ADVERTUCATION: AN EDUCATION BY ADVERTISING STAGNATION

Provocation Article 3: This is the third in a series of provocative articles taken from a paper by Platform-7 founder critiquing the fad for hubs and the idea (within the UK) of the creative economy. These article will appear over the summer of 2014 in advance of a major new Platform-7 intervention, Creative Publics, beginning Autumn 2014.

John Hegarty is regarded within the advertising industry as one of its creative stars. Founding from scratch the now global advertising goliath, BBH (Bartle, Bogle and Hegarty), with John Bartle and Nigel Bogle in Soho during the early-80s, the company created some of the UK’s most memorable advertising, including ‘Vorsprung Durch Technik’ for Audi and the international Levis campaign. From a podcast interview on Assorted Nuts in March 2014, online magazine Creativepool.com reported:

Sir John Hegarty says modern advertising is ‘sh*t’. Is he right?

“If you look at the UK, we are suffering because we are not putting the time into the idea and there’s empirical evidence to say that the quality of our output has gone down. It’s not my opinion. Empirical evidence from the audience shows us that the quality of what we are making is going down.”

That’s Sir John Hegarty, speaking on the Assorted Nuts podcast. He continues: “By and large the product’s sh*t. Why would I watch sh*t?”

[…]

‘If Sir John Hegarty thinks the ads we’re producing are crap, then we have a problem.’

Creative adventurousness is a matter of power. In its glory days, BBH (Hegarty’s agency) was very powerful indeed. Their work on global brands, particularly Levis, was rightly regarded with awe and envy. This admiring respect certainly came from competitor agencies, but importantly, it also came from clients. When clients aspire to be on the roster of a particular shop, it puts the agency in a very strong position because it gives creativity a power-base. Why did so much tremendous work emanate from BBH and others [this includes GGT advertising], through the eighties and nineties? Because the power and influence lay in brilliant creative concepts. This is no longer the case.

(Magnus Shaw, Creativepool.com)

What is interesting about the quote is not the fact there is agreement from this author in what Hegarty is saying, it is how creativepool.com have completely misunderstood Hegarty. It is important to note that the author of this blog post previously worked at BBH [1]. The ‘power and influence’ did not lay just in ‘brilliant creative concepts’; it lay in the understanding of turning information into a story and exceptionally executing that story. What Hegarty, Trott (as in Gold Greenlees Trott), and others managed to achieve was the capturing of a story in under 30seconds, which relates information in a concise, often abstract form, to a viewer in a way that they did not expect. Like art some might say!

It can be argued that since the rise of mankind’s ability to write, storytelling has been on the decline. ‘The novel slowly killed the art of storytelling over the centuries’ stated Walter Benjamin in The Storyteller (1968, 88) and describes how storytelling became information and how information is retained differently to a story. For Benjamin, ‘storytelling is always the art of repeating stories, and this art is lost when the stories are no longer retained’ (1968, 90). Andy Pratt says in his AHRC Creativeworks London study of Platform-7,

‘advertising usually works through the development of a mono-dimensional and idealised image of the product, which the consumer is led/sold to desire and buy. The tactic is to close down, focus and to segment. The emotional engagement is shallow and passing, but generated to produce desire for the purchase’ (Pratt, 2014).

Where Hegarty and his contemporaries became expert was the ability to blur storytelling and information by taking the most important facet of a product (information) and wrap it with the strongest aspect of a story (emotion). Both BBH & GGT borrowed heavily from film, literature and of course art.

What can be argued is that now what is happening is that the codification, accreditation and designation that has been developing at a pace over the last century is beginning to clog and choke the ability to think creatively. ‘Great concepts’ were only part of the power of BBH et al, there was also an abundance of talented people all under one roof who were individual. These agencies were on fire all the time with blue language, shouting, strops, late nights, early starts, crazy thinking, huge parties, the all important pub, occasional fist fights, laughter, beer in the fridge and a single desire to create something everyone could be proud of. At BBH, GGT and a few others, the biggest critic of the work were those who worked within the company, there was passion, strong will and deep thought about what was happening. If organisations can be diagnosed with a disorder, these places suffered perfectionism.

