Can experience and passion spark a new, creative revolution

About a week ago I saw a short note in Bob Hoffman’s newsletter about “London’s newest and oldest agency”. Ancient & Modern is both completely new and at the same time the oldest agency in town, since the average age of the three founders is 64 years. Something they do not conceal, even though ageism in the UK is as widespread as in Sweden.

But, this is however not a group of senior rookies, but three extremely well-qualified gentlemen.

Adrian Holmes, copywriter, who was, among other things, CCO at Lowe and Partners Worldvide and chairman of D&AD.

John O’Driscoll, art director and founding partner at Lowe Howard-Spinks and once commercial director at Paul Weiland Film Company.

Sam O’Farrell, a strategist with a background from AMV BBDO and BBH with extensive experience in behavioral strategy.

When I posted a note about the agency on my social platforms, I received many comments and praise about the three founders.

So, I was curious and contacted them to find out more about the agency and their views on advertising and creativity.

Adrian Holmes responded quickly, telling me that he used to come to Sweden quite often during the Lowe era and loved the Swedes’ way of saying “yes” on an inhalation.

We have had a mail-dialogue, which I am happy to share, and I will just reproduce his answers to my questions:

What made you decide to start an agency together right now? 

The fact is, John, Seamus and I have already been together as a team for nearly two years. The partnership is working really well, we’re having a lot of fun, so we thought we’d formalise the arrangement by launching ourselves as Ancient & Modern. 

(That’s the title you’ll find on most hymn books in English churches by the way: ‘Hymns Ancient & Modern’. So now you know where our name comes from.)The three of us bring very different skills to the table (copy, art direction, strategy), yet we all share the same strong sense of mission: to start a company that creates the kind of advertising that we believe in, using only the traditional media of TV, print and radio. 

In essence, what we’re trying to return to is ‘proper ads’ – by which we mean ads that are well-crafted, have a degree of wit and charm, and credit our audience with some intelligence.

We’re convinced there’s a pent-up demand for the return of this ‘classic’ advertising. Certainly we’ve had an amazingly supportive reaction to our own launch ad for Ancient & Modern. So many emails from all over the world saying ‘At last, a nicely laid-out and decently written ad. Thank you!’  Even Tony Brignull, arguably the greatest living copywriter in the UK, emailed us last week to say ‘You’ve restored my faith in advertising’.

The point is, the three of us have been watching with despair as our beloved industry has gradually slipped from being a joyful art to a dreary science. Now it’s a grey world of data, analytics, algorithms, ‘performance marketing’ and all the rest of it. In our own small way we hope to fight back and regain control of the creative territory we once proudly owned.

It’s worth remembering this: advertising in the 1950s was terrible and was saved by the ‘creative revolution’ of the 1960s. Well, we think advertising right now is pretty terrible again, and it’s about time a second creative revolution came along.

In your ad and on your website,  you use your age as an argument (and USP?). I interpret it as an argument for the value of experience. Am I right or is it more of just a humorous twist?

What would you say are the major arguments for age and experience in this business?

Of course we made play of our advancing years in Ancient & Modern’s launch ad, if only to prove we had sense of humour. 

But in doing so, we also wanted to make a serious point. That when you’ve been in the business as long as we have, you have something that young people don’t possess: what you might call ‘the perspective of years’. 

We’ve learnt from all our mistakes, we know what works and what doesn’t, and how to avoid the blind alleys. I happen to think all this sharpens our creativity. As we say in our launch ad, “we might not get to the top of the stairs as fast as our younger rivals, but we like to think we’ll arrive at a great advertising idea before they do”.

Remember that story about Picasso doodling with a pencil on a restaurant table cloth. 

His dining companion is so amazed by the drawing, he asks if he can buy it. 

Picasso replies “sure, you can have it for 50,000 francs”. 

“But Pablo, that only took you five minutes!” 

“Correction”, says Picasso. “It took me 65 years, and five minutes”.

Is there, generally, a problem with ageism in Britain as well as in Sweden? Especially in the marketing and advertising business? Here we focus on young both in the agencies (the creatives) and outside (the target groups – even millennials are soon getting too old).

Yes, no doubt that there’s ageism in the UK ad industry. If you’re 30, you’re already considered by many to be over the hill, which is just ridiculous. 

I blame agency managements. To cut costs (otherwise known as ‘the race to the bottom’), they seem to have got rid of a lot of the people who knew what they were doing, and have left the new generation to figure things out for themselves. And looking at today’s creative output, I’m not sure how good a job they’re doing of it.

