Biggest fuck up?
Over the last 15 years, there’s been plenty of moments that – at the time – looked like Mr Fuck Up had taken up permanent residence in the studio.
Mostly, what appeared to be career-ending stupidity, turned out to be a mistake on the artwork, a cost to redo and a grovel to the client. We just naturally sprinkle problems with drama and panic. That’s how agencies invariably work.
That’s how people work.
But there is one moment that stands out because it wasn’t anyone else’s fault. In fact, no one else was even involved. I carry the entire weight of responsibility for actions that were entirely mine.
Although 10 years on, and since the death threats have stopped, there’s part of me that is secretly pleased to have this anecdote. So here goes…
We used to have a sex toy retailer as a client. You’ll know them (even though you claim you don’t). We worked alongside Lowe Group, developing the brand and proposition, and then embarked on the challenge of ‘taking the brand mainstream.’
They wanted to be known for sexual well-being rather than as a dildo supermarket with cock rings at the checkout. We figured we needed a TV ad. But a TV ad that could run before the 9 pm watershed. And run on the most mainstream TV channels. So we set our sights on ITV.
If you’re not from the UK, this will mean nothing, so let me briefly explain:
ITV has very little in the way of ‘edge’. It’s the channel that gave us Downton Abbey, Who Wants To Be A Millionaire? and is the home of every talent show Simon Cowell has ever produced.
It’s the perfect place to persuade the chattering classes to lube up and get their vibe on. But as you can imagine, that takes some work. The challenge was to create a sex toy ad with no sex or toys in it. And if you’re going pre-watershed, it absolutely cannot offend anyone.
In fact, as we discovered at the time, for a brand that sells Rampant Rabbits and Nipple Clamps, the advert itself needed to be, well, a bit boring.
It took us 6 months to get an idea through the broadcasting regulator. What’s the ad like? It’s simply a white, heterosexual, married couple having a snog as the husband leaves for work. Imagine a 1950s suburban ideal with all the social constructs still in place. That’s what we were allowed to run.
But still, these 30 seconds of slow-motion tongue tennis (there are no actual tongues in the clip) changed everything. An outraged press declared the downfall of civilisation and gave acres of column inches to discussing the spot, the pre-watershed placement, and most importantly, the brand. In fact, The Mail Online wrote a suitably flame-fanning editorial and linked to the ad. It was viewed 2 million times in 2 hours.
Was it a success? Yes. In the UK, it started a public conversation about sex and sexuality that went from broadsheets to radio phone-ins, to the 10 o’clock news, to the House of Commons. Did it increase sales? Hell yes. Over the next 6 months, the brand started outselling its nearest competitor 3-1.
Doesn’t sound like a problem right? Well, no. Until I went and opened my big fat mouth.
During the furore at home, I was interviewed by a number of news outlets, and I stuck to the party line. ‘Sexual wellbeing’, ‘opening up about our sex lives,’ ‘embracing our sexual needs and therefore improved mental and physical health’. I was a model spokesperson. And then CNN got wind of the news from across the pond. And since we were due to launch the brand in the States, they naturally wanted a quote. They called me the ‘architect’ of this controversial TVC.
Everything was going well – I was sticking to the script – and then they pulled out a public statement released by The Christian Fellowship of America, which called the campaign an ‘abomination, created by pornographers to warp the minds of the American people.’
Red rag. Meet bull.
I told CNN: ‘If the CFA are upset by white, married couples expressing their desire for one another, they’ll probably find the latest cut – featuring an interracial, gay male couple, unpalatable. But that’s their problem, not ours.’
No such cut existed.
I was provoking the already angry mob. Needless to say, they were well and truly ‘provoked’. It was like I had set off a PR hand grenade. One that had blown up in my face, causing a hail of hysteria so vocal and extreme that the US launch had to be paused. A very public apology was given. A very angry client had to be placated, and the end of my brief tenure as spokesperson for the campaign.
It also was the end of the sex toys gig.
What lessons did I learn? Well, thankfully, we’ve never done anything as culturally derisive, so I’ve never found myself in a situation even close to what I experienced back then. But if I could do it all again? I’d probably say the same stupid thing. Because I can’t be trusted in the face of such stupidity.
As a brand-first agency, we spend a lot of time debating and getting into the nuance of brand. But the most keenly felt argument we take part in is around the difficult subject of purpose. And the truth is, as an industry, we don’t like brand purpose anymore.
We all liked the idea; we read the books and went to talks and nodded along. We watched Simon Sinek on YouTube, and it all felt exciting and simple and new. But we got punch drunk on our own Kool-Aid. We took Sinek seriously, filling his pockets with increasing denominations and marketers’ minds with vacuous platitudes.
People don’t buy your ‘why’. They buy your value to them. But that didn’t stop the industry. It doubled down, climbing the brand ladder to ever headier heights of nonsense.
Brand purpose gave us soft drinks that celebrate social rebellion, razor blades that slash toxic masculinity, and banks that fearlessly challenge gender equality. We summoned forth an army of corporate emperors, wearing societal change like a finely stitched cape, twirled for our appreciation.
Brands need a purpose. They need to be purposeful. They need to make products people want, services people need and find their role in people’s lives.
They don’t need to change the world.
Often, they just need to pay their taxes.
Let’s get back to purpose. When it meant what you do and how you do it.
A little ‘why’ is a powerful thing. But don’t get carried away. You’ll look like a cunt.
As an industry, we love to talk endlessly about ‘the work’. We wax lyrical about the art and the creative fever that goes with the process. The desire to push harder, to change the game, to challenge for change.
And all of this is fine. It’s right. But we shouldn’t lose sight of the fact that we are in the business of selling. You’re selling ideas. Your ideas need to be sold.
Welcome to the sales department. Might as well stop kidding yourself and get to work. That means selling. Stuff. Hopefully, lots of it.
Hopefully, it’s good, fairly sourced, responsibly produced, artisanal-inspired stuff. But stuff nonetheless. And that’s fine. Because that is what you trained for. That is what you wanted when you signed up, you just didn’t know it yet. But the first time you do a review, the first draw of breath before you present, you’ll know. You’re here to get a result.
We make commercial art. Art that moves people.
To want and need.
We make films to remember, pages you stop at, bus stops you laugh at, billboards you read twice a day, and logos you trust.
So say that.
Prove that you can do it. Be excited by the opportunity and intrigued by the potential. Create stuff that you think others will love. Don’t do it for yourself. Play to the crowd. Roar like a lion but don’t covet one. Make them believe.
That’s what you’re paid for.
So, get your head around that first. Accept and embrace that we’re selling things, and then get going. There’s nothing wrong with making work that works. In fact, that literally is the job.
Further reading: For an honest look at the industry, you can’t do better than reading Delusions of Brandeur by Ryan Wallman, AKA @dr_draper – it’s the most razor-sharp take on adland out there, and it will give you the badly needed dose of reality that we can all benefit from.