Whatever happened to ideas Hong Kong?

I like to watch local TV. Sometimes I sit and browse and stare at television shows, the language of which I can’t understand, because I see it as my job to keep an eye on who’s doing what in the ad world.

There was a time, when that meant being pleasantly surprised by the odd nice TV commercial. Either funny, or beautiful or borne out of a really clever idea.

These days?

There’s as much chance of that happening as there is England winning the football World Cup again. That’s right, remote.

But where did it all go wrong? Whatever happened to the brilliant original creativity behind great campaigns from the past for brands such as Just Gold, Optical 88, Sunday, New World Mobility and Vitasoy, to name but a few.

In today’s Hong Kong, every single TV ad seems to follow a pattern, a trend. It’s as if the creative teams has simply selected “Let’s choose idea number 7” and go with that.

Don’t believe me? Here are a few of the trends. Ideas we see repeated over and over.

1. The replacement head

This entails being really really hilarious by placing the product, or an object of some sort, on the head or heads of persons in the commercial. Designed to be wacky or really fun, it’s become such a cliché that almost every other spot now features some idea based on this. Once upon a time, years ago, when this first happened, it may have been original. But now?

2. The product as cartoon character

If you can’t think of an idea, turn the product into a cute little character who intervenes in people’s lives to solve their problems and make them happy again.
Usually they sing a little jingle to make it all even more uplifting.

3. Holding hands together

Usually reserved for public service announcements, the idea is that if everyone in Hong Kong holds hands and smiles, then social problems will magically vanish. In the world of PSA’s, you never ever see the miserable faces that pervade on the streets every day that come with people struggling to survive. You just see a happy, shining Hong Kong wonderland.

4. The perfect child

In Hong Kong TV ads, children are not children. They are perfectly groomed astoundingly clever and cute little angels who open their mouths to utter words that have been put there by agency copywriters with strict instructions from their clients. The result is nearly always annoyingly sickly, with children acting in ways that are completely unnatural. This non-idea is usually reserved for any products to do with child-enhancement, but people creating government announcements somehow think this is also a great way to change social behavior.

5. The perfect family

Featured in just about any TV ad for foods (especially rice or cooking oil) or home appliances, the perfect family live in a perfect home with perfect lives. And any small problems are instantly eradicated by the product.

I’m not making this up. This is the sorry state of Hong Kong advertising today. And while there are some exceptions (I haven’t even touched on property ads mind you), these are the general rule.

In days gone by, Hong Kong agencies produced ideas. The creative people were pushed to be original. To solve problems in new and different ways. If it had been done before, you killed it at birth.

And before you say “It’s easy to criticize, what are you don’t to change that?” I would argue that our recent Unicef ‘Right to Play TV commercial has been one of a few on air that people have seen and commented on, as having at some semblance of an idea behind it.

It’s a shame we’re in the minority.

The great divide

My old friend Mike Fromowitz recently posted a blog in Campaign magazine regarding the recent rise in start-up advertising and branding companies such as our own. It’s an increasingly common topic these days, and if you look around across Asia some of these ‘little shops’ are doing very well indeed, attracting big name clients to give them a try.

I think there is a good reason for this and it has more to do with the issues facing bigger, international agencies as it does the qualifications of the small, independent ones.

Here’s a theory to add to what Mike has suggested, shoot it down if you will. In recent years, Asia in particular has come on in leaps and bounds in terms of award-winning creative work. More than that, the diversity of source countries producing great work is broader than ever. The global creative map has changed forever.

What’s also changed and is seemingly irreversible, is the ability of agencies to actually sell in great work to clients. Selling ideas is tricky. Clients, by nature, are more likely to be apprehensive about ideas which seem risky, are not familiar. Not tried and tested. Which is why most creative advertising we see around us every day is tried and tested. Not to mention mostly crap.

But in today’s world, agencies don’t have to sell in their great ideas. They simply request the client’s permission to ‘run them’ in order to qualify for the award shows. So everyone’s happy. The creatives are happy because they get their chance. Client service people are happy because they don’t have the (once upon a time very stressful) pressure to try and get brave ideas through the client. And the clients are happy because they are comfortable with the tried and tested work anyway. Despite the fact that more outstanding ideas might work that much harder for their brand and achieve better returns.

