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The rules

July 25 2018

Advertising is an odd industry. For something that attracts billions of pounds’ worth of investment it is curiously devoid of rules. Unlike other professions like Accountancy or Engineering that are governed by immutable law, we rely on opinion, not statute.

There are many reasons for this but most of all it is because Advertising is based on emotion and is therefore closer to an art than a categorical science.

This, of course, is what makes the possibilities limitless and what makes our industry so exciting.

It’s also where the problems start.

How many times have you sat with someone and tried to persuade someone that what you’re proposing is fundamentally better than what they’re proposing? And the only hard evidence you can muster is essentially a question of taste?

I attended the extremely intense three-day ‘Story’ lecture given by Robert Mckee a while ago and this is one of the things that he said about the movie industry that stayed with me.

He essentially said that in the movie industry there are people that know how to write good stuff and there are people that don’t. The people who don’t know how to write good stuff are the ones with the money and because they don’t know how, they pay the people who do know how to write good stuff, to write good stuff.

But when it comes to paying for the good stuff quite often the people with the money baulk at what they are asked to pay for because they think it is frivolous or too controversial and they have been taught that these things are something they shouldn’t spend hard cash on. They feel safer spending their money on the familiar and the tried and tested.

What McKee was saying is that it comes down to taste. People who don’t have it, know they don’t have it, so they pay people who do have it, to give it to them. But because it’s an unquantifiable quantity they don’t really trust it and always feel at the very centre of their soul they are being sold a warehouse full of the Emperor’s newest tailoring.

Which is where it would be really handy to have a nice fat ‘Universal Rules of Creativity’ handbook to take out, turn to page 674 and refer to sub section 6 where it clearly states that a bigger logo will not endear your audience to you.

So, we end up back at the opening paragraph and the cold hard fact that what we are talking about are issues of taste and trust.

So how can we find consensus?

If we accept that what we are talking about is closer to art then let’s look at similar principles that exist in writing, music and painting that we can borrow.

I think it is reasonably safe to assume that anyone who wants to live in these worlds would be advised to look at what has been before.

Imagine trying to be a being a classical composer without listening to the works of Ludwig Van or Amadeus. Or trying to be a rock band without looking at the trajectories of The Clash or Arctic Monkeys. Imagine trying to be a writer without reading Dickens, Ellroy or Auden.

When I started in advertising my version of this were the D&AD annuals, the One Show annuals. I would pore over every page. Ask myself; What was good? Why did that work? Why that didn’t? What made me like that piece of work? It all went in and this and other aspects of my cultural life shaped my taste and my own internal set of rules.

So, for your amusement I am going to lay them out here. From this point on, everyone involved in our cray, cray industry will know that these are ‘The Rules’ and soon I imagine they will be adopted.

1 – Why learn from your mistakes, when you can learn from someone else’s? Somebody else has done what you’re trying to do. Search out their experience. What went wrong? What went right? What can you do to make it better?

2 - If your advertising goes unnoticed everything else is immaterial – Bill Bernbach’s rule actually. It’s obvious isn’t it? So why does so much advertising these days, (and it really is mind blowing how much of it is dross or invisible), go unnoticed? This should be the opening sentence of every discussion on work; ‘Do we think it will get noticed? No? Can I have another idea please?’

3 – People hate ads. Unless you’re an idiot like me who has devoted the last 33 years of his life trying to do what he regards as good work and still gets disproportionally upset when he sees a great piece of work fall, (still trying to get over last Friday), yeah unless you’re that person, you’ll hate ads. So, if we all accept this is the case then why do ads look like ads? Why do we work so hard to make work look like the very thing we know that people hate? Are we deliberately trying to piss people off? No wonder less and less people are trusting us with their cash. Don’t make your work look familiar. It is insanely difficult to do this by the way, but let’s at least try.

4 - Smaller logos, or non-existent ones are best. This seems so petty but I’ve spent quite a lot of my life trying to persuade people that the thing that your audience will connect with is not your logo and in the unlikely event that they do love logos they certainly won’t love it as much as you do, so don’t push it. This is all to do with ads looking like ads of course and having said that, I’ve seen some work with massive logos on that work really well but they tend to fall into the self aware, ‘Hey aren’t we funny for having a massive logo here because you know and we know that having a massive logo is a sure sign that you and I have a cool ironic sense of humour and by doing this we’ll engage with you on a very knowing level’, and therefore falls into the not looking like an ad category anyway.

5 – Your audience is really smart. With reference to the point above. If you know they hate ads why are you giving them stuff that looks like ads. Even the moneysupermarket Strutting Hot-Pant Business guy is playing a very smart game with the audience. ‘It’s a dirty piece of trash this isn’t it? But we can all join in the love of something so gaudy.’ As long as it’s a good gag, after all you can be all different kinds of intelligent.

6 - The purpose of advertising is to get your product wanted. Bernbach again. As I write this I become convinced that all discussions about creative work should just be this: ‘Here is the campaign we are proposing.’ ‘Thank you agency, Let’s ask of it the three fundamental questions. Does it look like an ad? Will it get noticed? Will it make people want my product?’ If the response to these initial questions is anything other than; ‘No’, ‘Yes’ and ‘Yes’ then the meeting should not continue and the agency, consultant, ultra-agile bespoke team, whatever you’re using should go back to the drawing board. Imagine the time we’d save.

7 – Learn from the best. I mean obviously you can learn what not to do from the idiots but in my experience it’s really healthy to only put good stuff into your delicate brain. So look at what makes people great. My list is in a constant cycle but near the surface at the moment are: Trott, Ellroy, Costello, (Lou and Elvis), Somesuch, Debussy, Ravel, Strummer/Jones, Bernbach, Amis, Stark, Lamar, Roeg, Haneke, Audiard, Morris, Updike, Roth, Kubrick, Merckx, Weller. The list goes on of course and there’s nothing more boring than someone telling you what’s great about somebody else, so just go and soak up what good people do.

It’s rule number 1.