The controversial advertsSometimes I feel a little like Daniel in the lion’s den, being an English Bastard working on the pride of Scotland. But there is nothing I can do about that. It is just an accident of place. But I’ve had a great 12 years so far.
Where did it all begin? How did we get to be with The Leith Agency? I inherited Made In Scotland From Girders from Lowe Howard Spink – a very famous campaign, with enormous levels of awareness and recognition. It had been heralded as some of the best advertising for any brand in the UK market over the last 15 years. No doubt at all, it was extremely creative. You might think a tough act to follow but it had some flaws too.
We had a bit of a problem with Irn-Bru. We have two markets – a market in Scotland, where it is referred to as a fabric brand, where we have to do all the cuddling and cosseting that keeps people very familiar and happy at being associated with the brand. And then you have a market in England, which, certainly in my first five years at the company, was referred to as the export market. We found it very, very difficult to sell Irn Bru in England, particularly in the south of England. There were various misconceptions about it – what it was, if it was a sports drink or a beer. Over the years that’s changed ... thankfully. We have done a bit of a job in moving that perception on. Nevertheless, it is still an issue. We have something like 50 per cent market share in Scotland and three-and-a-half in England and Wales. That is quite a challenge.
The first thing that I did when I joined Barr’s in 1993 was to create the third in the trilogy of the Made in Scotland From Girders campaign. So, off I went, packed my bag, to find a lovely little beach in New Zealand – as it was shot in New Zealand, much to the shock and horror of some of Scotland’s news editors.
Then, having spent £500,000 in making that film, and two-and-a-half weeks of my life, we came back, just after Christmas, to hear that the agency was to resign the business as they were going to take a commission from Coke on Sprite.
As you can imagine, that went down a treat. With that, we were into a full pitch, despite the fact that Coke had very kindly offered to let us co-exist with Sprite in Lowe Howard. But we felt we had no choice.
So we went into the pitch, which included a quirky little Scottish agency that I had never really heard of, yet had caught my eye. We had had a list of four agencies – three of them London agencies and this small, quirky agency called The Leith Agency.
On this occasion, interestingly enough, The Leith did not win. We appointed a company called Bartle Bogle Hegarty, who created a campaign for us that was massively and – I’m very grateful to say – instantly forgettable. It was a campaign called Think Different, Drink Different. Two very expensive commercials. Hardly anyone, apart from me – I have the scars to prove it – remembers it.
“Funnily” enough, six months later BBH resigned the account to take on business from Coke. At this point, I was starting to take it personally. I figured perhaps Coke was following me around London. Of course, that’s not true, but it was starting to irritate me a bit.
So, at that point, we didn’t bother having a pitch. The Leith had impressed us a lot with what they had said and what they had done when they initially presented. And, at this point, having already appointed a “provincial” agency (BDH) to Tizer (in 1993), who were showing all the signs of giving us exactly what we wanted, providing exactly the right levels of service, giving us the collaborative relationship that we were looking for, and adding a great deal to the thinking process. So we thought, let’s give The Leith a go. We didn’t have a lot to lose and if we went to someone else in London, the bastards at Coke would no doubt chase us out of there as well.
Since then we have had further issues, with our media buying, that have forced us to move on from CIA Mediaedge to PHD and it really pisses me off. To get results I need loyalty, whether or I am the largest client on the books or not.
For me, the most important part of a relationship is trust. Trust between a company and an agency is a two-way street – particularly in the situation that we found ourselves in. We had already been let down twice by two very large and, supposedly, agencies of integrity. At that point we were a little battered and bruised and we needed stability. We needed an agency with huge levels of desire. We needed an agency that was, nevertheless, capable of very strong creative work. And I guess, although we didn’t tell them at the time, we needed an agency that we believed were in it for the long haul.
The only difficulty that I had in convincing the company to appoint The Leith Agency was that they were not based in London. I was a bit fortunate that John Denholm (The Leith Agency chairman) had just hired Charlie Robertson, a Scotsman who had previously been planning director at a very large London agency – Bartle Bogle Hegarty. We realised that we had a huge planning task in getting away from the Made in Scotland From Girders campaign. We used this to sway the decision and it worked – although, in the end, it didn’t quite work out in the way that we planned. But that didn’t matter, it was certainly the right decision.
The issue for us was finding a creative solution that was suitable, not only for Scots, who loved the brand, but also for the English, who didn’t know anything about it.
Soft drinks are a particularly difficult subject. They are all fizzy, they are all sweet and they all – on the whole – taste nice. They are all functionally the same. And it is even more difficult when it comes to Irn Bru. Coke, you can talk about the lifestyle. But go out to the streets of any Scottish city and ask the punters ... these guys live and breathe Irn Bru. “It’s just Irn Bru.” “It’s magic.” It’s a great position to be in, but it’s a pain in the arse when it comes to developing a creative strategy.
So, we were going to have to talk about the attitude – as there was nothing else. It tastes great and you can tell people it tastes great but you are going to have to give them a hook on which they can try it to believe it tastes great – particularly in England. Very importantly, we had to decide what it would say – not only to those who knew all about Irn Bru but couldn’t tell us what it was, but also to the consumers who didn’t know anything about Irn Bru and didn’t give a shit what it was.
The important aspect was that it had to be funny. It is all built around a key phrase of the 90s– the likeable Maverick.
Strategic objectives are critical. The agreed objectives should be to achieve the most cost-effective solution to the given business communication problems. If the objectives are not defined in unemotional terms, in quantifiable terms and measurable terms, it is inevitable that they will lead to a problem. Because we had a problem with Irn Bru, we tried to define the role of planning to maintain the loyalty in Scotland while enticing loyalty in England.
There are key responsibilities for both the client and the agency. For the client it is being able to define the strategic framework within which everyone is working. For the agency it is having the self-discipline to work within the agreed framework. I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve seen creative work (and I’m not talking about The Leith) put forward that’s miles off strategy because it’s bloody funny. It might be short-term funny but it will not do the job in the long run.
Now, I don’t believe in pre-testing ads – no matter how far you go, unless you create a finished ad it is almost impossible to get a real indication of how well it will work. We have always used post-tracking as the measurement for how well our adverts are communicating. So, before you make the commitment and take the gamble to spend the money to produce the ad, there is nothing other than judgement. That is a collective thing and we all live and die by the judgements that we make. And we don’t always get it right.
The Cow poster (“When I’m a burger I want to be washed down by Irn Bru”) was a great piece of advertising. It delivered in spades against what we wanted to do – what we wanted to say, how we were trying to communicate. Everything about it was perfect, with one small exception. We completely miscalculated the levels of outrage that this particular poster would produce. To The Leith Agency’s credit, they fielded the irate and sometimes tearful complaints. I myself sat at my desk and listened to a 54-year-old lady with a calliper on her leg, who was wailing down the phone that if we didn’t take the poster down, she would personally get her step ladder out and remove it herself. The advert received more complaints than any previous ad that’s been complained about to the ASA.
Some people think that we court that controversy and that publicity. To an extent, it is possibly true. But we certainly don’t want to do that. We don’t want to upset people. What we try to do is intrude into their life with what is a very passive medium in a humorous way.
Caption: Clockwise from top left:A marketing director’s best friend - Nigel Dugdale of Irn Bru with David Amers and Phil Adams of The Leith Agency.