Campaign: Over the past few years, you’ve been reluctant to talk about advertising publicly. Why are you talking to Campaign today?
Frank Lowe: I’ve never been one for giving speeches and lectures on how to do advertising – I’ve always been more of a doer than a talker. I’m talking to you today because it’s Campaign’s 50th anniversary and Campaign has always been interested in, and supportive of, good creative work.
C: I’d like to talk to you about the period of advertising that the industry has termed the Golden Age, which you were such an important part of, and how it came about. I’d also like to ask your opinion of advertising today.
FL: I’m very happy to talk about the Golden Age, which the industry generally acknowledges originated in Britain with Collett Dickenson Pearce in the late 1960s, and what special ingredients made that agency what it was.
As for what my thoughts are on advertising today, I think it may be more useful firstly to talk about some of the changes that have taken place that have formed today’s environment. However, I’d like to suggest that anyone reading this, who isn’t familiar with CDP’s work, should have a look at it on YouTube.
I’m certainly not saying that the way we did advertising then is appropriate today, but I do think it’s worth taking the time to look at it to form an opinion about whether it has any relevance and whether the way we went about making it can make a positive contribution in an industry that has experienced profound transformation.
I’m sure all the great agencies of those early days – Boase Massimi Pollitt, Abbott Mead Vickers and Saatchi & Saatchi – would join me in saying that we were all heavily influenced by what was happening in the US, with agencies such as Chiat Day, Wells Rich Greene and, of course, Doyle Dane Bernbach.
I got to know Bill Bernbach quite well during those years, and his revolutionary idea of grabbing back attention from the 85% of American consumers that were ignoring advertising, by building brands through entertaining and often humorous advertising struck a strong chord with me. If there was a difference between us, it was that DDB led the world in print – though CDP did some marvellous print work. And while DDB did great work in television, we probably focused a bit more on TV, developing very distinctive work using a particularly British kind of humour to reach a nation that was a bit prickly about being sold to directly.
In America, they attribute the advertising revolution to Jewish copywriters and Italian art directors, which was a reflection, particularly in New York, of a multicultural society. In Britain, we had a class-based society, so a lot of our advertising talked to that class difference – always with wit and humour and never in any way patronising.
Our generation had a potent mix of socially mobile and socially diverse talent. We were the first generation brought up with commercial television, and were pretty uninterested in the kind of advertising that was being made at that time and wanted to find our own voice.
This was the Swinging 60s – and changes were taking place in almost every area of creativity. Fashion, photography, music, film, painting, architecture. And the best ad agencies were part of that scene – we all knew each other very well.
One thing I would always urge advertising people to do is to keep abreast of all aspects of the creative arts.
C: So, this diverse, potent mix of talent was key?
FL: Without question. Most of the people who worked in the industry had totally different backgrounds. At CDP, we had the most extraordinary group of creative people that I’m not sure could be assembled again.
I was lucky enough to work with two of the best three print copywriters in British advertising history – Tony Brignull and John Salmon, with David Abbott being the third.
As far as art directors were concerned, I worked with Colin Millward, Neil Godfrey and Alan Waldie, who was considered by many to be raving mad but was quite brilliant.
And there were many other creatives at the other outstanding agencies of the day: John Webster at BMP, Charlie Saatchi at Saatchi and the above-mentioned Abbott at AMV.
In acknowledging these people, I in no way overlook all the other great talent of the day – it’s simply that I don’t have space to name them all. The 1960s counter-culture also contributed to the creation of a diverse group of extraordinary talent outside the agencies. For example, if you take the three best directors I worked with: Hugh Hudson went to a top fee-paying private school, Alan Parker went to a state school, and Ridley Scott went to art school, and yet all of them went on to make films that won Oscars.
In photography, we worked with people such as Bailey, Donovan, Duffy and Snowden; in America, Penn, Avedon and, in TV, Jo Pytka.
While on the subject of talent, I and many others have concerns about the switch to a mainly graduate-only hiring policy, which would have meant then, for example, that virtually all of the people at CDP, including the creative department, would not have got a job in advertising – myself included.
However, I believe there is now a bigger problem because talking to my children and their friends, very few say they would like to go into advertising. I get the feeling that they believe it is yesterday’s industry, and are much more interested in going to tech companies such as Apple and Google etc. The quality of what you create is dependent on the quality of the people you hire.
C: What were the other important elements?
FL:Apart from the extraordinary talent we had to draw on, we had a wonderful group of clients, who had come to the agency because they genuinely wanted exciting, different and stimulating creative work – and were prepared to take risks. A relationship that was based on trust and mutual respect.
