Yellow Pages

J.R. Hartley Yellow Pages: how would today's marketers reimagine this classic ad campaign?


By Justin Pearse, Managing Director, The Drum Works

April 26, 2016 | 8 min read

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The Reimagining Advertising campaign, created in partnership with GumGum, is asking a panel of ten marketers how they would reimagine seminal ads from the pre-digital age to find out how today’s leading advertising thinkers would reinvent them with the current digital tools at their disposal.

In the final article in the series, Nicky Bullard, Incoming Chairman & Chief Creative Officer, MRM Meteorite; Nicolas Roope, Executive Creative Director & Co-Founder, Poke; Jon Wilkins, Executive Chairman, Karmarama; and Ben Plomion, SVP Marketing, GumGum reimagine the J.R. Hartley Yellow Pages ads.

J. R. Hartley is a fictional character who tugged at the public’s heartstrings. He was featured in a 1983 British Yellow Pages ad, created by Abbott Mead Vickers for British Telecom.

The ad depicts an elderly gentleman looking for a copy of Fly Fishing, by J. R. Hartley. We see him go from one second-hand bookshop to the next, always failing to find it. Returning home, his daughter hands him the Yellow Pages so he can continue his search from the comfort of a living room chair. Finally, a shop has the book and he’s clearly delighted.

The last words we hear are, ‘My name? Oh, yes, it’s J. R. Hartley.’ The ad was voted into the top 15 of Britain’s 2000 “Greatest TV Ads” poll. More telling, it prompted numerous inquiries to the British Library and bookshops.

Eight years after it first appeared, author Michael Russell ghost wrote Fly Fishing: Memories of Angling Days by J.R. Hartley, which was published by Random House. The book was a bestseller in the 1991 holiday season and is still available on Amazon.

How would our panellists reimagine this iconic ad?

Emotion-scanning search, with programmatic chucked in: Nicky Bullard, Incoming chairman & chief creative officer, MRM Meteorite

Yellow Pages has always been about search, and it was Mr. H’s search for his beloved book that first demonstrated the non-business value of the directory. And although we may be tempted to consider the Yellow Pages obsolete, it’s actually used by 80 million people each month.

Search is all about hunting stuff down; it requires people make an effort in a world where the effortless is king. What if we could make that easier? People have physical manifestations when something piques our interest or reminds us of an urgent task.

What if the Yellow Pages picked up on those behaviours, and served up relevant businesses and tradesmen to help us get them done? Here’s the idea: A Yellow Pages widget is downloaded to a person’s desktop.

Through the webcam, the widget picks up when the user is frustrated, excited, or disgusted by the contents of the screen, and serves up ads for local businesses that can help. Let’s say a consumer is reading an article about income tax on the Guardian’s website, and the emotion scanner detects worry.

The Yellow Pages leverages programmatic advertising to select the right ad – perhaps the contact details of a local accountant just down the road. Or to bring it back to the original ad, let’s say I’m looking for my great-grandfather, J.R. Hartley, on the census. The widget sees my excitement when I see his name and up pops a local historian’s details – along with a bookshop that has a first edition in stock

Ads as culture makers and business developers that go beyond mere ‘promotion’: Nicolas Roope, executive creative director & co-founder, Poke

Here’s a fun fact: This ad was actually updated in the early 2000s by, and I was the creative director.

The J.R. Hartley ad is so well known that we could use him as a cultural reference to show just how irrelevant the Yellow Pages has become, and to promote the technology that now replaces them. In this case, I’d use Amazon.

The idea: J.R. Hartley still visits bookstores looking for his book, but they’re not there any more. He calls their numbers, but the phone lines have been disconnected.

Then we’d start to see him across the internet looking for is book. For instance, he’d be in a YouTube pre-roll (‘I know you want to see Beyoncé’s Crazy in Love, but if you see Fly Fishing by J.R. Hartley would you please let me know?’), or in display ads near articles on fishing or book reviews.

We can even target the mobile devices of people inside bookstores. Towards the end of the campaign we see the story’s closure: The supportive daughter figure hands J.R. his book on a Kindle Fire and he looks jolly happy. But then drops it in a river!

When people participate in the search, the ads are no longer confined to promotions, they become culture makers, as the original ad did. And, like Michael Russell did with his book, it can lead to new business development opportunities.

Replace fiction with real stories: Jon Wilkins, executive chairman, Karmarama

In the 1980s, advertising was used to dramatise this poor old man’s search, but that won’t work today. People don’t buy into fiction anymore; they want reality. We want to engage with a story and help affect its outcome, and the technology allows this to happen.

To update this ad, I’d recruit 10 people – authors, musicians, poets – who’ve genuinely lost track of their creative works. Then I’d use the power of social networks and search to connect them to their original assets, and celebrate that event. In other words, create mini-reality episodes, with real outcomes.

If J.R. Hartley were a real person, we’d show him visiting the fly-fishing Facebook page, which has 290,000+ active members, one of whom could probably help him find his book.

To distribute the videos, we’d place them one click away from the behaviour we’re aspiring to. For instance, staying with the assumption that J.R. Hartley is real, I’d show a pre-roll video of him asking for help to people who are about to view a YouTube video on how to cast a fishing line.

The end frame would say, ‘Type in your search now.’

Instant gratification of shopping urges: Ben Plomion, SVP Marketing, GumGum

The Yellow Pages was introduced to help consumers find the right business for a specific need.

But the digital age has changed that. Looking for bookshops in the Yellow Pages is unreasonable; it’s even too much to ask people to visit a Yellow Pages site. The whole search component needs to be closer to where the consideration behaviour occurs.

To update this ad, I’d place, What are you looking for today’ overlay ads on a variety of products that can be hard to find, like antiques or rare music recordings.

The ad could link to a Yellow Pages search engine, which then goes out to find where that item can be found. We can also use shoppable video ads or hot-spot ads that allow people to hover over images for products they may want, such as the shoes Beyoncé wore on the red carpet.

Going further, we can create a Yellow Pages widget that consumers install in their browsers and activate at will. So if a consumer really likes the jeans Beyoncé is wearing in a photo, she can turn on the widget, hover over the image, find a retailer and complete the purchase without ever clicking away from the screen.

Yellow Pages

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