Tuesday, February 18, 2020

Timelessness. Ancient. Modern.

About two weeks ago I heard the news that Adrian Holmes, John O’Driscoll and Seamus O'Farrell, English ad legends and men of a certain age, announced they were starting “London’s oldest advertising agency, Ancient & Modern. 


I know John a bit, he was responsible in part for editing, along with Alfredo Marcantonio and David Abbott, one of the must-have books on advertising: “Remember those great Volkswagen ads?”

An ad for Ancient & Modern showed up in my LinkedIn feed, and quickly so did about 91 notes from friends, 87 of them with a subject line saying, “Did you see this?”

By that time, being the eager beaver that I am, I had already written John and he had already written back. I asked him if I could interview him for this blog and he agreed. However a short while later he sent back these modest words:

I think it might be a better Idea if you communicate with Adrian the esteemed writer in the team, will get him to write to you. He's good guy and a bit of a toff.”

I wasn’t 100% sure what a “toff” was but nonetheless, Adrian and I exchanged emails and in short-order I wrote a list of questions. I’d rather have had a talk. But I’m not a professional journalist, I’m a lousy typist and like many creatives, I’m painfully shy. Adrian was fine with that too.

Along the way, I also found out what toff meant: “A rich or upper-class person.” As Adrian’s responses to my questions prove, you can be a toff and a very nice person—even if you do reference Blaise Pascal in casual conversation.

Here’s our “chat.” (I’ve left the spelling Anglecized because this blog isn’t just fancy, it’s fancy-schmancy.)

What could young people learn from your ‘Ancient’ work?

What we hope young creative people will realise is just how much time and trouble we took crafting our ads back then. 

For instance, take the Albany Life campaign which you mention (written in 1983): I cancelled a week’s holiday so I could write and re-write the copy for those six ads. Then I showed it to my boss Alfredo Marcantonio who made me re-write it all over again.

Same with the art direction: Andy Lawson and Dave Christensen spent endless hours fettling the type and agonising over every layout. Even those simple visuals were shot by a really good still life photographer.

And look at my partner John O’Driscoll’s work on our website - the ads for Long John whisky and Metropolitan Police, for instance. Exactly the same meticulous craft and attention to detail.

“Ah”, today’s creative people will say, “but back then you had weeks to get things right. Today, everything’s faster - we’re only given days, sometimes hours to turn things round. And you had much bigger budgets to play with too.”

Agreed - we did have it easier, no two ways about it. (What’s more, we had our own office to work in. With a door.) 

Even so, I just feel a lot of love has gone out of the creative process, and it would be great to see young writers and art directors re-discover the sheer fun that can be had making ads. Maybe what we’re doing with Ancient & Modern could light the fuse. The ‘new creative revolution’ has got to start somewhere.

Would ‘ancient’ work work today?

Absolutely. When I show young creative teams the sort of commercials that used to be made in the 70s and 80s, they can’t believe their eyes. ‘Why didn’t anyone tell us it could be like this?’ seems to be their reaction. 

Show people the beautifully crafted double page spreads that used to run in newspapers and magazines, and it’s the same. ‘Now that’s how I remember how ads used to be. Why can’t they be like that anymore?’ 

I really do think there’s a pent-up demand for the return of classic advertising. Certainly we’ve had an amazing reaction to our own launch ad for Ancient & Modern. So many emails from all over the world saying ‘At last, a nicely laid-out and decently written ad. Thank you!’

Even Tony Brignull, arguably the greatest living copywriter in the UK, emailed us last week to say, ‘You’ve restored my faith in advertising’.

How do you respond when people say ‘No-one reads ads anymore?’

One of the wisest remarks about long copy was made by Howard Gossage. “People read what interests them. And sometimes it’s an ad.” To me, the idea of abandoning long copy in advertising is akin to removing the black keys from a piano - there are a lot of tunes you simply can’t play on a keyboard like that. 

The problem comes when the ad itself is over-written or plain boring, and that’s what gives long copy a bad name. So here’s another great quote, from the thriller writer Elmore Leonard: “I try and leave out the parts the reader will skip”. Isn’t that great?  

I’ve always championed long copy, because I love doing it. But I have to keep disciplining myself to make my long copy as short as possible. Cut, cut, cut. And that takes work. OK, one more quote from the philosopher and mathematician Blaise Pascal, writing to a friend in the mid-17th century: ”I am sorry I have written you such a long letter. I did not have the time to write you a short one.” Bravo, Monsieur Pascal!

In fact, looking back at what I’ve just said, I could probably say exactly the same thing using half the number of words. So there you go.

How do you feel about ‘always-on marketing’?

Yes, our brave new digital world probably means we’re now stuck with ‘always-on marketing’. Gee, thanks. But we still believe that every facet of a brand’s advertising activity, even digital, ought to relate to a central campaign idea, and not just be a scatter gun of unrelated promotional activity. Always-on maybe, but always-on-brand-idea, please. 

We think advertisers and agencies have largely lost the art of creating consistent, long running campaigns based around one central thought. ‘Stella Artois. Reassuringly Expensive.’ ‘If only everything in life was as reliable as a Volkswagen’. ‘Persil. Dirt is good’ (I’ll own up to that last one). I think part of the problem is that CMOs now switch jobs every 18 months and don’t give a damn about brand consistency. Their main concern is last quarter’s sales figures.