However, the end result of all this is that many agencies (I’m talking big network agencies) are now split down the middle. There is the real world. The bread and butter work which gets churned out every day for real briefs from big spending clients. Nobody really tries to rock the boat with that. Clients won’t buy brave ideas anyway. Do the job and take the money. Then there’s the pretend world, where you do excellent creative work for the shows, pay for it to run (big agencies have budgets set aside for this) and pretend it was real. (It always makes me laugh when agency leaders blame poor standards of creativity on a bad economy which makes clients more nervous…when nobody bothers getting better work past clients in the first place these days…they simply ask to run it.)

This is now the norm. If you asked many agencies to showcase the work they do on their biggest spending projects vs their most award-winning work, there’s a very high chance that the two will not correlate.

This is very different from the world’s most famously high profile creative agencies (ie Weiden and Kennedy, BBH London etc) who built their reputations by doing great work on real briefs. They did this by having very strong client relationships. By being honest and firm with clients. And also, by leading the relationship, as opposed to the other way round where agencies are told to do as the client says with a ‘customer is always right’ mentality. (Because the main objective is to meet the numbers.)

So, there’s the great divide. Two world’s under one roof. The results of all this are a generation of young talented creative leaders who know no other route to the awards stage than under the table. And agency client managers who would not have the faintest idea how to begin to sell in a daring idea to a client. Agencies are not breeding any Frank Lowes today. Any Mike Greenlees (tasked with the difficult challenge of selling in Dave Trott’s ideas..). Any Rod Pullens. In fact, let’s say any real leaders.

For the small independent agencies, who are often started by senior, experienced agency people who want to get back to the basics and see a better way, this is good news. Because you know what? Clients want that too. At least the good ones. They want people who think for their brand or business. Who have opinions and offer expertise. And know how to sell a brave idea.

I know which world I prefer.

Is copywriting all nonsense?

Speaking as a seasoned copywriter, I like to think that on the whole I’m half decent at my craft. That I know how to string together a few words with the purpose of selling or persuading a reader on a brand or product. And quickly at that.

However, I can also honestly say that over the many years I’ve been applying my skills, I’ve probably written the odd line or two, under duress, which I wouldn’t want to own up to in the cold light of day.

The odd tacky slogan. And over enthusiastic promotional blurb. Or some rather boring corporate brochure waffle. I’m sure in this sense I’m not alone.

Sometimes, due to client demands or subjective viewpoints, what starts out as a good rational well-written piece can soon become convoluted piecemeal, patched together to address the ‘suggestions’ from the various parties with a vested interest.

In the interest of client relations, or motives of a financially driven nature, you do you best to accommodate, but it’s often only afterwards that you look at it and think ‘Did I write that?’ Yikes!

However, none of this can explain some of the absurd linguistic rubbish which is polluting the environment these days, and had me asking – how on earth did that get approved?

What group of people in their right minds could sit in a room and give it a smiling thumbs up before sending it out to be thrust upon an unsuspecting public who probably won’t even notice it because it’ll be buried within some poor excuse for a layout design amidst a buffet feast of similarly badly worded messages?

Some of what we don’t really see or notice day in day out is actually scary, if you pause to give it some rational examination.

Here are a few examples (I’m not naming names but they’ll know who they are even if you don’t):

Indulge in elegance – now what on earth does this mean? People can be elegant, yes. So can objects. Elegance we are even informed by another brand, is an attitude. But who indulges in elegance? We indulge in a tub of ice cream, in pampering ourselves, in excesses that we know are maybe not good for us. But how can you indulge in elegance? Bizarre.

