Between the 1970s and 80s, British advertising grew rapidly from a cottage industry to eventually transform the UK into the creative capital of the world. London agencies began buying up their New York counterparts and acquiring the lion’s share of global marketing budgets.
This process began long before we joined the Common Market. It had less to do with corporate relationships or access to trade and more to do with the bright ideas that Brits seemed uniquely able to conjure. It was a business revolution based not in the boardrooms but the creative departments of Britain’s top agencies.
What can we learn from that era that might help the ad business navigate through Brexit? How can we make sure that Britain remains the creative capital of the world?
There was certainly a strategy behind the golden age of British advertising. And it wasn’t based on simply hoping for the muse to show up. It was about people. The ad industry was the first true meritocracy of post-war Britain.
As consumerism boomed and the teenage revolution turned young people into valuable spenders, big brands sought ad men who could speak to audiences in their own language. The demobbed army officers and public school boys who had previously dominated ad agencies gave way to a young breed of what might be called unpolished smart-arses: the new rule was it didn’t matter how you spoke, what you looked like or what school you went to as long as you had a great idea up your sleeve.
The result was an era in which the ad break was considered by many to be even more entertaining than the very TV shows they punctuated. The evidence will be showcased at a major exhibition at Brick Lane’s Truman Brewery from 9 to 12 March. Walk around the exhibition and there are some clear themes apparent in all of the great work on show. There is a quintessential Britishness about it: the humour, the touches of absurdity, the self-deprecation, the charming understatement, the clever, funny way in which so many classic ads tapped into the foibles of our class system.
A personal favourite is Alan Parker’s 1970s ad for Cockburn’s Sherry. Parker was the working class son of a railwayman who rose up from the mailroom of a small agency to become London’s top creative (and later, one of the world’s top film directors) thanks to a knack for writing colloquial dialogue and class-based humour.
The Cockburn’s ad showed a mismatched social gathering aboard a rescue boat after a shipwreck. While the steering class passengers struggled to correctly pronounce the name of the sherry, the officers patronisingly chuckled and wondered whether anyone had managed to save the petits fours. “I was the first person to cast an ad outside of London,” says Parker. “Before that, advertising and business people couldn’t imagine that people didn’t all speak in the same middle class way as they did.”
His story is reflective of so many bright, brilliant kids from all over the country who made their way to London and succeeded in advertising. Many of them became household names, from Sir Ridley Scott to Charles Saatchi to David Puttnam.
In the age of globalisation and digital fragmentation, a little bit of that British essence might have been lost from our commercial breaks. So many global brands seek campaigns that can be used in numerous territories where humour, dialogue and cultural quirks simply don’t translate. Big ad campaigns need to be so versatile that they sometimes verge on the generic. Technological skills have started to become more important than raw creative instinct.
What that means is that our ad industry is fighting rivals from all over Europe on a more level playing field: agencies in Paris, Milan, Berlin and Madrid have the same technological and business tools as Brits do. And soon they will also have the edge of remaining in the Single Market.
What if British adland was able to re-embrace the things that made it so special in the first place: the sort of flair, humour and guts to be weird? Showing a commitment to employing bright folks, from a wide range of backgrounds, with the very smartest creative ideas, will certainly help.
The results of what this sort of approach can produce are there for all to see at The Festival Of British Advertising. From the Honeymonster to the Milk Tray Man to the Drumming Gorilla, the exhibition will showcase a treasure trove of funny, sharp and richly nostalgic ads so British that they could almost bleed crumpets. They might also shine a path towards a brighter future for post-Brexit advertising.