I always felt that there was no point in a client saying they wanted breakthrough creative work and going to an agency like CDP if they weren’t completely committed to it, because they’d just fall out. A client has to trust in an agency if they are going to take risks. Our clients certainly did, and that trust paid off for them. I can’t think of any brand CDP advertised where sales didn’t increase… and very dramatically in most cases.
It’s probably worth mentioning here that as well as being hugely successful in sales, CDP was very successful in creative recognition. D&AD recently recognised CDP as the most creatively awarded agency in the past 50 years. And at Cannes, CDP won more lions than any other agency during this period.
It was also vital for us to have been able to deal with clients who had the power to say yes. I’m told that there has been an increase in the number of layers of approval at client companies and that agencies don’t always have access to top-tier management. It is important to talk to the people who have the power to say yes, not simply the power to say no. But whatever the case, show me a great campaign and I’ll show you a damn good client.
Additionally, and crucially, an agency needs time to do great work. It cannot be done in an instant. And it is not usually done in a week or two. Sometimes ideas do come quickly, but more often they don’t. Our clients allowed us the time to do it, and time to do it again, as well as the necessary amount of money.
C: You’ve always emphasised the importance of saying no to work, as well as saying yes. Why is this?
FL:At CDP, I learned from Millward, our creative director (who was a gruff, straight-talking Yorkshireman), how to say no. It is all too easy to get a reasonable campaign, but what is really difficult is to tell creative people – who may have worked on a brief for weeks – that it isn’t really that good and suggest that they could do better.
Our creative people would often curse me, but on many occasions they did do better. And after that, they’d concede that maybe "the bugger had been right after all".
I remember once, I turned down a campaign I really didn’t like and a whole group of creative people came to see me to tell me I was wrong. We chatted, but they didn’t change my mind. And when they left, someone asked how the meeting had gone and they said: "Frank ganged up on us."
I could never take a campaign to a client that I didn’t really believe in. You have to be very determined because if mediocrity is approved, you’ll create a mediocre agency. Incidentally, it might be worth adding that when we had a campaign that we truly believed in, I would always ask the creative people – whether it was television, print or posters – to do at least the first year or two’s advertising so that I, and subsequently the client, could feel comfortable that the campaign had what used to be called "legs".
However, it was also important to recognise that the client has the right to say no. Maybe they simply don’t like the campaign. Maybe they simply don’t think it will work. But they are absolutely entitled to their opinion. And if they disagree with you, it doesn’t mean they are wrong.
Nonetheless, I was always wary of suggested changes and improvements, and preferred to have another go from the start. This was why I rarely took creative people to client meetings – so that I could always say I wanted to go back and confer with them. However, if this happened repeatedly or clients required multiple-choice options either for themselves or for research to decide, it was usually a sign that they were with the wrong agency.
Lastly, on the creative department. We had an approvals stamp that would go on every script, layout and piece of copy, which would have to be signed by the creative director, the account director and chief executive. First, this stopped work going out from the agency that hadn’t been agreed; second, it gave the client confidence that the whole agency was behind the work.
C: I know you set great store by the importance of a great media department. Why was this?
FL:At CDP, we had a wonderful media department headed by Mike Yershon. It worked closely with the account groups and creative people, often changing the parameters of media to accommodate the creative work.
One example of how this worked well was when we could not find the means of effectively getting double-page colour spreads from magazines on to 16-sheet poster sites. They were the wrong shape. So, I asked Yershon whether we could persuade the poster contractors to convert three 16-sheet sites into one 48-sheet site. This he did, and within a few months all the contractors had followed suit, and the popular 48-sheet sites were born.
This was a good example of media working well within the agency. But it wasn’t just a question of size and shape, it was a question of creative opportunity. For the posters around Britain improved in quality and particularly in creativity. I would add here that I don’t quite know what’s happened to the poster industry, as most of my friends agree that the creative quality has really declined. Very few witty headlines. Very few memorable endlines. Merely product shots, with a brand name.
And while on the subject of endlines – I think more importance should be attached to these. An endline should be a summation of what has gone before in the advertisement. It should also be fresh, different and memorable.
I could quote many examples of how media and agencies worked well together, but I do have concerns about media being booked separately from the agency today and in advance of the creative work. If you have a great campaign that needs 60 seconds on television, and you have already booked 30 seconds, you are stuck.
It’s perhaps worth reflecting that as with so many things, the importance of media, compared with the importance of the creative work, has gone full circle. At the beginning of the 20th century, the clients gave the media agents the budget and the target market. The media agents then booked the media and hired creative people to fill the spaces they’d booked.