Globally yours – this, for an airline. Actually I’ve always wanted to own an airline, like Sir Richard Branson, it looks cool. ‘I’ve got my own airline’. So, does this slogan mean that the airline advertised is mine? I was so excited when I saw it. No only that, I own it everywhere…the world over. Or are they trying to say something else?…

Quietly brilliant – now this was plastered on a gigantic billboard outdoors so I hardly call that quiet. If they want to say that the brand is brilliant…that the thinking and technology behind its products borders on genius (bit of a tall claim in today’s me-too world, wouldn’t you say? With the exception of one or two pioneering brands..not this one though) then fine. But the fact you are the spending advertising dollars announcing that makes the slogan a bit of an oxymoron..

Shaping timeless beauty – what??? How? We all know that ‘timeless beauty’ is up there with ‘the art of’ as one of the advertising cliches of all time, but how do you shape it? Something might be beautiful and have a timeless quality about it…but are we seriously meant to envisage a secret workshop somewhere where skilled craftsmen and women sit painstakingly ‘shaping timeless beauty..’? It’s a bit Harry Potter I must say.

Designed for humans – okay, this is for appliances and I think I know (putting my strategic hat on for a second) what they’re trying to say. They’re trying to say that most technology today is complicated and not suitable for normal people who are not techno-geeks. But for a start that’s an outdated territory because today’s gadgets are generally so simple even idiots who don’t bother reading instruction manuals (er..like me..) can usually just plug in and play. So it’s not exactly USP stuff. More than that, I have not seen too many cats and dogs wandering around with headphones on of late, or any giraffes having a chat on their handphones, so…it just sounds silly.

Of course it’s easy to criticise and I’m sure at some point I’ll be called upon to embarrass myself with some unintelligible waffle of my own sometime in the near future. I just hope and pray that it’s not on display in giant letters 50 feet above the ground next to the expressway.

Tourism Asia. One word says it all.

Tourism Asia. One word says it all.

Something is going on in the world on Asian tourism advertising, and it can be summed up in one word. Literally. And it’s usually an over-the-top adjective.

Incredible India. Amazing Thailand. Exotic Cambodia. Wonderful Indonesia.

It seems as though there is has been some sort of revolutionary new breakthrough in research informing us that the less said the better when it comes to travel. Or is there a current shortage of English copywriting resources in the region that has resulted in one lucky freelancer getting all the jobs? Like, he or she has got it nailed.

When it comes to copy, it was drummed into me at a very young age to keep it short and sweet. Say what you need to say and don’t encumber the reader with unnecessary fluff.

But this inexplicable trend for single-word descriptions is taking it a bit far. At least Malaysia has managed to come up with two words in ‘Truly Asia’ (at least that seems to have a modicum of strategic thinking implied in it, as with 100% New Zealand).

What makes it even more ominous is that in almost every case, the absence of a proper strategy is underlined even more when these ‘slogans’ are seen as the exclamation mark dotted on the end of up old-as-hat clichéd television commercials which are consist of the same tired old vignettes which result in nothing more than a filmic guide through that country’s holiday brochure.

Stunning, beautiful landscapes. Pristine blue water with untouched natural wonders. And the same old perfect thirty-something Caucasian couple having the romantic time of their lives interacting with healthy looking natives who have inexplicably beatific smiles on their faces. It all results in a tourist wonderland at the end of which you can plonk one word which sums it all up.

Fantastic. Remarkable. Spiffing. Jolly.

Try irritating. It’s a better way of describing the effect these bland, predictable marketing efforts have on the average poor viewer.

Where will it all end? Who else will jump on the bandwagon (or train, boat or plane)?

Here are a few suggestions then, just to jump the gun.

Awesome Australia.

Unstoppable China.

Mysterious Japan.

Expensive Hong Kong.

Crazy North Korea.

I could go on but I might be doing some unsuspecting freelance copywriter out of his or her job.

China’s creative challenge

Just recently at the 2011 Cannes Lions awards, JWT Shanghai won the Press Grand Prix.
An amazing achievement from an agency consistently producing the goods under the leadership of the visionary Lo Sheung Yan. Hopefully it will be seen as further encouragement to a generation of young creative hopefuls that China can excel on the world creative stage.

