There’s no business like show business.

I wrote this as a column for Idealog, but replaced it with something a little less stroppy.

I refer to Howard Gossage, whom I recently 'discovered'. If you are interested in finding out more this site is very good. Here is a Gossagism I rather like:

"If you have something pertinent to say you neither have to say it to very many people -- only those who you think will be interested -- nor do you have to say it very often . . . if it is interesting, once is enough. If it is dull, once is plenty."

Of all the businesses in the creative economy perhaps none has quite the same inflated sense of importance as the ad business. Advertising agencies promote themselves as purveyors of extraordinary degrees of creativity. What other business has a ‘creative department’? All of this flies in the face of a swollen body of evidence to the contrary every night on television, in the newspapers and in virtually every other medium. Most advertising is simply an affront. It is rude and intrusive. Perhaps that is why there is no prestige in advertising? It is the least respected of the arts and as a profession consistently rates amongst politicians and used car salespeople in the public’s regard.

As the largely forgotten American advertising pioneer Howard Gossage pointed out in the 1960s, the reason why creativity is in such short supply is because advertising people persist in regarding it as an isolated phenomenon separate from the creator and the audience.

Playwrights and artists create their works for an audience. With rare exceptions advertising is created for the client, whose need to meet a sales objective is their sole reason for engaging in the process at all. Creating advertising is a vicarious process. In most cases the voice of the creative person is synthesised into the voice of ‘the brand’, conforming to a pre-determined recipe (cargo cult branding).

Exceptions exist, most often because the voice of the brand is, in fact, the voice of a powerful creative ego that has managed to execute an idea with the minimum of dilution. The advertising approval process can be tortuous, to say the least.
Some clients will follow particular creatives from agency to agency because they play the part of the brand better than any other (in the way that, to many, Sean Connery is James Bond).

Great advertising is created for the audience and great advertising creatives are theatrical performers who love to play to the crowd. There are only ever a handful of stars and they are worth their weight in gold.

On the next tier down are the people who would love to achieve virtuosity, but they experience the equivalent of stage fright and don’t take the risks required, resulting in confused, half-way ads that try to please the audience and the client and fall flat as a result.

Next are the journeymen. Hacks who make no claim to create anything of value, who thrive on doing whatever needs to be done. A lack of idea or artistry is compensated for in media weight, the hysterical volume of the voice-over or a self-justifying, proprietary theory of ‘what works’.

To quote Gossage “People who do not aim to please their audience are probably paying too much for their advertising or have such a fantastic margin by which to operate that they can afford to be boring or even distasteful.”

Today’s audience has seen it all before. We are immune to most huckster techniques – as I have said before – people simply tolerate your ads as the price of free sitcoms and soaps.

With changes in the media consumption patterns and trends like the rise of Generation C, I can only continue to wonder how much longer the show will go on?


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