Six years ago, Fay Weldon wrote a book called The Bulgari Connection, “a thrilling satire on London’s super-rich”, or so the blurb on the back of the dust-jacket says.
The novel’s publication came to my attention via Front Row on BBC Radio 4, where the critics were getting more than a little heated about its origins. Apparently
The novel’s publication came to my attention via Front Row on BBC Radio 4, where the critics were getting more than a little heated about its origins. ApparentlyBulgari paid the former-JWT copywriter turned authoress “a six figure sum” to write the book, on condition that she mentioned the brand twelve times in the narrative. Weldon hugely over-delivered, giving the jeweller more than three dozen name-checks, as well as incorporating it in the title. A snippet will give you a feel…
“Clasped round her neck, falling in roundels of bright colour against her firm creamy skin was a Bulgari necklace, steel and gold set with cabochon emeralds, rubies, sapphires and brilliant cut diamonds, made in the sixties and insured for £275,000.”
The Bulgari Connection is thought to be the first example of a writer being paid to include the name of a brand in a novel, an example that was followed, pretty quickly, by Carole Matthews, a ‘chick lit’ writer, who Ford paid to include references to the Fiesta in her novels, like this…
"I look out of the window of the shop and eye my lovely Ford Fiesta Roxanne with something approaching misery. Last year was a different story. Business was booming and I splashed out on my first-ever new car. Brand spanking new - complete with enough gadgets to keep even Alex amused. She's red, raunchy and drives like a dream and now, she's got to go. Believe me, it will be like cutting off one of my own arms."
For the time being at least, I merely note the existence of these works and make no judgments as to their artistic merits, or to their effectiveness in positively shaping attitudes towards the brands, assuming that’s what they’re supposed to do. (The first of those questions is for your subjective assessment, while the latter ought to be addressed in another post.) Instead, the issues I want to address here are the implications of this kind of development for our industry and the future structure of what, for now, is called an advertising agency.
Of course there’s nothing really new about brands inveigling themselves into the world of art, especially cinema and TV where product placement has been in play since the 1970’s (I think). Nevertheless, the commissioning of these books triggered the beginnings of my own mental seismic tremor and attendant aftershocks.
First off, I started wondering how far brands could go in their invasion of the artistic cultural space. This isn’t simply a matter of Broccoli and Saltzman auctioning off the ‘official James Bond nasal hair trimmer’ spot to the highest bidder, long after Ian Fleming has hung up his typewriter. These books were created specifically as vehicles for the brands concerned and, what’s more, in an art form, literature(-ish), that’s usually thought of as one of the more highbrow and pure. (What's the likelihood of a Bird’s Eye Potato Waffles commissioned Tracey Emin installation at the Serpentine?)
My second realisation was that the brand owners had skipped right over us (the advertising agencies) to the artists themselves. Presumably Bulgari and Ford’s conventional marketing budgets were diminished in line with their investments in the Mss Weldon and Matthews.
Assuming we wanted to avoid being dis-intermediated in this way, how would we come to the conclusion that a novel was the right solution to a brand’s problems? Could Mediacom help us? If not, Naked? And assuming we could get that far, how would we go about commissioning it? Has anyone got William Boyd’s 'phone number?
(By the way, in case you’re worrying about my finger-on-the-pulse-ness, I should re-iterate that this damascene moment did take place more than 5 years ago.)
Since the turn of the millennium a couple of other significant themes have unfolded over the marketing landscape. The first is the broadening of the traditional advertising agencies’ palates to include a raft of solutions beyond the conventional 60” spot, 96-sheet poster or newspaper DPS. There are dozens of interesting examples, but Fallon’s BMW Films (and later the Audiobooks) made the biggest impression on me, especially when they were acknowledged with an IPA effectiveness award in 2004. As Laurence Green observed, in his review of 25 years of Adworks… (the BMW films) “usher in a dramatically new marketing model… one where traditionally punitive media costs are traded for an investment in content... 40,000 people have ordered the BMW Films DVD. Might the paid-for marketing of the future sometimes be paid for by consumers rather than clients?”