However, undermining this is a worrying trend that could prove to undo all
of the good achieved by those striving to raise the bar.In 2010 I was invited by the
China Advertising Association to make a presentation at the China Advertising Festival in Nanchang (the venue changes every year, it was Nanchang for 2010).

Usually with this sort of invitation I am inclined to tailor whatever I might present
to be relevant to that particular audience. What is the theme? What might be of interest to them?

And while what I did prepare was an historic overview of the development of
creative advertising in Hong Kong (which I think is of great interest to young people
coming into the industry in China), the organisers made a specific suggestion that
I touch upon the problem of ‘copycat creativity’ in China. Which I thought was an interesting request.

Not knowing too much about the size and scale of the problem, I began to do some research into it and what I discovered blew me away. Upon asking around, I was pointed in the direction of one or two websites where I could find examples of the copycat phenomena. I found ads completely mimicking other ads, identical in every way except for a different logo.

Entire 30 second TV commercials which were copied, frame for frame, from other commercials. The examples featured listed dates when the originals were created, and nearly all of the copycat versions were from creative people in China.

Now over the many years I’ve been in Hong Kong, there have been one or two cases
whereby I’ve seen creative work which has felt uncomfortably similar to something
done elsewhere at some point, usually overseas, seen in an award book or something.

Some cases were clear cut, some were perhaps, coincidence or perhaps ‘influenced
by’ other work in terms of style. Usually these have been rightfully frowned upon
by the Hong Kong creative community. (We’re not talking about creative work which
has ‘borrowed’ from references like illustration or photography, I’m referring to ads copying ads. Designs copying designs.)

But in China, this is not the odd case, it’s something of an epidemic. And it does not
look like going away. I did some asking around via people with solid market experience,
either from China cities or having been based there for a few years, and it seems that
what is wrong with all this is that young people in China don’t see anything wrong with it.

To them, what they do is simply a means to an end. If ripping off other work gets them a
job, then so be it. The objective has been met. How they got there doesn’t matter.

How on earth did this get so out of hand, and who is doing anything about it?

To my (mostly young) audience in Nanchang, I did not hold back. First of all I showed
some of the examples (I hoped and wished that there were some uncomfortable bodies
in there). Then I showed the dictionary meaning (in English and chinese) of what it means to be creative.

And emphasised that it is about being original. About solving old problems in new and
different ways. Etc etc. And I stated loud and clear that unless there is a change of
attitude about this among the young creative industry in China, then the country will be frowned upon and laughed at on the global creative stage.

Time and again there have been examples from China whereby the originality of ideas, of brands and products, have been in question (has anyone seen the retail chain Vancle for example? Hm, wonder where that name came from? ).

It would be shame if the nation became famous for creative advertising which follows
the same shameful and sorry path. Especially as we see from JWT Shanghai’s recent achievements, there are those doing their honest best to take China further.

Relationships, the success factor.

Speaking as an experienced creative person I firmly believe that the most important factor in building a successful creative agency isn’t creativity.

It’s the client relationship.

Don’t get me wrong, I still have some creative fire in my belly after many many years, and I believe the quality of the work you produce is definitely what sets one agency apart from any other as much as good food distinguishes a quality restaurant from the riff raff. But the quality of your relationships is how you get there.

If you are not working with clients who believe in what you deliver, who respect you and are prepared to listen to you, then effectively your role is no more than waiter, to use the restaurant analogy.

I once remember a client, in fact, the son of a family business owner who, upon hearing the account service director state he would pass his comments on to the creative team and ask them to look into a problem was told “No, don’t ask them, tell them to do it. Just remember who is paying the bills.”

What a brat. Looking back today I can laugh at the naive arrogance of this, not uncommon among usually the more junior people who clearly misinterpret the idea of a working relationship. As an agency proprietor, such a person would not last 5 minutes with me today.

Because to me, the saying ‘the customer is always right’ does not belong in the world I live in. That of delivering effective creative solutions for clients.

It’s an expression from the world of sales which effectively means ‘make a sale at all costs.’ That’s the end goal.

