I was responsible for a lot of rotten ads in my 35 years in agency creative departments (the first few as a copywriter, then most of them as a creative director). Looking back at them all, I see a pyramid – all those bloody awful ones down at the bottom, and then narrowing steadily towards a very, very much smaller number of good ones up at the top.
Right at the top there’s just one – probably the only ad for which I can claim some responsibility which I think is good enough to stand comparison with anything else, produced by anyone else, over that long period. There’s a cropped and slightly blurry photo of its type area here, from which you can’t see that it’s the first of 20 or so that we produced in a campaign for an obscure children’s savings scheme called Jump, based on the more-or-less-equally obscure Witan Investment Trust.
And before I say anything else I should say that I didn’t write it. Jenny Bond did, combining biographical details from her own children’s lives (being born blonde, swimming galas) as well as mine (being a Goth, being dragged off to France). And the campaign was originated by Chris Wardle and his art director James Ellis, who I think was the only person to really get it despite having no kids of his own at the time.
But I think I can fairly claim to have had quite a lot to do with it, from the idea of developing a children’s savings proposition for Witan, through to the positioning designed to resonate among middle-class parents with ungrateful children, through to the creative brief which aimed to bring to life all the insights we had into that kind of family relationship (most of it, of course, drawn from personal experience).
From which came first Candida writes… and then the other 20 or so executions in the campaign. (Many of the others being equally good, but not of course being equally first. And, I have to say, none of the others having the first line “I didn’t ask to be named after a fungal infection,” which to my mind is the best first line of copy in any advertisement ever.)
Apart from that first line, why do I think it’s so good? I’m not going to write a lit crit essay here. If you don’t get it, you don’t get it. But in a sentence, because in one small black-and-white picture and 71 words, it absolutely nails everything you need to know to understand how relationships work across half-a-million middle class families spread across the country from Tunbridge Wells to Richmond on Thames to north Oxford to Wilmslow to Edinburgh New Town – and, what’s more, families and relationships of a kind that was then and still are now more or less unknown to, and unexplored by, other advertising.
OK, that was a longish sentence. But here’s a shorter one: the campaign always seemed to me to provide us with the key to a previously-undiscovered secret and magic garden, where we could always go to create more great campaigns for more clients targeting those same half-million affluent families with the same breathtaking freshness and precision.
Except here’s the regrettable part: for some reason that I can’t explain, we never really did. Never once. Having found the key and unlocked the gate, we never came back. The only time I sort of did was ten years or so later, in my one-man consultancy life, when I was responsible for the brand definition and development for the relaunch of what had been the National Counties Building Society, but which we re-invented as the Family Building Society. This time it wasn’t just that I didn’t write the ads: by then I didn’t even have an agency. I worked with my friends at AML to bring the positioning to life, and although the “children” in the family relationships were at least ten years older than Candida and her crew, the genetic code was clearly similar. And I had exactly the same feeling, that somehow here I was back in the secret garden again – and then, again, we left it and I haven’t been back since.
Either in reality or in perception (not sure which) most of the better-known creative talents in this business are known for mining a fairly narrow seam. If we talk about a David Abbott ad, or a Bill Bernbach ad, or a Dave Trott ad, or whatever, we have a clear mental picture of the sort of ad we’re talking about.
Of course no-one has the faintest idea what a Lucian Camp ad might be like. But if only I’d hung around that secret garden for longer, then with Candida’s help things might have turned out different.