In defence of the grumpy old men

Sean BoyleIn this guest post, Sean Boyle comes to the defence of former colleagues Andy Greenaway and Bruce Matchett, who came in for criticism in a recent piece they wrote for Mumbrella on the key to a successful creative team. Boyle looks back at how and when the reason for companies to spend money on advertising has, in his view, got lost. And why ad agencies are mostly to blame.

This article began as a brief addition to the generally toxic comment thread that accompanied the recent Mumbrella interview with Andy Greenaway and Bruce Matchett. Predictably (I am Irish), it got too long-winded and became something else. Boy oh boy. Where to start…

The comment thread to this article, What makes a creative partnership work?, is indicative of all that is wrong with our business right now.

Bruce Matchett and Andy Greenaway

Matchett and Greenaway

I worked as Andy Greenaway’s planning partner for five years at Saatchi. And I know Bruce Matchett very well. They are two of the hardest working, bullshit free, inspiring and clued in people I have ever had the privilege to meet during my time in advertising. (And they haven’t paid me to write this article (nor do they know that I am writing it).

The epicentre of scam was undoubtedly in Southeast Asia… and probably still is (although it is a truly global phenomenon). Somewhere at sometime, the agency world degenerated into doing lackluster, suit-and-client-friendly, pre-testing-proof-work for all major clients: work that never rocked any boats; that was easy to approve; that never engaged consumers much less got noticed by them. Work that could have been (and in many cases seemed to be) written by a monkey!

In tandem with that, creative departments also devoted much ‘after-hours’ time to churning out ‘the sort of work we’d all like to be doing if we were only allowed’ – and scam was born.

Did we do it at Saatchi? Yes, we did… and I don’t think Andy or anyone similarly truthful would disagree with that observation.

Every big agency – BBDO, Ogilvy & Mather, JWT, DDB – soon engaged in the battle that saw double-page-spreads for shoe polish and bicycle locks, (and yes, sometimes big name brands that should know better) scoring Gold after Gold in Cannes. Of course there were also many, many bona fide entries fighting and winning against this scam wave – and more power to those brands for cutting through against the odds.

Our mission back in the day, delivered from on high in New York, was that Saatchi had to be ‘in the top 3 at Cannes every year’ (apparently this had a direct correlation to share price). So work that wins became a business in and of itself, with senior clients often very-much complicit in the venture. The standard argument to these clients loosely being, “how can we hope to keep our best creatives working on your business if you don’t allow them to cut loose and win awards?”

To me, scam work is defined as any piece of communication that is created solely for awards and is usually seen by the bare minimum of any intended target audience.

And so, rules were usually adhered to rigidly, but skirted (cf: TV commercials running three times at 4:23am on The Bible Channel); loopholes were uncovered and most of the world turned a blind-eye because, probably like the other big, summer, dope-infested cycling event in France every year, ‘everyone was at it’, and let’s not forget that Cannes itself is a pretty big business in its own right.

And yet with all this work, the world got an annual glimpse of what might be. Award show walls were perennially covered with brilliant idea after brilliant idea; one usually left feeling inspired. And yet deep down knowing that behind the glossy façade lay the guilty reality: the descent into crap and detritus that most of us all churn out for our clients every other day.

Back in the halcyon days of Abbot and Webster (that one of our anonymous thread-contributors seems to yearn for), most of the work was real. Back then, the best agencies had less data, fewer crutches and more trust from their clients. In their gut, they realised that brilliant advertising is work that causes a reaction and stands out from the competition, not work that is similar to it and dumbed down for fear of offending anyone. And so we had Hovis; Sony Trinitron; Audi; Levis 501 etc, all work showing on a TV near you during peak-hour programming every night. All work with a unique positioning and point of view that was at once watchable, persuasive, original and impossible to rip off. The stench of marketing-team-committee-friendly, bullshit taglines were rarely in evidence.

