Once a month, I do an eveningÂ session in the agency – beer, crisps, you know the sort of thing – for anyone who wants to come along on a topic that has something to do with creativity and the creative process. For thisÂ month, I wanted toÂ show a bunch of current, decent newspaper and magazine advertisements and have the agency equivalent of the “nature vs nurture” debate:Â how much of what makes them good is the insight in the brief, and how much is the creative idea?
So, for about the last three weeks,Â every time I read a newspaper or magazine, I’ve been looking for ads I can use in the session.Â Not financial, absolutely any sector.Â Â Just current, decent print ads.Â And you should know that I readÂ a lot of newspapers and magazines.
And after three weeks, how many current, decent print ads have I found?Â Four.Â And even then, two of them are from the same campaign (Mars’ campaign saying that their confectionery isn’t as bad as you think it is) and the other two aren’t really very good (Toyota Yaris and the second-hand VW campaign).
Is this because I’m being ruthlessly, unrealistically selective?Â Are there actually dozens of perfectly good print ads whichÂ I’m dyspeptically refusing to choose?Â Absolutely not.Â The pile of near-misses is, if anything,Â even smaller than the pile of selections.Â Meanwhile, the pile of obvious,Â no-argument, everyone-in-their-right-mind-would-agree rejectsÂ towers high over my head.Â Â And I am not a short person.
A small percentage of the rejects are rejected because they’re pitiful failures – crass, lumpen, hopeless, amateurish attempts to do something that’sÂ miles beyond the capabilities of the people involved in trying to do it.Â But the overwhelming majorityÂ are rejected because they simply aren’t trying to do anything remotely interesting.Â They’re not really ads at all, just notices of one sort or another.Â A huge amount is, of course, retail advertising just showing us products and prices.Â And the rest …well, frankly, it’s too boring to describe.Â Have a look – a proper, carefulÂ look – through theÂ weekend papers and supplements, and you’ll see what I mean.
As I write this, I have open beside me the document that probably represents the high-water mark of British print advertising, the 1982 D&AD annual.Â Admittedly, about half the ads in it come from Mr Abbott and his chums at Abbott Mead Vickers, who in those days approached press work with the kind of zeal usually associated with the Spanish Inquisition or Gordon Ramsay’s kitchens.Â And of course, it’s ridiculous and unfair to contrast the tiny fraction of 1982’s press advertising which made it into the book with two or three weeks of humdrummery.
But still, just flick through the annual and you’ll see a whole thought-process, a whole way of thinking about print advertising ideas, and copywriting, and art direction, that simply doesn’t exist at all today.Â Brilliant, consistent, dazzling campaigns – Sainsbury’s, Albany Life, Sun Alliance, Stella Artois, Benson & Hedges, BMW, Audi, Volvo.Â And fantastic one-offs – “Red Star would like to point out that at 10.15 last night this page hadn’t been printed” or the Youth Opportunities Programme’s “You’re right.Â The trouble with us kids today is that we’ve never done a decent day’s work in our lives.”Â Honestly, it just goes on for page after page.Â It’s wonderful stuff.
So what happened?Â How did we get from there to Dell Computers and Carphone Warehouse?Â I can’t think of a single major brand that uses print advertising to surprise, engage, reward, provoke and entertain readers today in the way that 30 or 40 major advertisers did 25 years ago.Â Why?
At this point, you might expect me in my Libran way to offer up half a dozen reasons why things have changed.Â I might suggest that brand advertisers rely more on broadcast media these days, or that the Internet has something to do with it, or that consumers don’t haveÂ the patience to dwell upon the lovingly-crafted copy of Mr Abbott and his friends any more.Â But actually, none of the explanations I can come up with really seems to make any sense.Â True, advertisers use broadcast more, but that’s surely a symptom and not a cause.Â The Internet has something to do with lots of things, but I can’t see how it can have a bad effect on print advertising.Â And although it is true that newspaper readership is in gradual long-term decline (something which the Internet has a lot to do with) the overall readership of printed publications continues to increase, and there’s no evidence that people who buy them read any less of them than they ever did.
Of course those of us working in financial services have played some part in the collapse.Â Â A respectable number of the great campaigns of the 70s and 80s were financialÂ -Â Barclaycard, Albany Life, Sun Alliance, Nationwide FlexAccount.Â You’d imagine that print advertisingÂ would beÂ still important to financial brands, not least because there are still literally dozens without the resources to build awareness on television:Â it’s extremely odd that you can’t think of a single major financial advertiser who uses print intelligently and originally today.
I don’t think you could simply bring back most of those 80s campaigns, and in some ways even an old fogey like me can see that they do represent a bit of a vanished world.Â It is all a little bit prim, and prissy, and very male, and extremely white, and just a bit too pleased with itself.Â But I am quite sure there is an equivalent approach to print advertising that can be taken today, and that can be taken by financial brands at least as effectively as by any others.Â The 21st Century equivalents are waiting to be written.Â If any financial advertiser fancies having a crack at it, please let me know.