What the hell happened to car advertising?

Car advertising was once the benchmark for all that was good in our industry.

Decades of brilliant creative work for the likes of VW, Volvo, BMW, Porsche, and others had established a gold standard that everyone sought to uphold and emulate.

Not any more.

This is what passes for automotive advertising today.

Conceptually, it’s dead on arrival.

But, let’s face it, it’s the dialogue that really challenges the will to live here.

If you can bear it, here it is in full:

Do
Do your thing
Flee that nest
Find your inspiration
Seize that moment
Be extraordinary
Spread your wings
Mazda
Feel Alive

If someone told me that an AI algorithm had spat out this dross after ingesting a billion glib car clichés, I frankly wouldn’t be surprised. Nor was I surprised to learn that the same copy had been used on almost identical spots for the CX-3, 6 and 9. Four ads for the price of one. Result!

Contrast this lazy thinking with work for the same brand from Gold Greenlees Trott in the 1980s.

Mazda 1

Mazda 2

Tough, no-nonsense reasons to buy augmented by an arresting visual.

Would that today’s stuff was as well put together.

So what happened? How did this sorry state of affairs come to pass? And, more to the point, how can we get back to doing great work for, let’s face it, great brands?

As a refresher, and entirely chosen at random, here are more examples from a time when joined-up thinking and smart ideas were the norms.

VW 1 Price

Volvo 3

Porche 1

VW Van 1

2CV 1

Each one is built on a single-minded thought.

Each one demands our attention.

Each one communicates persuasively with economy, wit, and confidence.

And, of course, each one has a look, an attitude and a personality that’s theirs and theirs alone – you’d be hard-pressed to mistake a VW ad for a Volvo or Citroen for a Porsche.

These ads built on one another. They accumulated value and incrementally raised expectations and properties around the brand over time. Today’s ads do none of these things. Bereft of any conceptual merit or sense of longevity, they merely piss away a tidy budget down a hole of invisibility.

Where the responsibility lies for the whole Mazda CX-5 debacle is anyone’s guess. Who knows, maybe everyone’s chuffed with it, and sales are through the roof.

Somehow I doubt it.

The whole thing smacks of a subjugated creative team. Of countless valiant attempts to get better work approved to no avail. Just one look at the script tells you it was micro-mandated by committee and crippled by fear.

Yes, never forget fear.

Fear of being different.

Fear of standing out.

Fear of being provocative.

There’s absolutely no reason why today’s car ads shouldn’t be as good as those of yesteryear. The creative talent is out there. It’s ready, willing and more than able. But for it to shine, we first need to rid ourselves of all the managers, planners, researchers, experience gurus, cultural anthropologists, and other schmucks who get in the way.

Throw them in the back seat and tell ‘em to be quiet. Give the keys back to the creatives, turn off the GPS, and let them take us places we’ve never been before. Down roads unfamiliar and avenues unusual. The further off the beaten track the better.

The work will improve, brands will be built, and sales will rise.

But best of all:

Car advertising will be back.

You know, for clients!

hudsucker

I like to think of myself as an embracer of change.

For me, the zing and zest of the new and the now are merely a part of what makes this crazy business of ours fun (most of the time).

Nevertheless, as someone who’s been around the sun a few times, I can’t help but pine for the occasional discipline that may have fallen out of practice or been made redundant by technology, particularly when I believe that what it afforded us is needed now more than ever.

One such discipline is the marker comp.

The marker comp was essentially a scribble on a piece of paper, a doodle with hand-bashed headlines, stick figures, and squiggly lines for body copy. It wasn’t about draughtsmanship, it was about the idea. The intent was to communicate a thought so succinctly you could hold it up from across a room and say, “What do you think?”

“Love it.”

“Hate it.”

Move on. 

The simplicity of the form meant that ideas were generated at rapier speed. Nothing was too dumb, too ridiculous or too precious. You could dig deeper, faster and burn past the usual and clichéd early. As a consequence, you were more apt to alight on something original.

For years, the marker comp was the paper currency by which we created, shared, discussed, argued, fought, laughed, and generally got excited about ideas. Walls would be literally plastered with these things. After directions, tangents and permutations had been properly explored, one or two would be deemed worthy to present to the client. Here the marker comp would get a subtle upgrade in the form of a more considered rendering and the introduction of color courtesy of that other art director mainstay, the Magic Marker. 