Perhaps, in today’s digital world, Marshall McLuhan really was right when he said: "The medium is the message." But I think all too often his words have been followed too slavishly.
C: You’re not noted for your belief in research and planning. Why is this?
FL: This is a misunderstanding. I have great faith in research.
It is important for the client, researcher, account group and creative people to understand the existing relationship between the product and the consumer – who buys it, why they buy it, socio-economic differences and product category.
From this, we can work out our target market, but not necessarily find a specific insight. As far as planning’s contribution is concerned, I am more circumspect. I was working for Stanley Pollitt when he invented it. Indeed, he asked me one day how the creative work was coming on for a new business presentation to Unilever. When I told him I was still waiting for the insight from the planners, he said: "Frank, planning is not about finding insights, which often don’t exist, but about helping you sell John Webster’s work to the client."
Webster, who was our quite brilliant creative director, often told me that if he couldn’t get a campaign together, it was probably because "there was a planner in the works".
I appreciate there has long been a debate about institutionalised planning and the contribution it can make to the creative work. There is currently a debate, even among clients, about what is planning’s actual contribution. The planner’s role is to search for an insight, which is then added to the creative brief; but the problem is there may not be an insight, at least not one that can come out of research.
Certainly, most of the campaigns that were produced at CDP, and at DDB, were not arrived at through planning because neither agency had planners. The other problem is that the search for insights often took so long that it ate into the time the creative department has to produce the work.
I accept that most agencies that believe in planning, or planners themselves, will not agree with me. So, it comes down to a situation where "you pays yer money, and you takes yer choice". Although I would invite dissenters to post evidence of where planning has been responsible for the creation of a truly great campaign, as opposed to a good or adequate campaign.
Before anybody comments on this, perhaps I should explain the role of planning at Lowe. It has been suggested that Geoff Howard-Spink was head of planning. This is not an adequate description of his role and contribution. I chose Geoff Howard-Spink as my partner because he was an excellent account director at CDP, but also had great skills in reading research and coming up with perceptive conclusions.
So, from the very beginning we agreed that I would be responsible for the creative work and he would be responsible for evaluating the research and helping me sell the work. It was almost a point of principle between us that we would not tread on each other’s toes.
Strategy evolved from discussions with the client, the planner, the account group and the creative department – all of whom brought differing and valuable skills. Strategy and insight were not simply the province of one department – and frequently, as I said earlier, there is often no insight that will lead to great creative work. In this situation, we would have to rely on the creative people, who tend to approach things from a totally different perspective. This is why they are creative people.
Back to the use of research. Bernbach said on advertising research that he considered it to be "the major culprit in the advertising picture today, having done more to perpetuate creative mediocrity than any other factor".
By this, I know that he did not mean the information that research supplies, but research that dictates what advertising will work best. I know this because I often discussed it with him.
Agencies and probably clients often use what they call "brainstorming sessions" to arrive at the strategy and even creative solutions. I would suggest that people think about this, as personally I’ve never found anything brilliant coming out of such sessions. As David Ogilvy once said: "Brainstorming sessions are the delight of sterile loafers who would rather fritter away their day in meetings than shut their doors and get down to work."
And then we come to tissue sessions, or creating a variety of campaign options, which I believe are truly an abrogation of the agency’s function. Again, in my own personal experience, I’ve never seen a great campaign being created using these methods, and there are certainly many downsides.
If clients ask for a variety of campaigns – let us say five – whether to be discussed in tissue sessions or put into research, this must waste a lot of the creative time, as only one in five campaign ideas (at best) can be run. This means that 80% of the creative department’s time is wasted, and I’d argue that this is not a way to incentivise creative people to produce their best work.
Better, in my view, to choose one brilliant creative team, and give them the responsibility of showing that brilliance. Many people may deem this risky but, in my experience, it has tended to produce the greatest advertising. Certainly, better than the "belt, braces and suspenders" method of the other option. Though the multiple-choice route does have the benefit of again abrogating the agency’s responsibility, putting the client in the position of judge and the research in the position of jury.
Henry Ford, when presenting the Model T in 1908 was asked whether he had consulted consumers about what they wanted. "No," he said, "they would probably have asked for a faster horse."
Another example of my experience and my concerns about asking consumers what campaign they will like is illustrated by the Heineken "Refreshes the parts other beers cannot reach" campaign – certainly one of the most recalled and liked in the history of British advertising.
