January 4, 2015A few thoughts on why the “American Psycho” luxury flat ad sucks

A friend of mine tweeted a link to this ad for a luxury block of flats. “This looks like an outtake from American Psycho,” I said on watching it. Which was pretty much everyone else’s response, judging from this Independent article today (you can watch the ad, too).

Ad creatives around the country are probably groaning, and this is such a particularly bad example that it’s unlikely it’s made by any of the bigger London shops. In fact, it may well have been put together by an in-house marketing team.

Yet the ad industry needs to face up to a wider problem. It’s frequently blind to an idea that any real person would tell you is absolute shit. Turkeys like this one continue to get made.

We’re supposed to be the professionals. So how does it happen?

1. The client gets what the client wants

You can usually smell a client idea a mile off. Advertising is, unfortunately, one of those industries where everyone has an opinion. I wouldn’t tell a doctor how to perform open heart surgery on me, yet as a client of an ad agency, I expect to have input at every stage of the ad, even when I have no skill or talent at advertising.

Often, because of politics between client and agency, at least some of the client’s sucky ideas make it through, because otherwise the client feels they’re not being listened to and take their business elsewhere. Too often, account people see their jobs as pleasing the client, not standing up for their agency. The best ones don’t, but unfortunately it’s easier to give the client what they want and keep the money rolling in than it is to stand up for good creative work.

In this ad, the client is, essentially, an estate agent. The ad portrays an estate agent’s wet dream. Suited and booted, a lifestyle of (financial) “success”, of challenges met and overcome… it’s  the type of ad that the people who write thought pieces on LinkedIn would make, spoken in the empty language of Lou Bloom of Nightcrawler fame, mindless business buzzwords repeated ad nauseam in the mistaken belief that this nonsensical language somehow makes you look  successful.

The result is predictably awful.

Remember, if you let the client make their own ad, you will eventually end up with this:

2. Strategy and creative have undergone a messy divorce

Once upon a time creatives decided not just the “creative” elements of an ad campaign, but also the underlying strategy behind it. There were no planners in Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce.

Creatives were expected to be businessmen. It wasn’t enough to think of a fun and memorable idea to put the client’s brand name on people’s lips, it was essential to give them a reason to purchase as well. This was still the creative’s domain well into the early nineties. But during the 80s, the suits began to take over… a takeover that was all but complete a decade later.

You can see how it makes sense from a business perspective. It’s division of labour. Creatives are always excellent creatives, but only the very best are also excellent strategists. Furthermore, creatives are artists — more interested in creating something beautiful or funny or original than in selling the client’s product — that’s the strategist’s job.

The trouble is, for a long time strategy has led creative, reducing creative’s role to that of pencil monkey… trained not to think in business or sales terms themselves, but to execute a strategy in a way that’s witty and memorable. We’ve gone from being salesmen to stand-up comics.

And the strategists often get it wrong. To justify their salaries, as well as their position within the company, it’s in their best interest to complicate things, to demonstrate complexity of thinking (otherwise, if it was so easy, anyone could do it), giving rise to the two hundred slide planning deck when, in actual fact, most good ideas are brutally simple.

Planners and creatives often work against each other rather than together. The natural instinct of a planner is to make an idea more complex, more layered, more dense. The natural instinct of a creative is to ‘keep it simple, stupid’.

As Rory Sutherland famously put it, “planners and creatives drink from the same well, but the planners get to piss in it first”.

It’s perfectly possible that this “estate agent ad” was justified by an airtight 200 page planning deck. Unfortunately, nobody had the guts to challenge the planners. And you can’t argue against two hundred pages of logic, venn diagrams, research and consumer personas with “you know this is going to suck, right?”

3. Decision by committee ruins everything

The more people you have on a project, the more mediocre it becomes, because everyone has to have an opinion and what you end up with is something seventeen or more people don’t absolutely hate, rather than one ad that two people really like.

You’d be amazed at the number of people involved in creating a simple tweet or Facebook post, as “the ad agency human centipede” shows. It can be literally dozens. Remember this Business Insider article about how a single tweet about a brand of cheese took 45 days of planning to create? Yup. Agencies will deny it, but this kind of endless planning and revision by committee really can happen.

But this isn’t the real problem. Decision by committee happens everywhere, not just in advertising.

The real problem is the division of labour created by decision by committee. Instead of a creative director and AD/CW team pushing forward a singular vision, each individual involved is reduced to defending their part of the factory line.

The copywriter doesn’t care about the strategy or the cinematography or the casting because all he has to do is write a perfectly polished script. So long as there isn’t a word out of place, so long as none of the other 16 people in the meeting room can call him out on his copy, he’s alright, Jack.

The same goes for the social media manager, the account manager, the producer, the creative technologist (yes, there really is such a thing). So long as their tiny piece of the puzzle makes sense, they’re satisfied. They get to keep their jobs. Nobody’s looking at the bigger picture any more.

The emperor’s new clothes

What you end up with when you add points one, two and three together is a hear no evil, see no evil, say no evil mentality that’s baked into agency culture. Put another way, it’s a case of ‘the emperor’s new clothes’. Everyone can see that the emperor is naked, but nobody has the guts to point it out.

Bad ads like the “American Psycho ” luxury flat ad do get made by the advertising industry, all the time. Not all of the time, despite everything great ads do still get made. Because there are still great planners and great account people and great teams out there.

But when you let the client dictate creative. When you let the planners dictate creative. When you dilute creative into so many constituent parts that nobody has one clear vision, this kind is what you end up with.

Eliminate about 50% of the job titles within an agency and insist campaigns are created by small, tightly knit teams. You will get better work.






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