Four decades on: Tom Moult and Philip Sheldon reflect on the loss of creativity

Forty years on, when office boys, luncheon vouchers and mechanical enlargers are but a memory, is advertising and output any better? Tom Moult and Philip Sheldon sat down to discuss what has changed since they first entered the industry together in London exactly four decades ago.

Forty years after they first walked through the door together as wide-eyed younglings at Benton & Bowles in London, advertising veterans Tom Moult and Philip Sheldon have come together to talk about the changes in the ensuing years – concluding that creativity has been the victim of the passing of the years.

Tom Moult

Moult: “I remember the demeanour of clients used to be ‘I’m up from the chocolate factory, let’s see what you’ve got lads’. They didn’t claim to know”

Moult rose to become chairman of Euro RSCG (now Havas) and is now head of consultancy Walker Moult, while Sheldon became one of Australia’s most regarded planners, working with agencies including DDB, DMB&B and Leo Burnett before founding Storymining.

The pair kicked of their life in advertising working on, of all brands, Durex.


Sheldon: “I moved very early into strategic planning – that was a discipline which clients kind of valued but didn’t understand”

“Our first account was for Durex and probably the first ad that Tom wrote was for KY Jelly,” Sheldon recalls. “The headline was ‘nine inches of comfort’.”

From there the only way was up.

Back then advertising was very much hands on, where part of the work was resizing ads on mechanical enlargers, by hand, to fit every magazine and newspaper they were booked into, and with proofs couriered across the city by hand.

“When everyone started as an office boy all those years ago, there were more office boy-type tasks,” Moult said.

Pay came partly in the form of luncheon vouchers which could be redeemed at restaurants surrounding the agency.

“When we started off in advertising it was a creative business, there was no ambiguity about that at all. What you did was you produced ads and the stars were the creatives,” Sheldon said.

“What we did was what the client couldn’t do – the creative, the ideas. Clients could do all the rest – the manufacture and sales.”

He said that marketers, especially junior marketers, we respectful of agencies because that was the side of the business they really wanted to get into.

“It was a very glamorous business in those days.”

But Sheldon has witnessed a shift that has not been to the benefit of ideas.

“My feeling is that over the last 40 years we have re-engineered the business to be the same as the clients. We position ourselves as business consultants when clients don’t need business consultants,” Sheldon said.

“Every creative started with what’s the unique selling point. Then the whole business moved on to the brand promise, what’s the benefit and the trouble with that is the benefit is always a category benefit. More strategic tools were invented to demonstrate a difference.

“With hindsight, if you look back over every piece of advertising that was produced over the last 40 years that has made a massive difference, the only point of difference has actually been the creative. It hasn’t been strategy, it’s been someone who said ‘this is going to be a really engaging, interesting, entertaining idea that people will like.”

Moult agrees: “Sometimes that’s the lightening in the jar, as much as people will tell you it’s not, they go ‘wow, that worked’.

Sheldon said there was a common thread for success that brands now dabbling in content were beginning to rediscover.

“If you think of all the ads that everybody bandies around it seems to me to be the common thread,” he says. “With the Guinness surfer ad or (Carlton) Big Ad or Antz (Pantz), or going back to Heineken, the point of difference really is that it connects with people just as a piece of entertainment.

Moult notes one of the biggest elements that created creative freedom, which was the prodigious profitability of agencies of the era.

“One of the biggest changes is it was almost impossible not to make money because the client spent money and you got 15% of the money and the client had to spend the amount of money that made them competitive in the market. The money just turned up,” he said.

Agency models were built on a 20% profit margin, so 80% of the 15% was spent on the people and the ideas, “it was probably the wrong way around” but it attracted talent.

Creative was free.

It was like breakfast at the hotel, you paid for your room, it came with breakfast.

“Clients went for the best creative but you didn’t value it because they didn’t pay for it. Now remuneration has changed completely, it has to be done in a competitive sense.”

One of the things the pair agree on is that where agencies used to have the power to invent products that capitalised on client’s idle resources; such an entrepreneurial approach to the business happens rarely now.

“The people who were clients, they owned factories and they made shit,” Moult said.

One example they cite is the invention of Babycham in the UK, which transformed a small brewery and cider business into a British powerhouse, all based on an idea fuelled by its then ad agency that allowed them to make the most of their investment in pear farms.

(UK agency) Masius’s chairman at the time was ordered, famously, to visit the founders of the company where he feared the agency was for the chop. Instead it handed him the keys to a gleaming new Rolls Royce, as thanks for making them millionaires.

“They (the agency) made that whole business, they’d turned them from pear farmers into a drinks business and what happens now is (a company like) Nike doesn’t make shit,” Moult says. “It is a marketing company with a factory.

“I remember working with HP and its dream was to be in innovation and warranty, that’s all it wanted to do; they don’t want to make anything at all. The clever part, which was the invention, the clients have moved into this area, they have moved into our camp.

“I remember the demeanour of clients used to be ‘I’m up from the chocolate factory, let’s see what you’ve got lads’. They didn’t claim to know.”

Moult recalls JWT having its own catering department focused on coming up with new recipe and product ideas for its clients.

Creatives would literally “make up foods” and then the chefs would see if it could be done using ingredients from the client.

“We used to make up stupid products, go back to the kitchen, make them all, try it, and then the client would come and see the concept and the dish which can be made for £1.79 by the time it gets to Tesco,” Moult said.

Sheldon says the biggest single change that he has seen affect the industry in the past 40 years has been the introduction and the growth of account planning.

“I moved very early into strategic planning – that was a discipline which clients kind of valued but didn’t understand,” Sheldon said.

“Because there was all this interest in consumer insight, it connected to research.”

Moult said the introduction of planning strengthened the position of agencies because they began to base their marketing around the consumer rather than what the factory was pushing out.

“That was the point where advertising got stronger and was part of the golden days,” Moult said.

As their careers took different paths, Moult and Sheldon both found their way to Australia in the mid 1980s, where Moult recalled the observation of an Australian born creative director who would over time become a world leader.

“The worst thing about Australia is the lack of sophistication of the clients. The best thing is the lack of sophistication of the clients,” the creative director told Moult.

Ultimately the pair feel that a level of self respect has left the industry – Sheldon’s dinner jacket has been ceremoniously deposited at Vinnies in recognition that awards are owned by a jeans-clad generation accepting gongs with a studied nonchalance and an interest in their personal brand.

And for Moult, the loss of glamour, reliance on data and cost-cutting the industry has seen has perhaps been the industry’s biggest loss.

The money’s been cut out of the business, the talent’s been cut out of the business, smart young men and women these days aren’t racing to go into advertising.”


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