Creative: The Big Picture

Lee Clow, Jeff Goodby And John Hegarty On The Big Idea, The Dream Client And The Creative Future
On March 4, at the invitation of Universal Studios, three of the industry’s most celebrated creatives met to discuss the state of advertising. The private seminar was co-moderated by Dick Costello, president of new business initiatives at Universal, and Alison Fahey, editor of Adweek.
Costello: How would you define great advertising?
Hegarty: I think advertising, if it is great, inspires other things. The Apple [“1984”]
commercial, in particular, inspired people to do things in a different way. It only appeared once, I think. That, to me, is great advertising. Somebody once asked me, “When you are judging a piece of work, what is it that you look for? What’s the thing that makes you say, ‘This is exciting?'” I looked at what we had done [at BBH] and had admired, and at the films I liked and the books I liked. For me, there was one word that always came through: irreverence. Because what you are doing is changing the rules. You are trying to do something in an incredibly different way which captures the imagination.
Goodby: There was a time when advertising underwent a big change, and it was the time when the element of “likability” became important. It probably happened sometime in the ’60s. Before that, you told somebody that this thing would cure your headache and this car would go fast or get good mileage–and that was what advertising was about. It was about logic. I think great advertising scrabbles that logic a little bit, it kind of jumps beyond that by being likable and watchable and captivating. It surprises you.
Clow: There’s another term that is thrown around in our business for great advertising: breakthrough. Recently, I tried to define breakthrough because the most obvious definition is that it cuts through the media clutter and gets noticed. I think] it’s advertising that “zigs” when everybody else is “zagging,” and I think when that happens, you have the most admirable advertising.
Fahey: Is that happening less these days? There seems to be fewer “Big Ideas.”
Clow: I think it’s getting harder and harder, partly because we have this overwhelming amount of media. You also have an audience that is pretty darn sophisticated, so the degree of difficulty has gotten harder. And I think you need a brave company that has a different vision. You need a Levi’s or a Nike or an Apple computer, somebody who really has some courage and says, “let’s go try to do something.” I believe a lot of companies are realizing the challenge to be out there with a brand in this media world. I think they are coming to believe that what we do for a living is more valuable and more special than it has been in the past.
Costello: Let’s get back to talking about ideas. Somebody once said that great advertising is great ideas simply executed, and I think that is a pretty good definition. With today’s technological capabilities in post-production, it seems that in certain commercials there tends to be an absence of an idea and the creators seem to think that post-production will make up for that.
Is that the way people are doing advertising now?
Hegarty: It’s ideas that move people, let’s face it. I think it was John Cleese who said nobody ever laughed at clever lighting. But you have to be very careful about those things because technique and the way you tell a story is part of that story. We did about 25 Levi’s commercials and often you would sit down and read the script and you would think, “Hey that’s a good idea.” But what you need to do is ask, “How am I going to tell that story?” This isn’t new. Renaissance painters had the same problem. Everybody knew the bloody story: Christ died and after three days went to heaven. “For God’s sake, give me a version of it that is going to make people believe again,” the church would say. So painters went and did it. Technique has always been there. It’s a tightrope between the idea and the technique. One thing can and does influence the other.
Goodby: The problem is that a lot of people go into things now without an idea. They just expect the thing is going to get all the bells and whistles in post-production that will somehow pull people into it. You have to have an idea that is compelling. You have to start with the story of Christ getting nailed to the cross. A great story.
Clow: There are lots of wonderful ideas that are just misproduced and mismanaged that never become great, and I think that is probably true in Hollywood. There are probably a lot of great scripts that have been produced and ended up being crummy movies because the director or the producer the vision wasn’t there to see its true potential. Then there are crappy scripts that get produced beautifully and duds that are shot beautifully and edited brilliantly, but there is no story or real idea. It’s a very delicate process getting an idea to a finished piece of film that is as good as it needs to be. There are so many hands and so many people, so many ways that it can go awry.
