The risk of avoiding risk
By David MacGregor, March 2007
There’s no safety in being ordinary while others push the boundaries
The top is a dangerous place. When climbing Everest, or any other bloody great big hill, the top is just the halfway point. Who wants to sit on top celebrating until the oxygen runs out and your extremities turn black and fall off?
Great ads jut through the clouds of mediocrity. They are rare. That is what makes them compelling and why the handful of people responsible for them are paid more than the GDP of Tibet. But imagine the pressure of being in that position. Few businesses are as cruelly intolerant of miscreants and has-beens as advertising. The adage ‘you’re only as good as your last ad’ has interesting effects. People deal with it in different ways.
Some see it as a personal challenge. Boundaries? What boundaries? It is about breakthrough ideas, not money. Money is the reward, not the point. They accept the risk and make the ascent.
Others aren’t so bold. They know a very good living is to be had by cynically pitching and repackaging the merely good and proven. A slick patois, gullible clients and funky production techniques produce perfectly worthy campaigns. There are people who drive Porsches who have perfected this approach. It works especially well for banks, SOEs and carmakers—clients with large budgets and an aversion to upsetting anyone. They are the campaigns that need monumental media budgets to get noticed or to amortise the expense of production. These creative people and the agencies that harbour them are hedging against ‘excellence inflation’.
The problem for Sony: how do you follow up something so spectacularly brilliant? The sequel, explosions of paint in a Glasgow tenement, may be spectacular but it lacks the charm and simplicity of the original. The price of entry into the collective consciousness has gone up and the new ad no longer has the price of admission.According to UK account planner Richard Huntington, excellence inflation in advertising exists when a campaign is so remarkable that it shifts the perception of what is possible. It doesn’t happen often and rarely in the same place twice. An example is the ad for Sony’s Bravia televisions—thousands of coloured balls bouncing in slow motion through the streets of San Francisco to the haunting sound of Jose Gonzalez’s ‘Heartbeat’. It’s probably the most interesting piece of communication from the last couple of years. The proposition, ‘colour like no other’, is burned into my consciousness.
Brilliant, breakthrough ideas are advertising’s greatest weapon. But too many advertising people are day-tripping in the foothills, stopping occasionally for a pinot gris, admiring the view and discussing ‘filmmaking’. Others scale craggy, inhospitable peaks … the places tourists don’t go. They unflinchingly accept the challenge. Better to die on your feet and all that.
From those of us condemned to endure prime-time hell, thanks to the mountaineers for making the trip and for your thrilling postcards from the edge. We look forward to your next mad adventure and wish you all the very best of luck. You’ll need it. Because it better be better.
David MacGregor is a co-founder of . He is also a creative consultant and teaches at Massey University School of Design
Originally published in Idealog #8, page