Advertising fault line faultlessly pictured.

Leon Jaume is one of the cleverest and most thoughtful creative people in advertising, with a portfolio stuffed with top quality work at top quality agencies.

Which is why his piece reviewing the Halifax’s “Howard” advertising in this week’s Marketing is a fascinating read.

Being a decent and fair-minded bloke, he spends the first half of the piece acknowledging the extraordinary success of the campaign, but then admits in the second half how deeply he detests it.  Howard and his friends, Jaume makes clear, wouldn’t have lasted long on his watch.

The question, of course, is how much subjective dislike like this actually matters.  Jaume is a creative director. It’s perfectly possible that a team at his agency could have presented it to him.  If so, it’s quite clear that he would have turned it down.  Given the contribution that it’s made to the Halifax’s business over seven years or more, would he have been right to do so?

In this exact form, the question is unanswerable. Maybe Jaume would have turned the campaign down and guided the team in a direction that would have led them towards an even more successful alternative.  But the underlying question – which goes to the heart of the unresolved issue that’s been right at the centre of advertising in this country for more than 40 years – must be answered sooner or later:  how much does it matter whether advertising is enjoyed?

Traditionally, the view was that the industry was split down the middle on the issue.   Symbolically, the country’s two biggest advertisers stood in opposite corners:  Procter & Gamble cared nothing for likeability and only for effectiveness, while Unilever believed that warmth and emotional engagement added an extra dimension.

In recent years, if you look only at the highest-profile developments, it would seem that the tide has been turning in favour of the likeability brigade.  P&G now produce some hugely entertaining and rewarding commercials – not least, appropriately enough, for Tide (a recent film on the unlikely subject of stain removal made me laugh out loud).  Similarly, in another of the heavyweight contests, Mars vs Cadbury, Mars gave up some years ago on heavy-handed charmlessness and, through slightly gritted teeth, have been rewarding and entertaining us with films for a range of their confectionery brands including Maltesers, Revels and M&Ms:  Cadbury, always the entertainers, hit new heights with “Gorilla.”

But in much the same way that Hillary Clinton seemed to win all the big states and still lose the democratic nomination, proponents of entertaining advertising seem to have won these big contests but still been beaten back overall.  These days, whole advertising media – newspapers, radio, even arguably outdoor – are more or less completely entertainment-free zones.  And even on television, for every Mars or Procters there’s a DFS or an Ocean Finance – not major brands and not working with major agencies, but bloody great big budgets spent on massively visible campaigns that care less about likeability than Procters ever did.

I can’t help feeling that the unresolved status of this issue reflects badly on advertising.  Surely after all this time, money and tracking data, we should know by now whether likeable advertising works better?  And if we still don’t, might that mean that advertising is in fact still a pretty half-arsed, subjective business which, despite the huge amounts of time and money spent on it, is still shaped more by the whims and prejudices of Leon Jaume and other decision-makers like him on agency and client side alike?

If that is the case, then there are many worse people to be making the decisions than Leon Jaume.  But you can’t help wondering when this Peter Pan industry is ever going to start showing any sign at all of growing up. 

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *