The book is
Alexander Repiev, Moscow, Russia
"The Lunatics Have Taken Over the Asylum"
We are a small old-fashioned Russian agency producing selling advertising. We earn money for our clients, not festival trophies. But... if you pursue advertising for more than 30 years, you feel a bit uneasy if you haven't been to Cannes, that alleged "mecca" of international advertising.
From what we had gleaned about Cannes we suspected that we might be somewhat disappointed by the show. We were prepared to see many arty toys and pieces of art-directoritis. But... we were not prepared for such a shock.
That famous festival appeared to be (a) a display of pictures (Campaign's Stefano Hatfield: "no bloody copy anywhere") lumped together under Press & Poster (!); (b) a collection of video-pieces meant to amuse, not to sell; (c) an array of useless seminars; and (d) an incoherent exhibition.
In a nutshell, that was a damn-the-brand, damn-the-client, awards-at-all-costs Cannery of mad advertising!
David Ogilvy is known to have said: "There have always been noisy lunatics on the fringes of the advertising business. Their stock-in-trade includes ethnic humor, eccentric art direction, contempt for research, and their self-pronounced genius."
On the fringes? Perhaps it was so in the good ol' days of selling advertising. But now those "noisy lunatics" are in the limelight. The famous knight errant must admit total defeat - even his agency is now blithely garnering show trinkets. And even Procter & Gamble, that erstwhile stronghold of selling advertising, is said to be considering joining the contest rat race.
The whole industry seems to have gone mad. The lunatics have won a resounding victory.
At the asylum
Can you imagine a computer contest where some entries are just computer-like dummies? No? But at Cannes ad-looking dummies made up a sizable proportion of entries — you could enter almost anything on paper as a Press & Poster piece; and almost anything filmed as a Video piece. Moreover, if your dummy was crazy enough, it stood a good chance of grabbing a Lion!
Press & Poster
Roaming crowds were staring at a myriad of pictures on the walls trying desperately to decipher at least something. In most cases it was impossible without reading first the name of a "masterpiece" on the plaque on the left. No copy, no brand, no selling, no advertising!
We felt sorry for the jury who were supposed to assess all that stuff at a machine-gun rate of 3,000 pieces a day! And all that without knowing a respective country's language, psychology, business culture, buying habits, etc., and a respective product's selling points and brand awareness in the country. Etc., etc.
The Grand Prix piece was a nearly black-and-white gloomy picture (no copy, of course!). It showed some car (if you looked hard you could just make out a small Mercedes star in the corner). The description (the plaque on the left) said that the marks on the asphalt next the car were skidmarks, apparently left by cars that had ground to a halt from 100 mph.
Back in Moscow we tested that "masterpiece" on at least a dozen Russians. Some stared at it for minutes, totally bewildered. When prompted at last of the alleged import of that "crème de la crème" of print, they would invariably use unprintable Russian flourishes. Gordon Bennet! Or, was it Leo Burnett?
Gerry Farrell (Campaign, 27 June) about the picture: "It is simple and goes from the eyes straight to the back of the head." Does it? Maybe rather to the backside!
The 1998 Grand Prix went to Arnold Communications for their blatant plagiarism of the visual from Bill Bernach's famous series of VW Beetle ads of the 1960s. Without the extremely potent copy of the earlier adverts, of course.
Apropos of copies at Cannes. "Advertising is the business of words," says Ogilvy. Nothing of the sort, counters Canada's Chris Staples: "The visual is very powerful and strong in itself without having a lot of words. People don't like to read anymore." Maybe, Chris, you mean members of show juries?
I'd love to take a look at research evidence the Canadian "analyst" used for his extremely interesting generalization.
Mr. Staples, do you know that, according to sources, members of a US household spend on average 6 months selecting their next car? Do you think they spend this time staring at Cannes pictures of Volvo, Mercedes, and now VW? Or maybe they read a couple of lines in the process?
Before the 1997 video "contest" Chairman of the Juries Bo Rönnberg was crying in the wilderness: "We should not automatically award prizes to video-jokes to which one can attach any product." A naive chap! — Most of the spots at Cannes were precisely video-jokes, with something hastily and incongruously attached to them!
The "attaching" was done superbly, right at the end, often without sound. So that the product never distracted from the main thing, that is from tomfoolery. If spots had been stopped five seconds before the end, in most cases nobody could have identified the product, sometimes even the respective product category.
Let's look at this one, for instance. (I saw it three times but even at the last screening I could not work out what, the hell, was it advertising.) An old lady is doing some knitting and describing in la-di-da English her trip to town. (Thought begins to pulse frantically: maybe it's about the tea she is drinking? No... about the wool she is knitting from? No... about the bus she likes to ride on? Again no. About the young people she so likes to associate with?) "...and now I put on my glasses and read on his T-shirt: Have a good day. Fuck someone!"
And while everybody is doubling up and not looking on the screen, there, without sound (I reiterate — it's a huge creative success since it guarantees that nobody will remember anything!) just for a second, appears the name of the brand. Guess of what? Of some glasses — what-d'ye-call'em? It goes without saying that "that" receives a Lion. (I wonder how many glasses has that video-caper sold?)
The wild assortment of seminars at Cannes were charming mutual admiration societies. They ignored the audience completely — there were even no microphones on the floor! The only chance for an attendee to ask a question was when those "gods" would magnificently step down from their Olympus.
When I had the chutzpah to confront a McCann-Erickson's vice-president with my comments on the humbug and stupidity of what I'd just heard and seen, the guy looked around sheepishly and confided: "I do know that this is all a huge load of bullshit but... if I tell so they will never let me into this hall."
Can you beat that?
The King is Naked!
At the Gala party I would ask many: "How many cars do you think will the Grand Prix ad sell?" A typical answer was a smirk. "Who needs it all"? A shrug. I would then tell them one Soviet-time joke: socialism is when every single guy is con, but altogether they are pro.
In award-crazy advertising The Naked King is not just alive, he reigns supreme.
Do we need that?
There is no end of publications on whether award shows are necessary. Strange, isn't it? Can you imagine similar disputes in sports (do we need Olympics?), in music and ballet (do we need Tchaikovsky contests?), in the computer industry (do we need BAPCo tests of systems?), and so forth?
Why then is the issue still with us? One reason, I believe, is that not all admen are idiots, and many understand the futility and harm of the award frenzy.
D. Gunn & Co
Some "experts," the indefatigable Donald Gunn for example, knock on every door trying to prove that award-winning ads sell. Criticizing Gunn's logic would be a waste of time. Should the same level of reasoning be used in engineering, physics, and other sciences, humanity would still be living in caves. But prep-school logic is endemic in a huge industry "processing" hundreds of billions of clients' dollars, but only rarely giving them value for money.
No criteria — no contest!
Any contest begins with the development and universal approval of comparison techniques and criteria. No criteria — no contest! Ad shows seem to be the only contests that have no hard and fast comparison criteria! But are there any?
Advertising has only one goal — to sell (R. Rubicam). Therefore, the only valid comparison criterion here could be sales — the wining advert should be the best-selling advert. But… it is common knowledge, that there is no predicting how well an ad will sell. A blind alley.
Of course, there are several criteria that could easily be assessed using some point system. To begin with, these criteria would allow one to separate the sheep of ads from the goats of ad-looking dummies. It is also easy to assess an ad's communicative efficiency.
If provided with a list of the product's selling points, a country's cultural and economic background, brand awareness, etc., a jury of "sellers" could make rough predictions of the ad's efficiency.
This would drastically improve the efficiency of advertising. But who is interested in those mundane "technicalities"?
The organizers of award shows seem to be uneasy about the situation. And so they come up with eye-opening "criteria." For instance, Keith Reinhard, President of Cannes Juries 1999, talks about some ideas that must be "fresh, original and compelling." Andy Berlin, 1999 Jury Chairman at the London International Advertising Awards Festival talks of some "creativity, originality and production value." And neither bothers to come up with a definition of those vague notions and techniques of measuring them.
Mr. Reinhard goes on to point out the sphere where Lion hunters could apply their talents best: "Winning a Lion makes you king of the jungle."
I could not agree more — the jungle seems to be the right place for them — the multibillion industry could thus get a rest from those intrepid hunters.
Keeping up with the wrong Joneses
Advocates of ad contests like to draw a parallel with cinema festivals. But wait a minute! A movie is a classical example of a product meant only to be liked, just like painting and other arts. Paid consumption of that "product" occurs right at screening. And so everything is OK: a cinema festival is a consumption contest of products meant to be liked. If an award-winning film does not ring the cash-register, it's the producer who loses, not the public.
And how about fashion shows? Even simpler. A couturier produces his collections using his own resources. The demonstration itself, however extravagant, may be interesting as a show, and so spectators may be prepared to pay for it — they consume the product (impressions) right on the spot. Everything is upfront. Everything is clear and honest.
In ad contests everything is unclear and dishonest.
Apples and pears
To begin with, the apples of press ads are generally compared with the pears of posters. And god knows how! The main criterion — the selling efficiency — cannot be assessed properly, before and even after a campaign. But then who cares about selling? Least of all the award-crazy crowds.
Who foots the bill!
Agencies fine-tune their entries to current contest procedures and trends, not to those of respective markets and brands. Their "producer" — the client — is often unaware of that hidden agenda. He believes that he pays for a campaign meant to promote his products, not some "self-pronounced geniuses." To call a spade a spade, it's daylight robbery. But why do they get away with it?
One reason is that corporate marketing and advertising departments are often manned by advertising idiots who are flattered by having "their" ad win some useless knickknacks. Only months later they may or may not learn that they have had thrown their company's millions down the drain. And if it is a huge bureaucratic company, nobody is interested in kicking up a row. The so-called advertising expenses are simply included into the price of the product.
And so, everything in the garden is just lovely!
Our warped notions
"Why do awards consume the advertising business?" inquires Anthony Vagnoni of Advertising Age's Creativity. He goes on to say that "anyone who can answer this wins a prize." Winning a prize by proving that all ad prizes are humbug? — That would be the only useful prize in advertising.
To answer the question does not take the analytical potential of major consulting companies or top-notch statisticians. If the industry really cared, it would have commissioned a group of independent professional analysts long ago. Their answer would be quite easy to predict.
But who is interested in upsetting the applecart? Those who make money by organizing contests? Those who write about them? Or those who cheat their clients by parading their phony prizes in front of them? No-one. That's why we need home-spun "analysts" like Donald Gunn with their fossil logic.
But still, why is a multibillion industry rotten with such a useless and harmful award frenzy? To get some clues, let us just take a look at several staple misconceptions in advertising.
One popular misconception is that advertising is art - hence that mimicry of film festivals, picture galleries, and fashion shows, and hence those hordes of languid ad Bohemians around.
Well, the toolkit of advertising does include, among other things, some fine arts: music, graphic arts, cameramanship, and so forth. But advertising itself is not an art. It's selling.
If we were all to agree to view advertising as an art, then, to be consistent, we'd have to count as such good furniture, footwear, clothes, an airplane, a destroyer, etc., simply because among their creators are some designers. A military parade with troops marching to brass music could then be said to be an "art" as well.
To be sure, adverts should be pretty, but prettiness is no end in itself. Stuff packed with eye candy but lacking substance is good for nothing and wasteful. Professional art direction should be just a good wrapping, or a good picture frame, for a good selling stuff. It should simply help an ad along in solving its main task — to sell.
What's ad creativity?
You may or may not be creative in nearly any pursuit, just as in any profession you may or may not be professional. What is then to be creative and professional in advertising?
George Orwell complained that we promiscuously throw about words that mean different things to different people. Good examples are "creativity" and "originality" in advertising.
Somebody at Benton & Bowles said: "If an ad does not sell, it is not creative." Virginia Commonwealth University's Jelly Helm thinks otherwise: "The definition of being creative is making something that didn't exist before." (Will hanging an ad upside down do?)
I'd rather agree with Jelly Helm if the world consisted of historians of advertising, who know "what existed before." (By the way, if we were to stick to that definition, the 1998 Grand Prix VW motif is not creative — it has been in existence for decades to date.) But even then an ad creative a la Jelly Helm would not necessarily sell, i.e., it would not be creative a la Benton & Bowles, the latter being more important by far!
Well and good, if for a given ad to sell requires "something that didn't exits before," it will be a creative solution. But it will be a brand-ruining solution with Marlboro and a host of other well-established brands. "What sold a refrigerator to a newly-wed couple ten years ago might sell it now." Who said that? Philip Morris marketers are more "creative" with their 50-odd years of Marlboro cowboy motifs than their restless counterparts from other companies and agencies.
Somebody at Ted & Bates once maintained that "originality is the most dangerous word in advertising." But who thinks so nowadays! Bo Rönnberg, a Swedish ad genius and the top judge at Cannes '97, wanted to be "original" with his billboards "selling" something by showing naked asses. It may be original in Sweden, a land known to be desperately short of human nudity, but... is that supposed to sell?
To sell or to entertain?