Fahey: Let’s talk about clients. What do you think makes a great client?
Clow: The great clients are rare. The best of all worlds is: the guy who gets to make the decisions is the same guy you get to talk to and he loves advertising. Then it goes downhill from there. The guy who runs the company loves advertising, but you have to talk to some other guy before you get to talk to him. Or the guy that is at the top of the company hates advertising, and the guy that you are working for loves advertising.
Goodby: This Budweiser client with whom we’d fight and have vast misunderstandings, [we’d] go through all kinds of torture to get advertising produced, but they never failed to thank us at the end of every meeting and never failed to send me some kind of note if something really succeeded on television. They are scrupulous about that, and it makes you put up with all kinds of horrible stuff, it’s amazing.
Hegarty: Give them trust–and you get it paid back. I did some work many years ago for Pepsi. It was for the Middle East. The man who was then in charge of that region said to me “John, I want you to work these commercials for me to run in the Middle East.” There was a list of things you couldn’t do. And he said to me, “What I want you to understand is that I’m going to have to present this work at the worldwide Pepsi conference, which is going to be in New York. Getting up before me is the guy who will be showing all the work from BBDO in New York, and it’s really fantastic work as you know. And John, I don’t want egg on my face.” That was the best briefing I ever got. He trusted us. It’s not about this client has more money, so we will work harder. It’s the people you are dealing with.
Costello: Why are there so few great clients?
Clow: A great client is usually a person. He’s a champion of, and believes in, marketing communication, mass media. The clients I’ve worked with that allowed us to go with it get excited with the idea that you can put something out there in the world that is going to become part of our culture, and kind of shift dynamics that will be noticed and talked about. But there are so few people with that kind of intuition. Very often, you’ll find great clients in companies that start with somebody who has the balls and the big idea and the classic American entrepreneurial thing going. You get a person who is willing to put it on the line and try things and go places. The bigger companies get, and the more bureaucracy, [the harder it is] to find one champion of what we do. [Someone] who can actually get it through the system. There are advertising agencies that start with a couple of great creative minds and their passion of being great at advertising, and so many of them are clipped by getting so big and bureaucratic and unmanageable that the passion is not there at the top. John and Jeff have managed to keep their agencies at a size where it’s still controllable, partly because they have one central office. It’s hard to keep a single-minded focus and passion when something gets too big and has too many limbs and legs. So what I do is actually a lot harder then what these guys do. So I think I should get paid more.
Goodby: Even small companies nowadays immediately set up some kind of brand management structure. They’ve got a senior vice president of marketing, a vice president of marketing; they set that up from the beginning. They almost build in the failure by creating that kind of structure. It is a bunch of no-processors who hire one guy to be the guy who does their advertising. One guy. It’s not a coincidence that that kind of stuff is the best stuff.
Clow: There are marketing schools, and they take people and try to train them for years not to trust their intuition, not to trust their gut, not to have zig rather than zag ideas. Instead, here is the process and here is the orderly way to run a company, build marketing plans, build marketing strategies. And they turn these people loose on the world and by the time they graduate, they don’t have the ability to trust anything that the classic entrepreneurs who are our heroes have in them.
Hegarty: It’s interesting how your country is a very young pioneering country, yet you are also an incredibly structured country. I’ve never known a place like this. Business cards here are absolutely incredible. Everybody is an executive vice president in charge of I can’t work it out. I think the first thing you should do to help America is to cut up all the business cards. Get rid of all the [titles] and just have Very Important, Important, Not Bad and Training. On one point you say, “Just get out there and do it.” But on the other side, you [claim], “You can’t talk to him, he’s the executive vice president.”
Clow: I think New York is the epicenter of this old way of doing business. The companies you are talking about are way behind. I think there is going to be a sea change in business, but I think it’s going to be driven from the West Coast of America, where there is less of a plastic, old-guard structure to the way people do business. There is a little more of an open-minded sense that says, “We shouldn’t get so big that we can’t make decisions or have ideas.”