Yet no matter how elaborate or finished they finally became, the boards created for the client presentation where still essentially platforms for judging an idea. 

Which is exactly what the clients were asked to do. Moreover, that’s all they were asked to do.

Does it work? 

Do you like it?

The client never got side-tracked by the use of stock photography or a choice of font. Those conversations would come later once an idea had been picked. And that was the other great thing about the marker comp: stripped of any form of artifice, it was easy to spot a good idea from a bad one. 

You seldom see walls plastered with paper concepts these days. Just as you never see a creative team batting scribbles across a table. Our first thought is to seek the answer on the computer, a quick fix that seldom forks any lightning.

It’s why I can’t help but think that a return to marker comps for concepting and presentations might be a good thing. It would undoubtedly help us refocus our attention on the essentials of effective communication:

Does it have impact?

Does it communicate something simply?

Does it do so persuasively?

Does it get you unconditionally excited or make you snort with laughter?

Because if it doesn’t, you’re doing something wrong.

If I could borrow a Delorean fitted out with a flux capacitor, I’d set coordinates for 1994 and head straight to the art supplies shop that used to sit opposite Covent Garden tube station on the Long Acre and bring back a box of N50s, a set of magic markers and a dozen A3 layout pads.

Then I’d invite my art directors and copywriters to go analog for a couple of days. In no time, the walls would be filled with possibilities, the floors strewn with the detritus of the wayward and, amongst it all, the seeds of a couple great ideas will be evident. 

Computers have been great for a thousand-and-one things over the last twenty-five years.

But they killed the marker comp.

It’s time we brought it back.

56 Years Young

Well, wouldn’t you just know it.

I return from the Holidays to find we’re finally having a debate about ageism in advertising. And a damn serious one, too, by the looks of it.

It’s about bloody time. 

Naturally, in the two-cent saloon of public opinion I’ve got a dollar fifty to spend, so here’s my take on the various whys, whats, and wherefores. 

The concerted eradication of the lesser-spotted senior creative has been going unchallenged for more than a decade now. Aside from the glib cliché that “Advertising is a young person’s game,” the boilerplate excuse for this sorry state of affairs has been the digital revolution and the pernicious notion that anyone over 40 or, God forbid, 50, must be flummoxed by it all. The whole shebang is just too much for our ageing analog minds to grasp.

A handy piece of nonsense that I hope to bury over the next few paragraphs.

To be clear:

There is not a single thing about digital, social, mobile, or content that scares me, worries me, frightens me or otherwise gives me the heebie-jeebies.

I have a clear understanding of how it works and, unlike most of its acolytes, know with absolute certainty why it doesn’t most of the time.

And I’m pretty sure a vast slew of ad people of a certain vintage would agree with me.

The only thing that bewilders me about the digital circus is the wholesale acceptance of its supposed magical properties and the outright refusal to countenance anything that might gainsay it. That being said, here’s what’s really driving our ongoing preference for young over old.

First, there’s the optics. A creative department filled with young guns supporting beards, tats, and Bluetooth headsets, looks a whole lot more on-it and of-the-moment than one stacked to the rafters with receding hairlines, expanding girths and mandatory reading glasses. For those of us getting up in years, this is undoubtedly the cruelest consequence of the passage of time. 

Then there’s the money. Younger means cheaper. Why pay top dollar oldie prices when you can hire raw talent with bags of potential for half and get away with it? If the client doesn’t notice, who cares?

This double whammy has resulted in the gutting of an entire stratum of our business – the senior pro with 25+ years of experience under his or her belt.

There are so many reasons why this is a terrible idea.

Let’s start with the nature of the advertising audience: It’s getting older, more affluent and more influential. The oldies have disposable income out the wazoo. Might it not be a good idea to have some of their peers creating the ads for them?

Then there’s the obvious hypocrisy of creating diversity and inclusion campaigns for our clients while simultaneously turning a blind eye to ageist practices in our own back yard. An excellent opportunity to lead by example that’s, naturally, been missed.   

The third is the effect an absence of senior people has on the quality of the work we ultimately create. I’m sorry, folks, but it’s increasingly taking a nose-dive into the dirt.

Today’s twenty-somethings are sorely missing what I had when I was their age – namely, the presence of a couple of old farts who had seen most everything before and weren’t afraid to share a few secrets. Occasionally, this would manifest itself as an open piece of advice (“Yeah, I wouldn’t do that if I were you”); more often though it was learning through proximity: You can learn a lot from merely observing someone who knows what they’re doing,

No one doubts that times change and that the younger generation must inevitably replace the one that came before it. 