With the industrialisation of advertising throughout the 90s, bigger and bigger companies quickly purchasing smaller companies, standardising offices, working practices and methodologies, companies began to employ more staff who were formally trained in ‘marketing’. By the very principle, if everyone went to the same few schools to learn the same marketing rules to apply to cabbages and cars then there will not be much to differentiate one ad agency from another.

Virtually no one had a marketing degree in the 80s. The bosses and account handlers tended to have law, mathematics, business, politics or policy heavy degrees with the rest of the agency often a ragtag of art school dropouts and people promoted from the post room, secretarial or being runners who really wanted to get into film or television making. The mix meant that generally no two points of view were the same – what a public school educated guy thought of a strapline would often be at odds with what the runner from the post room thought, but views were accounted for; and this was the key, the difference was embraced.

What Hegarty is stating, this paper argues, is the standardisation of thought. Yet such stagnation in creativity is not because of advertising, it is because of the industrialisation of art through the education system, public arts policy and formalising of the commercial gallery approach. When marketers were stuck in the 1980s or earlier, there was art to turn to for inspiration (or to thieve). Now many ‘artists’ are more interested in their personal brand, which the gallery system endorses, with the difference between art and advertising often almost imperceptible. Free thought is difficult if all free thinking needs to fit within a decided set of parameters or definitions. For advertisers to survive they need to be ahead of the client and that is no longer happening as the difference in the client’s approach and the adman’s is almost identical.

Andy Pratt:

One of the challenging things about Platform-7’s practice is that it is (analytically) a mingling of performance art practices and advertising practices’ […] it is not reductive, but instead exploratory and expansive, one that is resistant to the stamp of a single meaning. It is rooted in an emotional engagement […] Another dimension of Platform-7’s practice is material culture, or things; memories and experiences are associated with objects and places, often banal, that we can all recognise in our lives and hence they are powerful conductors of memory and emotion.

The power is usually through the articulation of an affective linkage with things and/or places. This is – crucially – not an imposed story, the sort of common practice of advertising or branding […] it is not a unitary ‘brand consciousness’ but an emotional attachment […] emotional connection that Platform-7 specialise in is precisely what might be regarded as the ‘holy grail’ of current marketing and advertising

Professor Maurice Biriotti [2] observed during a workshop study of Platform-7’s practice that the organisation wishes to ‘becomes a language and a way of thinking. It is not about dictating, it is about reassessing people’s own ways of thinking.’ (SHM workshop, 2012).

So where does this leave us all? The sub-header ‘Advertucation’ is meant as a mockery. As storytelling became information the information became advertising, and for some it appears to have become their education. Marketing speak has become so dominant that the ludicrous words, which have no meaning, have managed to convince even the academy. And now there is stagnation.

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1 John McKiernan, author of this paper, worked at BBH for 2 years in the late 80s (agency staff 90) before leaving to spend 5 years at the chief rival GGT (Gold Greenlees Trott – now TBWA).

2. Professor Maurice Biriotti is Chief Executive of SHM. Before setting up the company in 1996, Maurice was a full-time academic, and held posts at the Universities of Cambridge, Birmingham and Zurich. His published work covers literature, philosophy, anthropology and the dynamics of cultural change. SHM was founded on the insight that human motivation is at the root of all business success and is critical to business innovation and the delivery of competitive advantage. [continue…]

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Provocation Article 3: Click to read other articles:

Article 1: Trim Tabs: How art can change the world

Article 2: Hubs: Little more than a place to work

Article 4: The Prosumer: Exploitation of Hub Members

Bibliography

Benjamin, Walter. (1990/1955) Illuminations, Ed. Hannah Arendt, Translated by Harry Zorn, London, Pimlico

Pratt, Andy (2014 – in press) The Enigma that is Platform-7, Creativeworks London, available online {http://www.platform-7.com/#!THE-ENIGMA-THAT-IS-PLATFORM-7/cf7o/2BEBC5CB-3EE1-4559-9D8F-948CC31DFECA}

Shaw, Magnus (27th March 2014), Sir John Hegarty says modern advertising is ‘sh*t’. Is he right?, Creativepool.com, UK, found online {http://creativepool.com/magazine/features/sir-john-hegarty-says-modern-advertising-is-sht–is-he-right.2726} 20th May 2014.

Caption Image: John Hegarty, Creative Director, BBH Advertising, found at Guardian Online, May 2014 [click]