Art & Commerce: Guest Column – When Worlds Collide

British By Birth And American By Trade, John Hegarty Explores How Culture Clash Can Lead To Great Ads
AMERICA INVENTED advertising focus groups and day-after recall, the three-martini lunch and ulcers. The British invented cricket, silly mid-off, the googly (a type of bowling action), five-day test matches that can end in a draw and, of course, the stiff upper lip.
Are there differences between us? Absolutely, the gap is as wide as the Atlantic Ocean. And the best of both advertising cultures reflects these differences. That’s where the fun can be found.
The British are decidedly suspicious of anyone who talks too much, somewhat stuffy and prone to irony. Americans are laid-back, discuss their colon problems with anyone and pump iron, not irony.
I do, however, have an advantage over you. I have experienced more of your culture than you have of mine. I was brought up on, among other things, I Love Lucy, Sgt. Bilko, Rawhide, The Dick Van Dyke Show, Laugh-In and Saturday Night Live. You got Monty Python and Mr. Bean. I think I won.
What all this means is our advertising culture had more to draw on than yours. We could cherry-pick from American icons and weave them into our own. We could play with the genre more readily than you.
We also have another advantage.
In Britain, it’s vulgar to “sell” something. You have to “allow” people to buy. In the U.S., one gets the feeling it’s the other way around. Once you’ve got your foot in the door, you don’t stop talking – even if it’s about your up-and-coming colostomy.
New York, though, does have an advantage over London. America has invented the Internet, which is moving its economy forward (while others flounder). This is the dot-com culture.
Not only is this new culture driving the Internet, it’s also driving media companies that want to establish themselves as brands. Fox Sports and ESPN are two examples of brands that are consistently pushing their individuality.
These new industries create new advertisers with new attitudes and, of course, new opportunities. It’s not surprising that Internet and media companies are picking up so many awards.
The advertising we create is a reflection of the culture we come from. But, I hear you ask, how can a creative operate in a different culture?
Well, the truth is, with difficulty. But that’s the challenge. Exciting work in any creative field comes about by the abrasion of different cultures. That’s why places like New York and London attract so many interesting people and why they are genuinely creative capitals.
What is also interesting is we are becoming a more visual culture and ideas have to cross more borders – borders of attitude, class and geography. Coming from London, operating in a European culture of many tongues, this is something we have been very aware of.
Words are powerful but easily abused. Therefore, the skill of great advertising is to reduce, to write less and say more, to allow visual drama to drive our creativity.
The future isn’t about where you come from. It’s about how you use what you know. One thing I do know. Getting a plumber on a Sunday is just as difficult in New York as it is in London.