But experience never gets old, and we jettison those steeped in the ways of the business too readily at our peril.

Do so if you must, but don’t say it’s because the old guard is out of its depth, or doesn’t grasp the latest leaps forward.

We know all too well how the game works.

And better than you might think.

Nevertheless, I’m glad we’re at last having a meaningful conversation.

Long may it rage.

Let the change in attitudes begin.

How badly do you want it?

When I was first getting started in advertising back in the mid-1980s, I participated in the D&AD student workshops.

For six weeks you’d be set six briefs by six different agencies. 

One week you’d be answering a print brief for Saatchi’s, the next a TV brief for DDB. 

Best of all, you got to present your work to the person who set it – typically, this meant getting one-on-one advice from the likes of Dave Trott, Nick Wray, Paul Grubb, Neil Patterson, Adrian Kemsley, and Charles Hendley – the smartest minds in the biz at the time.

On one particular night, the host agency was Collet Dickenson Pearce, and true to form, we had a badass tutor: John O’Donnell.

The brief was for an imaginary product called Mathews Thermal Underwear, and the medium was posters. As was the norm, every student pinned their work up on the wall and awaited their fate. 

Few got off lightly. 

O’Donnell cited the usual flaws: weak ideas, ambiguous executions, crap headlines, etc.

Halfway around the room he stopped and paused. In front of him were three neatly drawn up layouts. They were thematically linked visually with the headlines that were subtle variations of a single thought.

One featured a young man clambering up the side of a two-story house to reach his girlfriend’s bedroom window on a bitterly cold night. The line read: “Matthews Thermal Underwear: For Adventurers.”

Another read, “Matthews Thermal Underwear: For Explorers” but its visual and the entire third concept have slipped the realms of my memory. 

Without looking away from the work, O’Donnell said, “Who did this?”

A tentative hand went up at the back of the room.

He turned and eyed the speaker.

“These are great. I wouldn’t change a thing. Put them in your book.”

And that was it: A first-hand example of what would cut it, what it looked like, and how it worked. In the pub afterward, we all congratulated the campaign’s creator and silently resolved to come back with better stuff the following week.

Which leads to me to the other remarkable thing from that night.

At the end of the workshop, as everyone was packing up, O’Donnell addressed a question to the entire room.

“How many of you really want a job in advertising?”

I’m not sure what prompted the inquiry, but to a man and woman, everyone replied that, Yes, they did.

He took a moment to collect a thought and then said:

“Well, if you want it badly enough, you will.”

A gauntlet had been thrown down in front of us, a tacit challenge issued.

O’Donnell knew there would be casualties. That, whether through attrition, hardship, bad luck or disinterest, many would fall by the wayside.

For one, it was tough.

In those days, getting a job hinged on your folio of spec ideas. Developing your “book” from a half-formed mush of dubious thoughts into a job worthy tome of advertising goodness required a pathological degree of single-mindedness – a willingness to scrap, re-do, revisit, revise, refine and revise again, until you had twenty or so ads that any Creative Director could flick through in sixty seconds or less without ever having to stop and say “I don’t get it.” 

So, yeah, it was tough, but that’s what it took to get into a shop like CDP.

O’Donnell would have been right to assume that not all would go the distance – of the 20 or so assembled before him that night, perhaps six ended up in the business.  

It’s why I think the gist of O’Donnell’s statement should be posted in the reception of every ad agency, design shop, and client office in the land.

How badly do you want it?

If you’re a creative, how badly do you want to create great work?

How many with a good, even great idea, will keep going and make it exceptional? When a client rejects a beloved campaign, how many will roll up their sleeves and vow to double down and come back with something even better?

How badly will the account director want to champion it before a client?

How many clients will go to bat for it against an intransient superior? Or take the time to argue, rationalize, defend and support what they know works?

Simply put, how many will support the right way when the path of least resistance gets a quick result and a chance to beat the 5:00 traffic?

Like those students in the workshop all those years ago, some will stay the course. 

Others will bail out early. 

It’s easy to get jaded.

Bored even. 

To just say “It is what it is” and be done with it.

But sometime soon there’s going to be a moment when a great piece of work is on the line, and it’s down to you to fight for it.

That’s when this post will come back to haunt you.

Because that’s when a little voice in your head is going to ask:

How badly do you want it?