Filling space with stuff

5 Feb

old bus ads

When I arrived in London in July 1990 to try and make my way in advertising, it was a very different city. There was still a functioning tube station at Aldwych. The Jubilee line terminated at Charing Cross and you could still hop on and off Routemaster buses. Tubes still had wooden window frames and those dangling black plastic balls that people gripped onto while the train was moving. And everywhere I looked, there was advertising. Brilliant advertising.

I quickly learned that cross track posters were really just press ads for people with time on their hands. The posters along the platform and up and down the escalators were for shows and exhibitions. Inside the tubes themselves, the ads could be for anything. Ambient advertising didn’t exist, there was no internet and no mobile phones. That left TV, press, outdoor and radio. There seemed to be just a handful of advertising agencies creating the ads and every student knew the names of these idea palaces: BBH, AMV, Lowe Howard Spink, BMP, Bates, Howell Henry. And all of these agencies were fantastic at advertising. It was as if displaying a message in a public space really mattered. It was as if people knew that the public would see the work, and they created it accordingly.

Fast forward (and trust me, the last 25 years have gone very quickly) to 2015 and the picture is very different. There are still big agencies but the work they now do is very different. There are also a huge number of agencies who believe that they are as capable as those big name agencies of creating advertising. And where before there were just a handful of media spaces to fill, there is now a proper proliferation. Back in 1990, an ad on a sandwich bag or the back of a tube ticket was exciting and new. Now, every surface area and every electronic interface is seen as an advertising opportunity.

The danger with this is that, a bit like the picture from 1900s London above, we are often guilty of just filling space with stuff. When there is no thought or care given to a project, and a crass, poorly worded, poorly designed piece of communication finds its way onto a tubecard or a banner ad, it affects the whole. Advertising itself becomes weaker. Too many messages bombard people and they switch off. If I show a client twenty ideas in a meeting, they quickly become bewildered. They can’t hold all the information in their head, yet every day they are assualted by several thousand messages.

It’s easy for an agency to convince a client who knows no better that a packshot of their product and some bullet points placed in a train carriage will make a gripping and cohesive argument as to why the public should be interested. But given the state of much of the print advertising that I see, both underground and overground, this approach isn’t working. A client that thinks they are saving money by creating their advertising in house might actually be throwing money into a black hole because their ads are not grabbing anyone’s attention. Equally, a digital, experiential, social or A.N.Other agency that thinks it can cover off all the advertising that its clients need may find that they don’t have the expertise needed to generate a properly engaging campaign for their clients.

London is absolutely clogged by clients filling space with stuff. One or two agencies know how to fill it with advertising, and one or two clients are prepared to put decent money behind making an impact. London in 1990 was a different place in a different time, but the ads that I saw as I walked, tubed and bussed around town hawking my portfolio truly inspired me. Today’s students must be walking around thinking ‘anyone can do this’, and with so many agencies now to choose from, they’re probably not wrong.

(this blog also appears at

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