“Ah,” the average 25-year-old will say, “but back then, your generation had weeks to work on briefs. Today, everything’s so much faster – we’re only given days, sometimes hours to turn things round. And you had much bigger budgets to play with, too.” 

Yes, I have to admit, we did have it easier, much easier. What’s more, we had our own office to work in. With a door.

Even so, I feel a lot of love has gone out of the creative process, and it would be great to see young writers and art directors re-discover the sheer fun that can be had making ads.

As you’ve been around a while, you have obviously seen the changes that have affected both creativity, advertising and effectivity in a negative way – I’m thinking about the increased focus on short term activation and personalization of advertising, the change from a balance between the right and the left side of the brain to a unilateral focus on the left hemisphere etc. 

Do you have any comments to that?

Ah, yes, the left hand side of the brain – the side that secretly wants to be an accountant. There’s a very good new book on that subject which has just been published by the IPA, one of the professional advertising bodies in the UK. It’s called ‘Lemon’, written by a very clever guy called Orlando Wood (full disclosure: we wrote and designed the cover for it). 

It’s a very interesting read: using examples of art down the ages, it describes how the left brain has gained supremacy over the right, to the huge detriment of advertising creativity. It’s already become the IPA’s fastest-ever selling publication, and I hope this is another sign that the creative tide may be turning.

But for a real change to occur, it’s the client community we have to convince –  because they’re the ones who have seemingly fallen in love with the world of data and analytics, and what they see as its instant measurability and cheapness. The only thing that will convince them is to prove that ‘right brain’ work will actually do a far better job of building their brand for them. And that won’t happen until agencies start creating amazingly good right-brain work for them to buy. It’s down to us, in other words.

/Your can read more about Lemon here/

Do you have any recommendations for the agencies – or for the clients (or both) – on how to regain effectiveness in creative advertising?

There are many answers to that question – but my favourite one is to bring back the long-running campaign.

I think advertisers and agencies have largely lost the art of creating consistent, long-term campaigns based around one central thought. ‘Stella Artois. Reassuringly Expensive.’ ‘If only everything in life was as reliable as a Volkswagen’. ‘Persil. Dirt is good’ (I’ll own up to that last one). 

A proper campaign is by far the best way to build up a brand in the consumer’s mind. Find one thing to say, and keep saying it – inventively, unexpectedly, charmingly – and the audience will begin to realise what you stand for. Once you’ve got yourself a strong campaign idea, you are the proud possessor of gold dust – and what’s more, you don’t have to keep worrying what next year’s advertising will be about. 

I think part of the reason campaigns have fallen out of favour is that CMOs now switch jobs every 18 months and don’t give a damn about brand consistency. Their main concern is last quarter’s sales figures.

And do you have any advice on how to find the big, crucial idea?

In my experience, big ideas always start in the same place: with a really great creative brief. At all the good agencies I’ve worked at, we believed the same thing: ‘The brief is the most important piece of paper in the building’. Get the brief right – make it insightful, unexpected, and above all focussed on just one thing – and something really good will invariably follow.

The other sure-fire technique is to keep saying to yourself, ‘No, not good enough’.

At Lowe, we used to say ‘the good is the enemy of great’.  Once you’ve got a good idea, it’s tempting to stop there and pat yourself on the back. But you only get to something really breakthrough if you have the courage to put all that ‘good’ stuff in the bin and press on, with gritted teeth, until you get to something great.

I had a creative director once who said “Excellent. But it will do”.

Are you better creatives than 20 years ago?

Definitely yes. John and I now work quicker than we ever did, and we’re just as creatively adventurous. And our partner Seamus O’Farrell is about as smart a strategic thinker as you’ll find. He’s our secret weapon, in fact. 

Oh, and we also have the advantage of remembering that lunch is a key component in the creative process. 

When I was CCO at Lowe, somebody there wrote a terrific film for HSBC, at a time when the campaign was all about cultural insights – this particular insight being that old age is something that’s revered in Japan. It was set in a Japanese office, and it showed a 70 year old executive gathering up his things from his desk and putting them into a Lehman Brothers-style box. He goes to the lift lobby holding his box of stuff, and a much younger executive offers to push the lift call button for him. The old executive nods graciously, but then shakes his head as the younger guy is about to press the Down button. ‘No’, he indicates, eyes glancing upwards. ‘Up button’.

The Up button. We like to think that’s us.

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