Who would win The Ashes of advertising?

steve-coll-havas-ecdThe latest series of The Ashes – the 135 year cricket rivalry beween England and Australia – gets underway tonight. But what of the real battle – the advertising rivalry between the two countries? In this guest post, Steve Coll – who has worked in both markets – calls a winner.

When I got my first agency job in 2000, the idea that Australian creativity could rival the UK was frankly, outrageous. Back then, it seemed as unlikely as the Poms ever winning the Ashes again.

As Gilchrist relentlessly sledged Mike Atherton and co, we in the Australian advertising industry looked up to UK creative with simpering reverence. In fairness, there was no question who was top dog. From Pot Noodle to ‘Good Things Come to Those Who Wait’, the Economist posters, the Honda ads, John Smith’s Bitter, and Tango, the Poms seemed to smash everything over the stands and into the car park.

A fair chunk of our creative and strategy would be ripped off, sometimes unashamedly, from campaigns in the UK. Sure, there were moments of true Aussie genius. But generally London was doing it with bigger budgets, better directors, better post-houses, more time and more money. And to universal acclaim. On the last Saturday night at Cannes, the big stuff would inevitably be won by the latest lavish installment from Levi’s or some epic brilliance from Guinness. Australia wasn’t even in the mix. The Ashes of Advertising would have been a ludicrously one-sided affair.

How times have changed.

Unless you’re living under a rock, you’ll have noticed that, this week, England go into the latest Ashes series as the holders and firm favourites.

The reversal in advertising has been equally dramatic. You may have seen that, this month, Dave Trott posted a conversation with Dave Droga entitled ‘What’s happened to UK advertising?’ where these two greats pondered the slump in UK creativity. This perceived doldrum coincides with a sustained high in Australia, culminating recently in our second place finish behind the US at Cannes – our best ever result.

The UK finished fourth after Brazil.

No doubt Australia’s cricketing decline will be documented meticulously in endless column inches over the next few months.

So let’s ponder the reasons for the change in our creative fortunes.

It’s part serendipity. Traditional UK agencies operate on budgets that allow them to segment skill-sets like Digital, Direct Marketing, Activation or PR into separate companies. It makes it incredibly hard to collaborate. In Australia, the size and structure of our agencies means we are more likely to hold a wider variety of skills under one roof. As a result, we are better suited to proper integration and ideally placed to seize on the opportunities presented by social media. For example, in the Havas creative department, I sit fifteen feet away from a PR agency in one direction and the same distance from a full Digital production facility in the other. Our creative teams work regularly with both, and our thinking is much the better for it.

My experience in London was that you’re lucky if either skill set is in the same suburb let alone the same building. It makes integrated thinking more of a mission.

We also work with lower budgets. In the era of big TV ads, that was a distinct disadvantage. But if YouTube proves anything, it’s that high production values are no longer so important. Nimble, newsworthy ideas that attract millions of views and extensive coverage have greater currency. ‘Best Job in the World’ is a perfect example.

Less money also means we have to work faster. With bigger budgets, UK agencies can devote months and months to rigorous strategic planning, testing and creative resource. A single campaign can take a year to complete. In Australia, we simply can’t afford that. We’d go out of business. As a consequence, we work so much faster, producing a much higher volume of work. The law of averages says that means more opportunity.

We also have better talent in this country than ever before. Clients and creatives have higher expectations. We believe we should be producing world-class work routinely, and we aren’t content playing second fiddle to anyone. People like Droga5’s David ‘Nobby’ Nobay and Clemenger BBDo Melbourne’s Ant Keogh raised the bar. McCann’s recent triumphs are well deserved and well documented. Even our own agency finished Cannes as the most awarded Havas agency in our worldwide network, a goal we picked out at the start of the year. As I look at my fellow ECDs, I can point to talent that has been proven at some of the best agencies in London and beyond. Today, a Grand Prix at Cannes is simply exceeding expectations, not confounding them. I believe many of the best marketers share the same level of ambition.

So, perhaps its time to officially cremate a red and yellow gown from the Carlton Draught ‘Big Ad’ and place the ashes in a small urn.

Right now, we’d stand a much better chance of winning that than the real thing.

Steve Coll is executive creative director of Havas Australia. He was creative group head of Leo Burnett Sydney from 2005 to 2008 and creative group head at AMV BBDO London from 2008 to 2010.


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