In the world of marketing, a good creative brand expert is not there to make a sale at all costs. You are there to understand a client’s business and the challenges they face, in order to find creative solutions which can help.

Sometimes that means recommending things which perhaps the client may not agree with. And in this world, the customer is not always right. Especially when that customer lacks the necessary experience.

Most importantly, the respect must be a two way street, and I’ve no time for creative arrogance either.

To me, if I have found a good client with whom I enjoy a constructive, mutually respectful relationship, I will devote blood, sweat and tears to helping them. I’m not just after their money (frankly many agencies are, it’s all about meeting budget at all costs). Need urgent help on a holiday? I’m there.

I genuinely want to add value and do the best job I possibly can.

But I place great emphasis on the ‘mutual respect’ part. Once that is established, everything else falls in place. And I believe that’s the secret to success. Well, for the most part (I may disagree next week).

Why most outdoor is a complete waste of money

During a workshop I conducted a few years ago, I put participants through the old ‘three second test’. That is, I showed examples of some outdoor ads that I had gathered on my travels around town, but only for three seconds at a time. Which is generally acknowledged as the time you supposedly have to get your message across to the average person on the move. I then asked participants to tell me what the ad had said.

Bearing in mind that these were executions featuring, in many cases, around twelve to fifteen messages per layout,, needless to say, nobody passed the test. In fact in most cases, I reckon even a World Champion Speed Reader would have struggled, frankly.  Such was the chaotic, unfathomable nature of most of the layouts sporting these messages.

But the important question is, what on earth was an ad featuring fifteen messages doing in an outdoor site? On an escalator panel, no less.

Clearly these were advertising executions assembled by, and approved and paid for by, people who hadn’t the faintest clue what the role of outdoor advertising is. Or how it’s supposed to work. (Which was the whole point of the workshop in the first place, which was I’m happy to say attended mostly by marketing people.)

Now I’m no Warren Buffet but you don’t need to have even an ounce of his financial acumen to have a grasp of how much money is being wasted here.

And the scary thing is, these executions were not the exception. They are everywhere. Cluttered, useless postings which often amount to no more than a Jamie Oliver fruit sundae masquerading as a bad leaflet stuck up on a wall in the bizarre notion that people are going to stop dead in their tracks for five minutes to have a read. “Excuse me, can you stop the escalator as I have just have to read about how the Lucky Gold Jewellery company summer promotion and I don’t care if I am late for my interview.”

I would actually love to be in the room when some of these monsters are being signed off on. I’d love to interview the perpetrators . Know what makes them tick. And ask them – ‘You wouldn’t waste money on a pen that doesn’t write, so why waste thousands of dollars on an ad that’s as useless as a perforated condom?’.

The sad reality is, in Hong Kong at least (although I wouldn’t be surprised if many other countries in Asia share the problem), the best of most outdoor executions are just the ones that are, at best, the least cluttered. (Let’s not even go near the word ‘idea’) Even more worrying, if you are a media owner, is that media owners are being held accountable. Outdoor, as with any medium, is measured on effectiveness. But if an advertisement is so incompetent in its general make up that it would fail even if it were the only thing you had to read while marooned on a desert island, it’s a tad unfair to blame the medium.

What on earth is going on? I asked this question of my class, and they were as clueless as I am. Even though many of them are actually paying for this stuff.

 So I’ll hazard a guess. Some of it could be because economy-minded clients who book their media directly, triumphantly attempt to save money on the ‘creative’ by getting their neighbour’s nephew with a knack for Photoshop to knock up a quick ‘design’, copy written and provided by – guess who?

That might explain the smaller sites, but how do you account for the consistently atrocious 48-sheet billboards that greet you at the cross-harbour tunnel entrance? Be honest, when was the last time you saw a good one?

The situation is very worrying.  As Julia Singleton pointed out in her MEC Sensor study report a few years ago  “The message must work with the medium and understand the consumer it is targeting in order to gain any noticeability.  I think we have passed the stage where plastering a giant logo, image and strapline will get your ad noticed.”

Frankly, from what I’ve reviewed recently, even that would be a start