The Dublin-born Simonds-Gooding pauses, draws on his best public school manners, and offers a solemn blessing over a spring supper of roast salmon: "Some Have. Some Haven't. We Have. Thank God."
In other words, let the party begin.
A night that begins with velvet-clad "toastmasters" formally bellowing out the names of arriving guests will end with flying bottles, table jumping and celebrating until dawn. Invitation pleas for black tie have brought instead Scottish hiker chic (kilts and leather jackets), fruit-filled turbans, mile-wide bell-bottoms and microscopic spandex dresses. No sleepy yawns or dock watching here. The young audience of 1,200 cheers, shouts, boos, raises glasses in victory and holler up to the stage at winners who are as likely to look like a cigarette-dragging Johnny Rotten as a well-groomed, tuxedoed ad millionaire.
A big hero of this April 7 evening is Chris Palmer, of Simons Palmer Denton Clemmow & Johnson Ltd. The raven-haired, pony-tailed former London messenger got a job interview at creative powerhouse Bartle Bogle Hegarty while delivering a package. Not only has five-year-old Simons Palmer broken into the clubby world of London advertising, it's become the hot agency of the moment, picking up choice clients like Nike and beating out shops like BBH for the most D&AD awards.
Indeed, no other event offers such a rich glimpse of the complexity and contradiction that is British advertising. It is still one of the few industries in which England is a global leader. And if the D&AD's raucous parties are the stuff of international legend, so is the glamor and esteem for an award akin to Hollywood's Oscar. In the self-congratulatory world of awards shows, a D&AD pencil is considered advertising's hardest prize to win. Recent D&AD extravaganzas honored no winners at all in some categories, with the audience chided from the stage by judges about the subpar standards of their work. All of which may come as no surprise from a country with a historical disdain for selling--and a modern practice of producing some of the world's best ads to do so.
This year, late-night cocktaft chat wasn't so much about who didn't bring home the coveted D&AD pencils as about who did: Wieden & Kennedy. The U.S. shop won top honors for the best television campaign, for client 'McKenzie River Corp.'s Black Star beer. (The spots create a faux history for Black Star, including scenes from The Joey Bishop Show and British soldiers in the desert talking about beer, with the tagline "What was once America's most interesting beer is America's only interesting beer.") Even though the D&AD invites English-language entries from anywhere in the world, it has long been seen as favoring British work. That attitude has kept most U.S. agencies from submitting entries, and only after last-minute hints from the D&AD did the winning W&K creative team hop a plane from Portland to London for a whirlwind 24-hour visit.
The surprise announcement of W&K's win drew muted response from the D&AD crowd. In part, the recognition of an American agency may reflect a change in D&AD's judging rules that makes for a more level playing field. But it also hints at a fascinating reversal in style, after years of American creatives looking to the execution-driven work of the British for inspiration. As with that other great totem of U.K. advertising in the '80s--the publicly held global holding company--there is currently a blacklash against the extremes of the past.
"We're suffering a bit creatively here after the excesses of recent years," notes D&AD judge John Webster, executive creative director at DDB Needham/London. "A lot of young people come to you with an idea they've seen somewhere else, and it's not based on marketing. There's more of a continuing move to production-led advertising. It's a bit self-indulgent. In the States you have more direct selling, and in the U.K. we're still more arty. Now we're looking much more toward the States and your direct approach to selling."
Even one of London's most edgy agencies, Howell Henry Chaldecott Lury, seems to be shifting its priorities. In recent years HHCL created a controversial reputation for itself by trumpeting a "new age" theory of advertising that aimed to change, rather than reflect, human behavior. These days, instead of attacking social issues like racism or the depiction of the handicapped in commercials, creative director Steve Henry seems more eager to talk about his clients' sales numbers.
"The industry as a whole is scared because an awful lot of British advertising is not responsive," says Henry, who was an English top honors graduate at Oxford. "A lot of it is ivory tower advertising, and clients don't trust us anymore. They don't have confidence in advertising. Now clients say to us, 'We want advertising to work.'"
That happened far too well for HHCL's client Britvic and its soft drink, Tango. Now in its second year, Tango is still one of the most talked-about campaigns in England. The commercials show a surprised drinker being "hit" by the taste of the orange soda as a fat, bald, orange-skinned man slaps him around the face. (The themeline: "You know when you've been Tangoed.") The commercials gained overnight celebrity status, sales soared and British school children began hitting each other and repeating the tag. Last year the spot was banned after teachers and doctors complained to a government TV agency. HHCL, being HHCL, has replaced the slap with a kiss. The ads are back on the air.
Where ambitious creative shops like HHCL once carved out extreme positions outside the London agency mainstream, there now seem to be fewer boundaries between the kind of agencies that do good work. Big agency BSB Dorland, for instance, took home two silver awards for its special effects "Video Games" spots for big marketer Woolworth's. "The British cutting edge is less sharp than it was five or ten years ago," says John Bacon, executive creative director at Ogilvy & Mather, London. "The clutch of definitely creative agencies is much less distinct than it used to be. You see greater depth in the number of agencies producing good work."
In the Piccadilly and Soho corridors of the young creative upstarts, there is now even talk about forging alliances with American agencies. HHCL, for instance, is widely rumored to be hooking up with Chiat/Day, and Bartle Bogle Hegarty is also reportedly discussing the same with Wieden & Kennedy. Ask some of London's best creative directors who their favorite agency is, and the answer is likely to be Fallon McElligott.