The more recent, and far cooler (for the time being) phenomenon, is User Generated Advertising. Several of the earlier posts on this blog have drawn attention to this new form of competition, not least ‘Another nail’, which revealed the alarming displacement of TBWA from the Sony PS3 launch, in favour of a bunch of spotty kids surrounded by piles of pornographic magazines and ashtrays overflowing with roaches. For the time being I’ll call this stuff ‘iUGA’ (invited user generated advertising) like the stuff that backfired so miserably for the Chevy Tahoe, and unlike ‘spontaneous UGA’, such as the George Masters iPod mini tribute. I’ll dub the Fay Weldon/Carole Matthews/Tracey Emin(maybe not) material AGA (artist generated advertising) and our product; whether it’s a TV commercial, a mailer, a guerrilla pavement sticker, a website, a petrol pump grip or even old-fashioned product placement; PGA (professionally generated advertising). In all three instances I’m using the term advertising in its broadest possible sense. Also I guess that someone somewhere has already coined some official terms for this stuff. In which case, if you know them, I’d be grateful for your illumination.
In the light of these developments, the most screamingly obvious observation has to be that if we continue doing what we’re doing, we’re going to get seriously marginalised. And fast. Our already dwindling revenues will shrink further, as marketing monies get diverted into AGA, iUGA and, as everyone’s already recognised, ever more esoteric forms of PGA that we have no capability to deliver. Before very long we’ll reach a tipping point, where our capacity to provide something useful to our clients will dwindle to the negligible and, to the extent that we still have one, our seat at the top table will vanish. 10% commission, or equivalent, will then start to look like nirvana. (By the way, n° 2, I’m old enough to remember when it was 15%.)
This maybe overly simplistic, but I think you could say we presently stand at a fork in the road. One direction leads to us further and further diversifying our offering; perhaps under one roof, maybe above one bottom line, possibly with some brand continuity (Grey Advertising, iGrey, Grey Arts and the like) or, more likely some hybridised version of all this. As I write, we, and most other agencies, are progressing along this path. (Have a look, for example, at Engine, who are wrapping it all up rather nicely.) There is however a problem with following this route to its nth degree. Where do you stop? Do you ultimately need Amis, Albarn, Attenborough et al sitting in your offices, twiddling their thumbs while awaiting the next AGA brief? Will you have to employ a portakabin full of spotty kids to fulfil the iUGA brief, when it comes? Before too long the overheads could get pretty scary, even taking into account the fact that the kids will probably work for pennies, pizzas and porn. But if you bottle out and stop part way down this path, how will you be able to convince the client that the solution you’re proposing for their brand is genuinely the best one and not just the one that you happen to be able to provide at a reasonable margin?
The alternative fork, which gives its sentiment to the title of this post, assumes that the problems identified by these questions are ultimately insurmountable. This path imagines that, perhaps, we should be reducing our executional capabilities not increasing them. Perhaps we should jettison the creative department (or maybe they should jettison us). Perhaps we should outsource the executional part of our offering completely. Perhaps we should re-create ourselves as genuinely neutral brand consultants who draw in the ‘executors’ only when necessary. (Of course we’d need a proper in-house communications planning function if we were to make this work.) We could then post our briefs, be they for AGA, iUGA or PGA on a website and invite tenders for jobs as and when they arise, a bit like creativebrief.com does. We could have Tom Wolfe slug it out with Philip Roth for the penning of the Tricity Bendix tumble drier novella series. And Sting pitching against Rod Stewart for an anthem to Kellogg’s Strawberry Pop Tarts. Alan Bennett scrapping with Tom Stoppard over the Aquafresh Extreme Clean screenplay. And so on. And we’d only have to pay them if they did a decent job of it. Equally we could post our advertising briefs on the website and the people now employed in our creative department could pitch for the next Pantene commercial, if they felt so inclined.
The new agency, moulded in this form, would probably comprise: a management team that includes most of the discipline heads within an existing conventional ad agency, a reduced account management department, a re-configured planning department with both brand and communications channel planning skills and an office services department including some IT, HR, finance and the like. Most traffic and production skills, some planning skills and most executional creative skills would then be brought in on an ad hoc basis, probably via a combination of an online marketplace and the old-fashioned ‘little black book’.
Some questions that arise…
Would you want to work in this kind of agency? I know I’d miss the creative department’s constant stimulation/provocation.
Possibly our most under-estimated skill as ad folk, is our reductive thinking ability. This, I think, is largely honed by the requirement to be fascistic in our single-mindedness. If we were disconnected from the creative function, would this skill eventually atrophy? Certainly, the output of brand consultancies is often double or triple-headed and I believe this is because they’re disengaged from the consequences of their output.
Where will the big brand ideas come from? aol/discuss, which incidentally included PGA, AGA, iUGA and sUGA, emerged from an in-house creative department. Could Grey have got to this without a team in the employ of the agency working on the brief?
And there’s more, lot’s more questions, but I’ll leave those and any answers or related observations to you.