The phrase storytelling makes me gag. What do you think of it?

Yes, ‘storytelling’ has become a much over-used term in our business, and it’s bandied around by creative people desperate to show they’re on trend. But to borrow a phrase from the poet Philip Larkin, most advertising storytelling nowadays is “a beginning, a muddle and an end” - it’s just not very good. 

This spot was not done by Ancient & Modern. 
But Adrian referenced it and it's worth looking at an example
of a "decently told story." Real storytelling.

Yet there’s no doubt that a decently told story - with the brand is plausibly integral to it - will beat a flashy special effects commercial every time. There’s an exquisite Cadbury’s commercial on air in the UK at the moment called ‘Fence’. 

A beautiful piece of storytelling, with the product slap bang in middle of the narrative—not just tagged on, which is so often the case nowadays. That kind of creative laziness drives me mad.

What does Ancient & Modern mean? Is it Ancient vs. Modern?

I guess what we’re trying to say with our company name is that modern-day advertising can benefit immeasurably from the application of those ‘ancient’ and largely forgotten craft skills - writing, typography, art direction and so on. I’d add to that list the ‘soft skills’ of wit, charm, and compellingly argued advocacy. You don’t see a lot of that around nowadays.

In our launch ad, we talk about “lending clients’ social media activity some creative substance”.  So we’re not turning our back on the new ad channels completely. 

But we do believe a return to the old craft skills could actually be the most unexpectedly modern and sales-effective thing any advertiser could do. Do you remember that lovely film ’The Intern’ with Robert De Niro? Where the wisdom of the old guy transforms the company run by millennials? We rest our case.

Tell me about your film: ‘Drastic with plastic.’

That’s actually our most recent film, commissioned by Unilever. A great brief for a great environmental initiative. The phrase ‘drastic with plastic’ was just sitting there in the dialogue which we wrote for the CEO, but it’s catchy and seems to have take on a life of its own. ‘Drastic with plastic’ is now a handy shorthand for an entire eco-movement. Go Greta.

I love a good rhyme, me - and consumers respond to rhymes, because they can lodge in the mind permanently. Take the brilliant Beanz Meanz Heinz line (Mo Drake, 1967). And people (usually an elderly great-aunt) can STILL parrot sixty years on ‘You’ll wonder where the yellow went, when you brush your teeth with Pepsodent’.  Followed by ‘Is that what you do in advertising, dear?’

In your “modern” work, your line: “making funerals less of an undertaking” for Simplicity Cremations and your work for the London Diabetes Centre is modern I suppose, you said so.  But it’s timeless, too. Is there really any classification of modern and ancient or is there just good and crap?

The London Diabetes Centre work ran mainly as cross track posters in London Underground stations. We figured people would be waiting for a train and have time to read the copy. Yes, you could argue that the ads fall under the ‘Ancient’ heading, but for somebody worried about diabetes, surely a measured, clearly argued tone of voice without any ‘art directional gymnastics’ was the way to go. Who wants to see their doctor arrive in his consulting room in day-glo shorts and on a skateboard? The ‘Spoonful of sugar’ line was about as close as we got to frivolity. 

The same with Simplicity Cremations - the tone of voice we advised the client to use was ‘reverence with a touch of irreverence’ and I think the work reflects that nicely. It’s not often funeral ads contain a twinkle in the eye - it’s just a matter of getting the nuance right. Go too far, and you’ve offended people. All I can tell you is the campaign has been a huge success, and it turns out there are a lot of people out there who want their funeral to be ‘less of an undertaking’. 

For Simplicity and Diabetes—campaigns that are probably directed at an older population—do you think you could create work for the children of those people?

Despite our name (and, admittedly, some of the names on our client list), we definitely don’t intend to specialise in ads for the older market. Give us a beer, a soda or a baby food and we reckon we sell it to younger consumers just as well as an agency full of 25-year-olds. I’d argue we’d sell it even better. (Never mind ‘ageist’, perhaps I’m now being ‘youthist’.)

As we say in our launch ad, ‘we may not get to the top of the stairs fast as our younger rivals, but we like to think we’ll arrive at a great advertising idea before they do’. We’ll wait and see if clients out there are put off by our ‘experience’ or consider it a virtue. 

Are you better creatives now or were you better 20 years ago? Why should clients trust old men with their money?
What can you do that others can’t?

Definitely yes. John and I now work quicker than we ever did, and we’re just as creatively adventurous. And our partner Seamus O’Farrell is about as smart a strategic thinker as you’ll find. He has a deep academic knowledge of psychology, and really understands how emotion influences consumer behaviour. He’s our secret weapon, in fact. 

Oh, and we also have the advantage of remembering that lunch is a key component in the creative process. 

When I was CCO at Lowe, somebody there wrote a terrific film for HSBC, at a time when the campaign was all about cultural insights - this particular insight being that old age is something that’s revered in Japan. It was set in a Japanese office, and it showed a 70 year old executive gathering up his things from his desk and putting them into a Lehman Brothers-style box. He goes to the lift lobby holding his box of stuff, and a much younger executive offers to push the lift call button for him. The old executive nods graciously, but then shakes his head as the younger guy is about to press the Down button. ‘No’, he indicates, eyes glancing upwards. ‘Up button’.

The Up button. We like to think that’s us.

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