Even U.S. brands seemed to have a higher visibility at the D&AD this year. Simons Palmer's U.K. work for Nike and BBH's European ads for Levi's were among the big award winners. Simons Palmer's "Kick It" Nike soccer spot was one of the evening's most expressive pieces of film, with an instrumental track playing off of Lou Reed's "Walk on the Wild Side." The spot drew big applause--or, as one young London creative praised it between swings on the dance floor, "It's so good, it's good enough to be Wieden & Kennedy's." (A compliment that would make the staff in W&K's new Amsterdam office both happy--and a bit uneasy--to hear concerning its main client.)
For its part, BBH is turning its nostalgic Levi's work-- which uses scenes like a '60s Beverly Hills pool party--into a new agency positioning. Last year BBH launched an aggressive new business effort dubbed Operation American Dream. The agency sends executives over to the States to sell American clients on using a one-office British agency to create pan-European advertising. BBH already has seen more than 30 clients and expects to reap assignments from the effort.
"From early on we've been inundated with American culture. We feel we have good perspective on how Europeans view America," says BBH vice chairman Martin Smith. "You live the American dream as a reality. We have distance and can select pieces of it. We can create a sort of artificial folklore that is more 'American' than that from a U.S. agency, which creates it as more real and modern."
BBH isn't the only agency with an eye cast across the water. Over drinks before the D&AD dinner, British admen were making public bets about how long before Frank Lowe becomes the chief executive of Lowe Howard-Spink's U.S. parent, Interpublic Group of Companies. (Most wagered three years or less.) Lowe was missing from the rollicking night. But his growing involvement with IPG client CocaCola has captured the imagination of London. There's no small amount of London agency interest in the Coca-Cola/ CAA situation in general, given BBH's high-profile success in positioning Levi's, another American brand icon.
While many British agencies were talking about the work of their U.S. peers, Lowe was described as more interested in moving in the opposite direction, amid speculation that he is sending New York assignments over to his stellar London creative shop. LH-S chairman Adrian Holmes, who is also the D& AD's new president, denies those reports. But he also seems reluctant to relinquish any of the creative license of the '80s for the more hard-sell tactics of the States. For client Stella Artois dry beer, LH-S created one of the most polarizing spots among the D&AD nominees. Using the tagline "It's out there. Somewhere" the beautifully filmed, surreal spots feature bizarre imagery like ants crawling over a man's face.
Holmes makes no apologies for the approach. "When you have your feet planted firmly on the ground, you can put your head in the clouds," he says. "The secret of Lowe Howard-Spink is that it's a place full of wacky ideas that is run like a German tank system."
That explanation fails to satisfy one D&AD judge, who launches an attack on the campaign: "It's nothing more than elegantly filmed crap." Leagas Delaney's Tim Delaney, on the other hand, defends the Stella Artois strategy: "It's a good trick in a mature marketing category. How do you energize an old brand and get people excited about it? How do you make it into a cult product? Form can become the communication. Advertising is not always just about product benefits."
This spring Delaney faced the same problem of creating attitude as he filmed five spots to revive the Adidas brand in Europe. The athletic shoemaker's commercials, which use amazing imagery, music and effects, were produced by heavyweight directors, including David Lynch. Working with Martin Scorsese's sound man and the composer of Twin Peaks' haunting music, Lynch directed a spot, called "The Wall," that tracks a runner reaching the pain barrier associated with marathons. Many London advertising observers expect to see the new campaign among next year's D&AD nominees, but the fate of the $30-million account is less certain. Earlier this year Robert Louis-Dreyfus and the Saatchi brothers bought into the German company.
As one of British advertising's most popular firebrands, Delaney is responsible for much of the changes to upgrade the visibility and judging systems of the D&AD. Two years ago Delaney became D&AD's president after an awards night got carried away--even by D&AD standards--and the police were called in to restore order. Delaney launched an investigation into the poor organization and suspect financial dealings of Edward Booth-Clibborn, the onetime J. Walter Thompson art director who had run the show--at times with inaudible sound and upside-down slides for nearly 30 years.
Delaney also helped recruit Simonds-Gooding, who as chief executive of Saatchi & Saatchi Communications in the late '80s was given the daunting task of consolidating the company's disparate U.S. acquisitions. Now Simonds-Gooding has expanded the D&AD awards program to include a festival to be held in London's Covent Garden May 17-21. The event will bring together award-winning advertising campaigns from around the world and principals from Doyle Dane Bernbach and Bartle Bogle Hegarty will speak about pan-European marketing strategies.
Delaney, a veteran of many D&AD nights, is obviously proud of the changes and new attention for the awards. But he worries about how it plays into what he sees as a "serious streak of self-promotion and ambition" creeping into British copywriters and art directors. Such awards-show self-aggrandizement is well known in the U.S. but still a relatively new phenomenon in the U.K.
"Previously gods were made by the people. Now they're made by themselves," says Delaney. "Maybe it's 12 years of Thatcherism, when Margaret Thatcher said, 'There's no such thing as society, only individuals.' Maybe we've started to believe that. Or maybe we've started to borrow it from the States. It's not one of your more attractive exports."
Copyright Adweek L.P. (1993)