Dispute has been going on for decades about humor and entertainment in advertising. Research and experience have long shown that "good copywriters have always resisted the temptation to entertain," that "people do not buy from clowns," that "buying is a very serious business" (Ogilvy), that the buyer is no idiot, that what he needs is more information about the product. (If he needs entertainment, he'll seek it elsewhere.)
But who cares about experience and research in a trade known for its "contempt for research."
Well, "you cannot bore one into buying" (Ogilvy), and nobody has ever held that an ad should be boring. If you can produce a good selling ad with a wink, it's fantastic. If humor helps you bring out the qualities of the product, go ahead.
But if you are obsessed with idiotic pie-in-the-face tricks, practical jokes and "ethnic humor," you are killing the ad. And the brand!
Unfortunately, humor has now been promoted from an auxiliary tool to an end in itself. The Canadian writer Catherine Lejeune-Szydywar reports about Cannes '98 as a get-together of "leaders in provocation, humor, audacity — in short, entertainment."
But where are leaders in selling? Perhaps advertisers and their shareholders would rather meet guys who make money for them.
The world economy would be a better place if "leaders in entertainment" would apply their talents in show business, and leave room to "a handful of sellers" (Jerry Della Femina).
The world's young crop of copywriters, it seems, is all infested with pseudo-humor and pseudo-originality. What would Ogilvy, Rubicam and other mastercrafsmen with "selling" words say, for instance, about Miami Ad School's Web-page "initiating" would-be copywriters into the philosophy of the profession: "You're a master of IRONY. A wizard of WIT. A warrior with words. A book-reading, story-telling, note-passing, JOKE-telling, encyclopedia of useless trivia and crazy ideas. You're gonna be a great copywriter."
Nope, guys. With that approach to copywriting you're gonna be "a lunatic with ethnic humor... and a self-pronounced genius." Some of you may become a Mark Twain or an O'Henry (both of them dabbled in copywriting with awful results, by the way!).
You'll join the crowd of second-rate "creatives" shrieking for recognition.
"We need recognition!
Another "argument" of advocates of ad contests is "we need recognition." Well, fellas, could you name a single profession whose practitioners do not need recognition? A painter, say, needs recognition desperately. He buys canvas and paints, produces pictures and exhibits them. Society does not suffer from that, sometimes it even gains. But does society gain anything from ad contests? No. The client loses his money, and the society pays more for the goods.
Anthony Vagnoni quotes Lee Clow as saying: "You have to remember that creative people have a combination of giant egos and naive insecurity. They need validation for their work, and they don't necessarily get that from clients. Instead, they go looking for that, and a smidgen of self-esteem, from their peers." But do "you have to remember" also that that "validation" is to be paid for by advertisers and society?
Naked-King-ship needs justification badly!
One hears often now that advertising clowns are losing business to management consultants, those no-nonsense guys who help their clients win money, not stupid awards. One also hears that "agencies are increasingly excluded from top table discussions." Too bad. But what did they expect?
Unfortunately, "sellers" and "contestants" are in the same boat, and the former suffer from the bad image of the trade created by the latter. In Russia, for instance, "advertising" has already acquired a bad name, and "sellers" have to overcome a lot of prejudices.
The plague of useless advertising is harmful in all countries, but especially so in new markets.
Western firms may to a certain extent make up for their bad advertising by their professionally managed marketing mixes and efficient selling forces. Also, in well-established Western markets there are a lot of huge brands, which could do with just reminding campaigns.
With us things are absolutely different. Market economy in Russia, for example, is still in its infancy. The country's major problem is not so much lack of funding, but rather lack of knowledge of marketing, branding, advertising, and other market-related disciplines.
Western blue chips may make in Russia gargantuan advertising mistakes and squander millions of their marketing dollars. They will survive. But the quality of advertising may be a make-or-break issue to young inexperienced poor Russian firms, especially in a crisis. To survive they need more marketing and ad savvy than Western grandees in Russia. But who is supposed to supply that savvy?
Many Western nations have amassed a wealth of experience of selling advertising, which is still available to those who care. But the young Russian ad industry has no tradition of selling advertising yet. Instead of accumulating that experience, most of it has joined the contest rat race, courtesy of Cannes and other shows. It has quickly been turning into another ward of the world's advertising asylum.
To me, a dinosaur of Russian selling advertising with 30-odd years of experience, it is hard to accept.
Quo vadis, gentlemen?
By the way, when is
Other English-language articles by A. Repiev
Our job is
I long for