Find the Rembrandt in the attic

Find the Rembrandt in the attic

Next month will bring the latest roll call of advertising industry legends, when the IPA Effectiveness Awards winners for 2018 are declared.

It’s a competition so gruelling that the evening not only celebrates the campaigns that have demonstrably paid back but also recognises their tenacious authors.

Getting a campaign away at all these days seems harder than ever and relationships are increasingly project based. So to see anything all the way through to a definitive 4,000-word appraisal of profitable campaign effects is particularly admirable. (On which note, thank you Art Fund for leaning in to our third shortlisted paper in six years.)

The effectiveness geeks among us (I’m one) will be merrily toasting each and every winner on the night. But they will also be looking forward to actually reading each case study in the interests of reaching their own private verdict on their merits and, of course, plundering shamelessly.

And the award-winner I’ll be reading first, among all the wonderful stories laid at the feet of Dame Carolyn McCall’s illustrious jury, is the Weetabix paper entered by Bartle Bogle Hegarty.

An important lesson

For a start, it’s got the best title: "A Rembrandt in the Attic: Rediscovering the Value of ‘Have You Had Your Weetabix?’" But it also has a special meaning for me personally and, I suspect, offers a vital lesson for our industry.

The first time I joined Lowe (I joined again last year), it was to work on Weetabix. FMCG was still where the advertising action was and Lowe Howard-Spink was doing it better than anyone. Think "Reassuringly expensive" for Stella Artois and "The other side" for Smirnoff. (It was pretty good at cars and supermarkets, too.)

Frank Lowe still ran the Weetabix account and was answerable, in as much as Frank was answerable to anyone, to Sir Richard George, the proud owner of what was still, at that time, a family business. And "Have you had your Weetabix?" was the apparently inexhaustible creative platform, one of the hardest working you will ever find.

Unapologetically populist, each television execution (and it was mainly TV) brought a simple, branded twist to familiar stories from King Kong to Robin Hood to, erm, the Battle of Naseby.

The campaign wasn’t cool – and won few awards – but it was unerringly correct for its product and audience alike. And, boy, did it "shift boxes" (the Anglo-American marketing director’s monthly cri de coeur).

My job, mainly, was to stop people fucking it up. It’s an under-reported part of the job description. I was lucky enough to have Martin Weigel, now Wieden & Kennedy Amsterdam’s chief strategymeister, on data – the account planning equivalent of John Bonham on drums.

Martin and I pre-empted Byron Sharp’s later work by switching the strategy from frequency to penetration. There’s only so much Weetabix you can eat. But we didn’t let anyone fuck with the platform. And lo (or should that be Lowe?), plucky Weetabix went on to outsell Kellogg’s Corn Flakes in the UK for the first time.

Belated recognition

We wrote an IPA paper. (Of course we did, we were spinning gold.) But the small family business didn’t want its data made public – and even Frank couldn’t persuade it otherwise.

And that’s why I’m looking forward to the campaign’s belated recognition next month, albeit as the "mother sauce" for BBH’s significantly more recent executions.

The bigger point is the more general observation to which the paper’s title nods. That in straining to look forward at every turn, brand owners and agencies alike often forget to look back, to build on lessons from the past and to consider – however briefly – whether we might reactivate the strategies, ideas and even assets of the past. (Many of these are lodged in our audience’s long-term memory, so it’s a simple business decision to build on these foundations rather than lay new ones.)

Modern advertising’s scorched-earth policy has many things to answer for, the absence of long-running campaigns being just one.

Unfashionable as it may be, we need to complement our fascination with the new with respect for the old. To pause every now and then and ask ourselves, among other things: is there a Rembrandt in the attic? 

Laurence Green is an executive partner at MullenLowe.


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