My favourite ad of all time: The Guinness ‘Surfer’ from 1999

A special effects heavy black and white 1950s surf film shot in Hawaii with a techno soundtrack featuring a Herman-Melville-eque poem voiced in a deep Scottish brogue – it shouldn’t work, but it so does – writes Matthew Nisbet, Ogilvy Hong Kong ECD

It’s a big ask. What’s your favourite ad of all time? There are so many amazing campaigns out there. So many pieces of work I go green with envy looking at. ‘God, I wish I’d done that’ is a common thought.

But as I’ve been forced to choose by Mumbrella, I’d say my favourite piece of work is a TV spot I revisit every so often – just for the pure joy of watching it and to remind myself how great an ad can be. It certainly influenced my move into advertising and still gives me goosebumps.

Guinness ‘Surfer’ by AMV/BBDO came out in 1999, but is as fresh today as it ever was. For me, it is the benchmark for film craft. It is one of those rare pieces of film where all the different elements combine perfectly to create a whole so much greater than the sum of its parts.

And that’s not to say it’s the only Guinness spot that’s worth praising. Up until the early noughties the brand has a fantastic track record of producing some of the most captivating film work around.

The ‘Pure Genius’ series starring Rutger Hauer; ‘Anticipation’ featuring the awkward dancing man; ‘Noitulove’ showing evolution in reverse. Each is outstanding in its own way, but for me ‘Surfer’ still reigns.

As with all great ads, there is an interesting story behind its creation. It came to be as the result of a pitch for the Guinness account. The campaign they were running at the time was ‘Not Everything In Black And White Makes Sense’, which wasn’t performing well and had strayed into more and more abstract territory away from the product truth.

AMV/BBDO’s winning idea was to focus on the unusually long time it takes to pour the perfect pint of Guinness – 119 seconds to be precise. Out of that simple insight was born the classic ‘Good Things Come To Those Who Wait’ tagline.

Part of their presentation featured a simple print ad of a surfer sitting on a beach, waiting for a wave. Some bright spark could see the potential in that image and it eventually became the second spot in the campaign, only being approved thanks to the success of the first spot – the awesome ‘Swim Black’.

And the strange thing is, when you think about its component parts, ‘Surfer’ shouldn’t work at all. A special effects heavy black and white 1950s surf film shot in Hawaii with a techno soundtrack featuring a Herman-Melville-eque poem voiced in a deep Scottish brogue. Uh-huh.  

But it does work. Jonathan Glazer’s masterful direction. The thumping soundtrack by Leftfield as the pulsing heart of the surfer. The poetic voice-over that raises up the simple storyline.

The white horses galloping at the crest of the waves. The black and white execution and period setting that give it a timeless quality. Even the casting is spot on, down to the gap in the hero’s teeth.  

Most importantly, what ‘Surfer’ does best is bring the Guinness brand to life in a thoughtful yet totally unexpected way. You can feel the beer being poured.

The sense of anticipation. The greatness. The mate-ship. The emotion. The magic. The stories you tell over a pint. It’s all there. Hence the goosebumps.

And that’s the reason why I think ‘Surfer’ and other ads like it are even more relevant today than ever before. In a world of shrinking marketing budgets where more and more focus is put on efficiency and effectiveness – through the lens of social and online media – it is easy for marketers to cling to metrics and lose sight of the power of ideas.

A good idea that is brilliantly executed, no matter the medium, does what no algorithm can ever do. It becomes part of culture. And that’s why, to paraphrase Bill Bernbach, creativity really is the one last unfair advantages that businesses have.

Nisbet believes creativity is the best business advantage

Matthew Nisbet is executive creative director of Ogilvy Hong Kong


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