Fahey: So Lee, would you say then that the West Coast is the creative epicenter at the moment? Not just for advertising but in general?
Clow: I don’t exactly think that. I think there’s an interesting convergence being thrown around. As I was talking before about the number of media artists on the planet and all the media that needs creative development–between movies, Silicon Valley, video games, Hollywood, the music industry, the advertising industry–there’s an interesting requirement on the West Coast right now for people who can make things appear on screens and on pages. That will require there to be a disproportion amount of talent in this part of the world just because it’s the place where, whether you are trying to write a screenplay or become a director or creating video games or Web sites or advertising, it’s going to be one of those places that will be a magnet to lots of creative people.
Hegarty: I think the danger is that if you believe [creativity] is all going to be concentrated in one part of the world, then we’re going to all be subject to the same things. I think that’s going to make it boring. So my belief is that there is never going to be one place that is the center. Actually, that would work against it. That’s the beginning of its end.
Fahey: With all these other options available to what Lee calls “media artists,” are you finding it harder to attract and keep talent in the agency business?
Goodby: I think there are more and more people interested in this kind of work, and what we do is not very far from making movies or from publishing books. The people that can do those things are very similar to the kinds of people that are working for us now. There is a lot of back and forth and crossing over. I think that there is more great talent coming into this business in some ways then there ever has been in my experience. I’m a little worried that there will be artists out there who are sixes and sevens and will kind of muddy the water. [That means] the tens aren’t as clearly as identifiable as they used to be. That has also happened in films. These big independent film festivals have everybody distributing their own stuff. It’s harder to tell a really good film from just a good film. I think that is going to happen in this business to some degree. I think there is a lot of people who are really OK, but that makes it a little harder to identify the ones who are really, really good.
Hegarty: I think you’ve got to remember that great line, “Good is the enemy of great.” With lots of “good” people around, it’s hard to find the “great.” But we’ve got to encourage it. I think our industry does have a tremendous future, and I think that people are seeing that. Sometimes, people within an industry don’t see that, and they become very gloomy.
Costello: To revisit the idea that consumers have become more sophisticated, do you all agree that it makes your jobs harder?
Hegarty: For me, in a way, it makes it more exciting because I think they are more demanding. I came into this industry, because I saw the work of Bill Bernbach. I never thought about advertising before then. I was surrounded by it, but I never thought about it. I thought it’s intelligent, it’s involving, it’s witty, but it isn’t excluding. It treats me like an intelligent human being. Also, it tells me the truth. I always thought that was the most interesting strategy: Just tell the truth. I think that consumers, especially young people today, are really into the integrity of the brand. What does it actually believe in? We’re doing some research here in the U.S. among young kids, and it’s incredible how they want a brand to stand for something, they want to believe in something, they don’t buy the bullshit, they understand it. So from our point of view, they are now vocalizing all the things that brought me into the industry all those years ago. [A time] when I was looking at the Volkswagen ad and asking, “Why can’t it be like that sometimes cars break down. Tell people how it’s easy to fix them or however it might be.” I think then the consumers will latch onto you faster, and they connect with you quicker. From that point of view, it’s easier. The media makes it more difficult to get to the idea.
Goodby: We’re less likely to talk down to them now because they are more sophisticated. That is what bad communication of any kind does. I think it approaches you at some level lower than who you are. For the most part, advertising tends to try the lowest common denominator, to presume that you are getting their attention and that they are watching. The kind of people who approach commercials as the things people aren’t watching, that they don’t care about, well, that’s the kind of attention they get in return.
