Just The Same And Completely Different

The approach to communications has remained pretty much unchanged for a lot longer than we realise, even if most of the detail is different, writes James Whitmore.

Dorothy L Sayers may not be to everyone’s taste. Her plots can take a while to unfold. But she is hot on social description and her 1933 mystery “Murder Must Advertise” gives a fabulous overview of life in an ad agency. She wrote from first-hand experience, having spent nine years as a copywriter at S H Benson (a forerunner of O&M).

The story covers murder and a cocaine ring at Pym’s Publicity, a leading agency. It is remarkably prescient. I once worked with someone who stood trial for poisoning his wife. In the 1990s, a real life drugs racket was unearthed in the post room of one of the big creative agencies.

Equally contemporary are the accounts of various fictional advertising campaigns. Take the description of Whifflets cigarettes. The idea resulted in a 500% increase in sales in three months.

“Whiffling-round Britain” was essentially a loyalty scheme. Buy a packet of gaspers and you would receive “money off” coupons, which could be redeemed against any number of options for holiday travel and accommodation.

There was a social element in that the vouchers could be swapped, thus bus journeys for nights in a B&B and so on. There was even a Whifflers Club. Successful Whifflers would have their photos printed in newspapers. The ads appeared in print and on posters. The communications mix even included a direct marketing programme. None of this is terribly different today.

So what has changed?

I don’t think it is the “ooh it’s so much more complicated today” mantra that has been a fixture all my working life. I’m not sure it’s true. At any particular time, the detail is as perplexing if you want to secure split-copy run for Whifflers as it is should you wish to execute some programmatic alchemy.

The real difference is the way that we do business. More specifically, it is the ascendancy of neo-liberal economics and the orthodoxy that everything, even intangibles such as your health and education, can be quantified and priced. This has also fundamentally changed the outlook of the creative professions.

Advertising took a while to fall into line but by the mid-1990s it too had got with the programme. The debate changed from “Is it a good idea – Do you think it will work? ” Let’s go” to “How do we demonstrate that it will not fail? – What’s the expected ROI?” As a result, we have gone from an inherently optimistic vocation to one that is by nature cautious.

Perhaps the emphasis is not so much on striving for the peak as ensuring that we do not fall off on the way up.

To the team at Pym’s Publicity, “What does success look like?” might be seen as a non-sequitur. It would be self-evident to them. Now it is an activity in its own right. As are many other forms of measuring and setting business targets. These bring a degree of certainty to what are very big investment decisions.

Let’s not forget that advertising is not cheap. But they also shift the focus away from generating competitive advantage by being more creative, in all senses of the word. Which is strange given that there is ample evidence that award winning work results in business success. Today, unless they can identify a monopoly niche, companies tend to grow by dint of financial engineering, mergers etc. – and less often by thinking more smartly.

In some ways Dorothy L Sayers would have fitted seamlessly into our world. The approach to communications is pretty much unchanged, even if most of the detail is different. Alien to her would be the pseudo science and mathematical administration to which we are addicted. She would wonder why so much resource is allotted to ensuring that we match the average – when we might be using all our time to think of clever ways to sell more fags.

This piece was originally produced for Mediatel Newsline.

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