After three months of creative endeavour, I presented the famous line on the back of a sick bag on an aeroplane, with one script ("Policemen’s feet"). The client was somewhat shocked, and asked for the first time whether we could do some focus groups. I told him that the campaign would not be particularly liked or indeed understood, which proved true, as a highly respected research company came back with the conclusion that "the campaign would be of no help in selling Heineken".
So awful were the results that we researched it again, with the same result. Never mind, said the client, you told me this would happen – let’s run it anyway. Thank you Tony Simmonds-Gooding (client) and Terry Lovelock (writer). The sales results were extraordinary, causing Heineken to become the best-selling lager in Britain.
C: Can we move on to the relative worth of the skills within an agency?
FL: Absolutely, because significant changes have taken place – particularly in the creative area.
At DDB and Wells Rich Greene, Bernbach and Wells told me that the creative salaries always accounted for between 40-50% of the total salary bill. At CDP, we tried to stick at around 40% because the first concern of the agency was to produce great advertising.
Current statistics that I have, from reliable sources, say that current spend on creative is between 17-20% of salary bills. So, we should not be surprised if the quality of work has changed.
C: What about client remuneration?
FL: At CDP, we lived on a 15% commission, which gave us the money to pay people properly, the freedom to experiment, to throw things away if we didn’t like them, to take the time we needed… all the things that were important in producing great advertising. So, if you realise that now an agency’s income has dropped to the equivalent of 8-8.5%, it doesn’t take much working out that the same level of quality cannot be achieved with half the money, even if you do take into account the efficiencies that technology brings.
C: What effect do you think the five major public advertising holding companies have had on the industry?
FL: There’s no doubt that they’ve had a major effect. George Lois, who was a partner at PKL in the US, one of the first creative agencies to go public back in the late 1960s, said of his experience: "In retrospect, public ownership was the catalyst for destroying our partnership. People became rich quick and choked up. They started to think, ‘We now have obligations to our stockholders.’"
So, the stockholders became the fourth set of people dining at the table. The client, the agency, the consumer and now the stockholder – another hungry mouth to feed out of your 8.5%. And probably the most important mouth, certainly as far as the major public companies are concerned, because that’s who they’re working for in the end. I have my doubts about whether advertising agencies should be part of public companies. I freely admit that I made this mistake myself, and certainly wouldn’t do it today.
The mega-groups have also been accused of being inflexible and hierarchical, lagging behind the transformation the business is experiencing. I also believe that their mass acquisition policy stole the entrepreneurial and creative spirit from many agencies as well as taking away their power to say no and to innovate, which is probably the reason why there are so many start-ups today.
C: What other important things have changed?
FL: I think that many people’s understanding of how brands succeed today has changed, which has led to the diminution of the importance of a brand’s image as part of the total communication offering – and this has inevitably led to a change in the role of advertising.
Chairman Mao, when asked what he thought were the effects of the French Revolution, replied: "Too soon to tell." I think my friend Tim Berners-Lee would probably say the same about the World Wide Web.
Personally, I think that so many things are changing so fast it is difficult to know where the future lies for advertising. There is no doubt that advertising has increasingly become sales promotion or brand-activation-led. This is due to technology, which has really constrained the ability to build brands on likeability and storytelling, although it has brought creative innovation in the guise of apps, interactivity and virtual reality.
Increasingly, brands are becoming the company behind the goods or services they provide – and likeability and empathy is also about a company’s ethics.
To the buying public, on-demand culture has reduced many aspects of value to what is available immediately, within a finger-click of desire. Now that people carry media around with them everywhere, advertisers have less incentive to create memorable brands. Instead, they concentrate on forcing our attention towards the offer of the moment.
So where has the creativity of charm and storytelling migrated to? It’s alive and flourishing in TV and film, where people still really like to watch medium and long-form content, and are showing signs of liking short-form brand activation ads less by using ad-blocking technology more and more.
And where does all this leave advertising agencies today? Probably with a bit of an identity crisis. Advertising was once a creative industry but now looks like a data-driven business, with brand-led advertising a relic of the past. And although creativity is still seen as the most valuable core asset an agency can offer, it’s highly questionable that this lies exclusively within the domain of the advertising agency, as it once did.
In conclusion, I’m hopeful that advertising will find a way forward that copes with all these changes, through brilliant creative thinking from a brilliant new generation. But if the current situation at times gets you down, then perhaps it’s worth remembering this little ditty: "The codfish lays 10,000 eggs; the humble hen lays one The codfish never cackles to tell you when she’s done And so, we scorn the codfish, while the humble hen we prize Which only goes to show you that it pays to advertise."
(Frank Lowe was the managing director of Collett Dickenson Pearce. This article first appeared in Campaign UK)
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