Clow: I think we all agree it is actually exciting to have an intelligent or discriminating audience out there who at least challenges us to do the best that we know how to do. So much of advertising is kind of pushed down to “let’s not make it too smart or too daring because somebody might not get it.” I think it is harder and harder for clients to argue that, so it makes it more exciting for us. But I think the other piece of it goes back to the likability thing that Jeff was talking about. I think people are much more an audience than a consumer is when we are talking to them. We ultimately want them to be a consumer, we want them to leverage their vote on buying what we are talking about. But when we engage them, they are an audience. They are sitting there trying to interact with some media or another, and we’re interrupting. If we don’t introduce ourselves and make ourselves likable and intelligent and funny and charming and those things, we’re going to get rejected. And if we can actually live up to that charge, sometimes the advertising is better than the program. Well, that [idea is] more critical than I think a lot of clients or people would want to believe in terms of what it casts on the reputation of a brand. Brands are like people, and advertising is a very important part of building their reputation. If it’s funny and smart and clever and makes a very interesting product, I think I’ll try it next time I’m at the store. That’s the way advertising works now.
Fahey: When I talk to clients, many say that advertising is becoming a smaller piece of what they do and less important. Do you find that to be true?
Clow: Marketing communications are becoming more and more valuable. When you define advertising as TV commercials or TV campaigns, then I agree. I think everything a brand does adds up to the reputation of a brand. It has to do with the packaging and form it takes when you see it out in the world. There are so many ways that brands touch you, and all of them have to add up to the brand. Look at the horrible times Nike is going through right now, because they spend $180 million in some of the best advertising that has ever been done. They’ve built the brand, but what they were doing in Asia in terms of producing products, and probably what lots of other companies were doing as well, is totally backlashing on all the other smart communications they’ve done. [In essence], everything companies do add up to brands, and the good agencies try and advise or have an impact on everything a company does. I think what clients mean is a TV spot is only a piece of my total marketing communications, and it all has to add up to my brand. I think that’s valid.
Hegarty: I think there is one thing here that we need to say–a lot of clients don’t like advertising because they can’t control it, because it isn’t scientific. It’s something intangible, and they want it to be tangible, so therefore, they are always hoping in some way or another that it can become tangible. They want to know they’ve cracked it, that they’ve got the code, here it is. The other point is a natural fact of what a brand needs today. More than anything else, it needs fame. What you need today is fame. The only way you get fame is by talking to people en masse. What they don’t realize is that it’s the overheard conversation that is the value of advertising, mass advertising adds to your product. Why was the Titanic so famous? What made that movie so famous? We all know the story. Boat goes out, hits an iceberg, sinks and 2,000 people drown. I mean what’s the big deal? It became famous. It generated fame–and that’s what mass communication gives you.
Goodby: This has something to do with what you just said about clients seeming to spend less money on advertising. I bet if you looked at their budgets and broke them down, you would see their advertising promotion, Internet spending and all that stuff added together would be even more than they used to spend. I think what they are doing is putting it into things they believe they can control. Things they believe have demonstrable results. The big gesture advertising, the big TV campaign is scary. You don’t know what’s going to happen.
Costello: OK, let’s switch gears a bit. With all this talk of the millennium, do you see it as a big event, a non-event, will it affect your business in any way?
Hegarty: In some ways, it’s going to be a non-event, and in other ways, I think it’s going to be a significant event. I think what is going to happen is that suddenly when we get into the millennium, what you did five years ago will seem like a long time ago. It’s the last century. I can see that if you are in any creative business, you are going to have to always regenerate yourself in the new millennium because if we showed something a year and half old, it’s going to be, well, that was in the last century, it’s ancient. I do think it’s going to make things from now feel very old.
Goodby: I’m already tired of it, and it hasn’t happened yet.
Clow: I think there’s going to be this big expectation of, “OK, now this is a new century, so now there’s this fresh opportunity,” but it’s going to go the way of most New Year’s resolutions. We’re going to go to this new century saying, “OK, now we’re really going to kick ass and do things that we never did before [all laugh].” But by March, we’ll be back to normal, kinda doing what we’ve always been doing.