Guinness's Surfer at 20: five learnings from the greatest ad of all time

Hundreds of times every day, you’ll come across a bad ad.

Every so often, you may see a decent ad.

On rare occasions, you may come across a good, maybe even great, ad.

And then there are those golden moments, scarce as hen’s teeth, when you witness something really special.

A bona fide, gonna-mop-up-at-Cannes classic.

Disregard even those. And finally you’ll end up with Surfer.

The AMV BBDO classic for Guinness is, quite simply, the best TV advert ever made. Don’t take my word for it, take the 15,000 votes made in last year’s BBH Labs World Cup of Ads, which saw the public choose the spot as the greatest of all time. Beating Just Do It. Beating Gorilla. Beating 1984.

So it was only right that, as the ad was celebrating its 20th birthday and The Drum had taken over a pub, the creators of Surfer got together to tell the story of how the campaign came about.

While enjoying tales of battling big waves, an insistence on travelling to Hawaii for the shoot and learning that Walter Campbell, the art director on the campaign, hasn’t even tasted Guinness, we were also treated to some key takeaways that helped make the ad so special and still apply to anyone wanting to make great advertising today. Here are some of my favourites…

Be relentless.

The conversation quite rightly started with the screening of ‘Swimblack’, the 1998 ad that preceded Surfer. A brilliant spot in its own right, it was AMV’s first for Guinness and restored the brand’s faith in iconic cinematic work. Yet despite a strong start, a follow-up ad was by no means guaranteed. Even when Andy Fennell, Guinness’ marketer, had bought into it, it took a year of argument-building to finally get the work signed off by the top brass and the ad to get made.

You probably won’t get 12 months to make a TV ad nowadays, Fennell admitted, but the message still resonates: if you believe in an idea, then don’t take no for an answer. If others need convincing, convince them. It’s easy to do something easier. But easy rarely equals brilliance. Don’t let a good idea lie…

Trust yourself.

…Which bring us neatly on to the concept of trust. If you believe in something, you have to be able to back yourself when the going gets tough. Spending months hassling your bosses for agreement is one thing, continuing to pursue an idea that even research is telling you doesn’t resonate is another.

According to Fennell, Millward Brown said the ad performed terribly. And so often that results in an ad getting diluted down. But Fennell ignored the research. He trusted his instinct that the campaign would work. It’s fair to say his trust in himself was well placed.

Trust others, too.

There was a clear rapport during the discussion between Fennell and Campbell. And that seemed to boil down to respect. Respect for each other’s work, and each other’s opinion. That’s not to say there weren’t disagreements during the production of Surfer (even questioning whether the ad should be in black and white, and whether the horses were really needed) but both seemed to know where the others’ expertise lay, and neither would be too proud to concede an argument if the other felt more strongly than them about a facet of the ad.

Learn from the past.

There’s a weird ego-centric view among some modern creatives that they don’t want to see or care about what’s come before, as it’ll prevent them from coming up with something new and unique. I’ve heard the argument more than once, and I find it depressing. If Campbell had disregarded advertising’s past, we may not have one of the most iconic straplines of all time.

To prepare for the Guinness work, Campbell pored over old ads from the late, great David Abbott and found a common theme: many contained the word ‘good’ in the slogan. Most notably, BT’s ‘It’s good to talk’. Even Guinness previously used it with the line ‘Guinness is good for you’. With a desire to keep the word at its heart, ‘Good things come to those who wait’ was born. It debuted in the Swimblack ad and set the stall for Surfer. Good work.

Consistency can be the enemy.

Fennell readily admitted that marketers today produce more content in a day than he used to produce in a year. Among the challenges that presents is unifying all the work being produced. And that quest for integration is at the detriment of quality. “Almost all of the impact that my consumers had was through an advert,” he said. “Now increasing fragmentation has changed that. It’s not just about brilliance, it’s about consistency.”

This means that marketers will too often go for what’s safe. They don’t have the luxury to take a risk and get it wrong. Or create something standout that doesn’t fit in with the wider channel plan. Fennell admitted this means he has ‘a lot more 3 out of 10s’ in his locker than many marketers who consistently produce 6 out of 10 work. But he also has the (unofficial) greatest ad ever produced on his resume. What would you prefer?

Matt Williams is head of content at MSQ Partners

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