand approval on Facebook, or have funnelled their fortunes into content. It simply sits there above the underground tracks, timelessly, chewing tobacco and making homely small-town pronouncements, creating a myth that the global mega-brand of Jack Daniels is still pulled together by bearded men in lumberjack shirts stoking charcoal on a fire. And that’s the thing about Jack Daniels. Because its a campaign that predates me working in advertising, I am sucked in by it. I become one hundred per cent consumer. I bask in its warm glow. I properly buy into it.

But there’s more to the Jack Daniels campaign than longevity. There’s a certain genius that allows a brand to stick to its guns. To pick one advertising medium, one tone of voice, one font, one photographic style and stick to it. I have no idea which agency creates the work or which creatives over the years have so criminally been passed over at award ceremonies. But to quote Adam Driver’s character in the recent movie, While We’re Young ‘Let’s just not know’. To be honest, I don’t want to abandon the myth that these ads are written somewhere back in Lynchburg Tennessee by folk wearing ten gallon hats and listening to Elvis. Whoever you are, writers of the Jack Daniels ads on the Tube, I salute you!