If you knew nothing about Oliviero Toscani except that he was the man behind Benetton’s famous ads, you’d guess he was no shrinking violet. And you’d be right. Boy, would you be right. At times during his interview with Campaign, the acclaimed photographer bordered on belligerent.
The first mistake was to launch into questions about Benetton. Asked how he became involved with the Italian company, Toscani, 73, was angry and weary in equal parts: "I don’t even remember. I finished working with them 15 years ago.
"Everybody talks about it but it is not my most important work. It probably seems that way because everybody knows about it and saw it — but it is not the most important."
Still, you can’t choose your legacy, and Benetton will almost certainly be his. Toscani was the artistic director for the brand between 1982 and 2000, making it a household name through provocative poster ads: a baby still bloodied from birth, horses copulating, AIDS patients.
His last commission was a 2000 campaign that featured death-row inmates. The public was incensed and lashed out at Benetton, and Toscani resigned three months later — although the two events were never acknowledged as being connected.
Benetton: (here and below) poster ads created by Toscani during his tenure as its artistic director
Benetton’s star may have faded but, in its heyday, the clothing brand was a force. Toscani’s work helped boost sales by a factor of 20 and the company’s success became the subject of a Harvard Business School study.
So who better to talk about risk-taking in advertising?
Except that Toscani is hard to pin down on any subject. For a start, he rejects the label of adman: "I don’t accept the distinction between advertising, editorial and art. I’m a photographer and I use my camera to witness my time. And then I try to get my photos published in the place where the most people can see them. I don’t care about galleries and all that stuff. I try to get the most exposure."
Without that distinction between editorial and advertising, Toscani sees no reason why companies should not broach social issues and taboo subjects in their advertising.
"Why shouldn’t they," he asks. "When I go to the movies, I want to be provoked because I want to be smarter. If it doesn’t provoke, then it is not art at all. It must take you higher."
Provocation is not enough, though. That much is clear from Toscani’s response to questions about Sainsbury’s divisive First World War-themed 2014 Christmas campaign.
"That’s fake and fiction made by agency brainstorming. That’s bullshit," he states. "My baby [in the Benetton ad] was real; he was not an actor. My anorexic [Toscani’s anti-anorexia poster ad for the fashion label Nolita featured Isabelle Caro, a real-life sufferer] was real. Everything those agencies do is so boring.
"I have never worked with an ad agency. I hate their systems. Creative directors? Not even God is a director of creativity. It’s bullshit. Marketing research, focus groups – it’s all bullshit. They just want to make money. There’s no creativity."
For all the ire he directs at marketers and agencies, Toscani is endearingly open-minded about art. His belief that great work can exist in any medium – even advertising – is refreshing.
"Yes, you must listen to the request of your patron – but you get the chance to be published," he says. "If Coca-Cola go to an architect, they have to work to their commission but they still have the choice to make the work great. Of course, a lot depends on the intelligence of your patron."
Toscani, it seems, shares agencies’ perennial pet peeve about unadventurous clients: "It’s very difficult now to find a courageous patron. The investment in what you call advertising is a lot and very few people are willing to risk. Very few patrons are willing to look beyond profit."
He lists Olivetti and Steve Jobs as exceptions among the morass of mediocre clients but suggests that, mostly, brave ones are easier to find in the fashion world because "it is more cultured".
"The problem is when you start to get involved with marketing. The people – they are so dumb. I’ve never met more people who are so dumb," he adds, in case Campaign was still fuzzy on his stance.
Fortunately, Toscani does not plan to unleash his views on marketers when he gives the President’s Lecture during D&AD’s judging week on 21 April.
"I will talk about the fact that when you are the most insecure, that is when you are at your highest moment," he says. "When you try to get consensus, that is when you fall into mediocrity. I don’t care if anybody likes my work.
"And I would tell people, especially young people, that they don’t have to be afraid of being afraid. They have to dare. Everybody is unique. That’s all you have. That’s where the creativity comes from.
"Today, everybody is conforming. Everybody does the same, speaks the same. Information is everywhere but technology doesn’t take you to the future. It takes you to the past, the present. The future is imagination. Young people don’t have that because they spend all their time researching on the computer. They are fucked up. The future is only imagination."
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This article first appeared on campaignlive.co.uk.