Crucially, the logic behind this great work was always BUSINESS DRIVEN. It was not about winning awards (they were a nice-to-get icing on the cake), but rather about driving brands to top of mind and into the hearts, minds and wallets of the people we seek to buy from us. That CORE PURPOSE – that reason-above-all-other-reasons to spend money on advertising – has somehow gotten lost. And the ad industry itself is hugely to blame for this state-of-affairs.

Why? Because agencies lost their bottle. Over the past three decades the agency world has changed from being driven by creative leaders to one being driven by suits and accountants. It became verboten to challenge clients, a happy, head-nodding agency-client relationship is the one that made the most money for the agency – no matter if the actual strategy and work being done is utterly egregious.

The industry changed from one defined by ‘the best agencies produce the startlingly different’ to one where raising your brand’s head above the parapet was a risky undertaking that could lead to you being fired. The brave agency, and the brave marketer, both gradually disappeared. And research companies like Millward Brown galloped onto the scene in the role of nursemaids of the apocalypse, brandishing salves in the form of spurious, often outdated methodologies, oozing reassurances that the new course was indeed the right one.

Truly great work became relegated to the ‘interesting’, supported in theory as a kinda beta flagship way of presenting one’s brand, but not ever to be treated as real or something genuine that would drive sales and business. And this is where we lost trust and the very idea that magnificent advertising works harder than any other to drive sales because it is usually vaguely magical, memorable and captivating.

To bring this ramble back on point (and hopefully correct many of the misconceptions among the cynical commentators in Mumbrella’s original article), Andy and I at Saatchi were fighting this state-of-affairs as far back as a decade ago. We argued strongly that our agency – especially with its amazing historical creative pedigree – needed to start doing great work again – for real – across all of our clients. As a creative leader, Andy Greenaway was driving an agenda internally to remove the reliance on award-focused work. The agency was resting on these laurels.

Planning needed to show how producing better work, works better (to this day I have yet to be convinced by any argument that suggests otherwise). We needed to challenge clients, get them to take leaps into the unknown and show – yes through relevant supporting data – how better creative work leads to better business results. I felt a lot of the responsibility to drive this change lay at the door of the planning department and got my ass fired for my trouble (a recurring theme in my career unfortunately). It was like pushing a rock up a hill. But let it be known that one of the biggest (literally) shoulders against the rock was one Andy Greenaway.

Andy and Bruce are guys who get the BUSINESS of advertising down to their bootstraps. They are admen through and through. They believe in great work. Are uncomfortable – truly – with the world of scam, and have made efforts in their careers to change that world. The folks bagging them with childish comments usually veiled behind anonymity are examples of the small-mindedness that has sadly over-run our business.

ALL of the greatest creative directors I’ve worked with are, to a person, OVER the idea of awards and creating work for shows. For the creative leader that rises above that, is the one that has the maturity to start fixing the stuff that is genuinely broken. This is not an argument about who did what piece of award winning work. It is about returning relevance to an industry that is in a much worse state than it thinks it is.

Postscript – The truth behind Roger Makak

This fictitious creative became our kind of ‘having a bit of fun’/’fuck you!’ response to the world as it changed around us. A world populated by creatives who didn’t give a shit about the brands they worked on and how successful or otherwise their work was, just so long as it allowed them climb the Campaign Brief creative rankings, so they could send a copy of the magazine home to their mammies (by the way, a pretty good business strategy by Mr Shaw et al). We created Roger at Saatchi to see if we could expose this bullshit. To see if we could essentially get a fictitious Singaporean creative to the top of the charts by bunging his name on every great piece of work coming out of the agency at the time. It is critically important to understand that Makak would not have risen to the number one position on these rankings without the support of the many creative teams that worked with Andy at the time, who allowed Roger’s name to co-appear on their work. The fact that Roger angered so many vested people is a testament to the nerve he hit. And perhaps the saddest thing is that instead of being celebrated by the powers-that-be within Saatchi, the whole idea was shut down internally… because it had ‘gotten out of control’ and we all know… it’s important not to rock any boats in our business these days…

Sean Boyle is a creative strategist and writer. He was head of planning for Saatchi & Saatchi in Asia from 2003-2007. He has also worked as global planning director at JWT and BBDO in New York.


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