After a deluge of ‘we’re in it together’ ads during the pandemic, Creature founder Dan Cullen-Shute has a yearning for proper advertising. Advertising that understands and cares about its audience. So, for his second in a monthly column series, he has sent out a call for ads to be more audience-led.
I can’t be the only one who, since we (*touches wood furiously*) left lockdown behind and began to feel waves of pandemic positivity wash over us, has started to feel a little, well, lonely.
I mean, there are the little, obvious things. Like the fact that now, with schools and nurseries open, I can occasionally actually be on my own. After months of having next to no choice about whether, or not, I was surrounded by people all the time, suddenly looking up to realize that I’m surrounded by nobody – or, worse, surrounded by strangers – is fairly discombobulating.
That, though, isn’t the sort of loneliness I’m talking about. I’m talking about a deeper, more visceral sense of loneliness. Of abandonment, even, by the one group I had come to believe would never let me down.
I’m talking, of course, about brands.
The sofa warehouses. The apps. The banks. The cereal bars. Since March 2020, the one solid gold certainty in this wobbly tinpot world was that we were all in it together. Sure, it was rarely clear what ‘it’ was, and it was increasingly unclear in what way all these brands and I were in whatever it was together, but in it together we were.
And I know this to be the case because I was constantly reassured that we were in it together in every ad break and every ident that sandwiched them. While the real world might have been defined by pandemics and positive PCRs, from a marketing point of view this was the era of brands really getting me and my situation, and of showing that they really got me and my situation by telling me, time and again, that not only did they really get me and my situation, but they were actually in that situation, together, with me.
Where are you now, brands? Where are you now?
Truth be told, of course, I’m not actually missing the brands, because we weren’t, at any point, in it together. After all, I was a 40-year-old bloke trying to keep my family safe and my business alive, and they were, well, brands. Businesses. Logos, livery and the like, and they wanted me to buy their stuff.
At Creature, we have something we call the ‘Comedian Principle’: don’t tell me you’re funny, make me laugh. In this instance, I guess we’re talking about a ‘Needy Boyfriend Principle’, and frankly it wasn’t long before I’d had my fill of them turning up on my doorstep at 2am, singing my favorite Beyoncé song and telling me that they’d always love me. Figuratively speaking, I mean.
Don’t get me wrong: I know how hard it was to make good ads last year. A combination of everyone being scared and sad, and the fact that you couldn’t shoot anything anyway, meant that it was never likely to be a vintage year across the board, but I’m not sure that excuses lazy planning. And ‘we’re in it together’ felt, for the most part, like extremely lazy planning.
All of which gave me a yearning for proper advertising. Advertising that understood its audience, that cared about its audience, and that strove to give its audience something a bit different. Advertising that respected its audience and, in doing so, rewarded people for watching it.
In a world where global marketing research and effectiveness company System1 has just reported that Cannes Lions winners from the UK and US scored worse than an average TV ad on effectiveness, it felt like we as an industry had just taken our eye off the audience-shaped ball. This was an audience that, as Jon Evans at S1 put it, “needed uplifting, not reminding”: like that let-it-go-mate boyfriend, we chose to tell people what we thought we should be saying, rather than thinking about what they might want to hear.
It doesn’t have to be like that. I thought of beer. Of Stella Artois spotting that everyone, whether they are drinking in a rooftop hotel bar or a Wetherspoons in Newport, wants to feel like they are indulging in a little bit of luxury from time to time.
Of Heineken, still, probably the only drinks brand to nail ‘refreshment’, despite the best efforts of literally every other brand since.
I thought of Carling Black Label, celebrating amazingness – and yes, I thought of our more recent take on the brand, celebrating the unique British ability to celebrate failure with a touch more joy than we embrace success, while every other brand tried to be the cool kid at the party.
I thought of the Hofmeister Bear (bloody love that bear), and of Droga’s new work for BrewDog that’s just bloody funny.
I thought of the Paralympics, even as they were postponed, and the incredible combination of 4Creative, Public Enemy and some genuinely incredible human beings making the world care in ways they’d never thought possible.
I thought of washing detergent, which, yes, probably means I need to get out more, but even *that* realization just made me think of Persil, and their belief that pulling their enemy close and celebrating dirt was, sure, a way to stand out from their competitors, but also a way to make real people care viscerally about the brand and the world it allowed.
I thought of the Commandos telling 99% of people to jog on. Of the AA adroitly sneaking their name alongside the police, ambulances and fire engines. Of Super Noodles celebrating their cheap and cheerful convenience when other brands might have tried to hide it. Of Ray Gardner using a fizzy drink and a foreign exchange student to pick a fight with France. Of Lurpak celebrating the cooking people liked to *think* they’d be doing, not the toast they’d normally be settling for...
And, ultimately, I thought of how many of my favorite ads over the years are borne of genuinely innovative thinking and genuinely surprising customer understanding. Now, I’m not a planner, which means I get to toss around words like ‘insight’ without really worrying too much about whether I’m using them right. But I can say with confidence that, with the odd notable exception (Virgin Mobile doing for ‘connection’ what Heineken once did for ‘refreshment’ and Natwest zigging while other banks zagged spring to mind), far too much of the last year’s work has been sadly short of insight.
At Creature, we talk about the difference between a universal insight (where you zoom out so far from the audience that everyone looks pretty much the same) and a unifying insight (where you dig so deep you find an insight or observation that unifies or unites seemingly disparate groups of people), and it’s fair to say that global pandemics bring with them the most universal of insights. And maybe I’m wrong. Maybe people felt comforted by the sofa folk, supported by the banks, and consoled by all the shiny D2C brands they’d never heard of before. Perhaps we were all allowed a year off; but fuck me, I’m glad it’s over, and that we can get back to making great work that real people can’t help but care about.
Dan Cullen-Shute is chief executive and founder of Creature of London. He tweets at @creature_dan.