Has social media killed the famous advert? – BBC

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SOURCE: Douglas Shaw | BBC


New ways of advertising on digital platforms like social media sites struggle to create campaigns that capture the national imagination and make brands famous anymore, says industry veteran Sir John Hegarty.

“There’s been a loss of faith in broadcast advertising [on TV and radio] in recent years,” according to Sir John. Much of this is down to the rise of digital advertising, which is where brands spend the majority of their money these days.

Speaking to me at his offices in Soho, central London, he says that the likes of Facebook, Instagram and Google have persuaded brands that advertising is a science.

“They say to clients, ‘Why are you doing all this advertising to people who are never going to buy your product, why don’t you be more efficient?'”

It sounds logical to target advertising at people who are more likely to buy your product, but there is a catch, Hegarty reckons.

“One of the most profound and fundamental things you can say about the value of a brand is that it is made by people who will never buy it.”

A brand’s real power lies in people simply knowing about it, in other words, the fame of the company.

BBH founders
Sir John Hegarty (centre) co-founded BBH with Nigel Bogle (l) and John Bartle (r) in Soho, London in 1982

Hegarty is a revered figure in advertising because of the famous brands he helped to build.

His career spans seven decades. He took his first advertising job in the mid-1960s and went on to build some of the UK’s most successful agencies. He was a founding partner of Saatchi & Saatchi and co-founder of Bartle Bogle Hegarty (BBH). These days he is creative director of The Garage Soho, which invests in start-ups and helps to build brands.

With BBH he created some of the most memorable adverts of the 1980s and 90s.

In the 1980s he masterminded the “Vorsprung durch Technik” (which translates as “Getting ahead through technology”) campaigns for carmaker Audi.

Audi ad
Hegarty saw the slogan written on an old poster when visiting an Audi factory in Germany – the ads were big TV hits

For Levi’s jeans in 1985 he made the ad where model Nick Kamen stripped in a launderette to the tune of Marvin Gaye’s I Heard it Through the Grapevine.

He also made a national star of a fluffy puppet in the Flat Eric campaigns for the same company the following decade.

All these famous adverts were broadcast on primetime TV and were characterised by simple, visual storytelling told with a wry sense of humour.

Nick Kamen
The Levi’s ads made model Nick Kamen a global star

They helped to establish the companies in question as household names and the adverts themselves, including their slogans, were often referenced in popular culture.

Another good example of an ad that achieved that kind of impact, points out Hegarty, was the “If you see Sid, tell him” ads for the privatisation of British Gas.

These hits were scored in the pre-internet age when our media consumption was more focused. Companies with deep pockets crafted national campaigns through video adverts on the small number of national, analogue channels that existed.

Can brands still make famous adverts on this scale, which capture the nation’s imagination, in an age when we are fixated on our phones, our attention fragmented into millions of personalised social media feeds?

Globally, businesses have spent more money on digital advertising than traditional formats since 2019, according to eMarketer, which publishes industry reports. Those in the US and UK reached this tipping point several years earlier.

“Look, there’s a logic to digital advertising,” says Hegarty, with all its clever algorithms. “But you are constantly wanting to expand your brand, make it more famous and add value to it – and only broadcast does that.

“Brand fame is important because it affects customer decisions, it allows brands to resist competitor pressure and it allows premium pricing.

“You and I are never going to buy a Rolls-Royce, but we know about it, we know it’s the world’s most luxurious car and that adds value to the brand.”

Flat Eric
The Flat Eric puppet was used to advertise Levi’s jeans and became a talking point in the UK

There’s also tremendous value when advertising campaigns enter the public consciousness.

“When people talk about your ads, that’s free advertising,” explains Hegarty. “But on social media you’re talking to a small group of people, you never grow bigger than that. That’s the failure of modern marketing which we notice, because you don’t get those great big campaigns. When we did ‘Vorsprung durch Technik’ for Audi, it became a famous line.”

Hegarty is also chairman of Whalar, a company that works with online influencers, so he is conscious of the power of social media marketing too. He believes it has its place.

“Influencers are a good way for brands to speak to a select group of people. It’s just another piece of equipment in your armament. When TV came along, it didn’t kill radio, radio didn’t kill the theatre, flatscreen TVs didn’t kill cinema – the brilliant thing today is you’ve got options. But you have to understand the principles by which brands grow. Principles remain, practices change.”

Brands need to set less store by social media algorithms and put more faith in the creative spark that humans can offer, says Hegarty.

It takes a flash of human brilliance to create an ad that captures the national mood, or sparks a national conversation.

One of the rare times these days when you will experience this kind of big, set-piece advertising campaign – the kind he made his name with – is in the run-up to Christmas. Big retailers still have a crack at the fabled Christmas advert, though recent ones haven’t been that good, says Hegarty.

Creating an advert that everybody in the country knows is a dying art form.

“Brand fame is fundamentally important,” says Hegarty, “and marketing today seems to have forgotten that.”


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