How an uproarious radio campaign for 'Firips' proved some timeless advertising principles

How an uproarious radio campaign for 'Firips' proved some timeless advertising principles

TfL's marketing director reflects on the creation of a vintage campaign for Philips' video recorders at a time when Brits were obsessed with all things hi-tech and Japanese.

Picture the scene. It’s the early 1980s and a creative awards night at the usual posh London hotel. You are a young account exec at your first such event. The awards are for the best of radio advertising, then an emerging channel but it is well attended with all the leading agencies present and correct.   

As a lowly suit I didn’t get on stage that night but plenty of people on our table did. And by the end of the evening that table was littered with awards. I can’t remember for certain how many but one campaign, and one ad in particular, had carried all before it.

That campaign was for Philips Electronics and the specific ad, known as "Firips", was for their new range of video recorders (remember them?) The agency was Leagas Delaney.

It wasn’t just the awards judges who had been captivated; in that pre-social media age the campaign had become a popular sensation and a talking point up and down the country.

So, what was it about the campaign and that ad in particular that resulted in the unprecedented acclaim?  ("Firips" went on to be voted the best radio ad of all time.)

Let’s hear from the planner first. The market for consumer electronics was becoming dominated by Japanese brands like Toshiba, Panasonic and of course, Sony. They were better featured and better value than their competitors while Philips was seen as solid but a bit dull and old fashioned.

So the brief was simple; make the brand fun and emphasise ease of use in a market where there was tendency to promote features and the latest whizzy function.

The key to the campaign was the casting. Mel Smith and Griff Rhys Jones were the Mitchell and Webb of their day and were at the height of their powers.

Casting celebrities was nothing new even then, but Mel and Griff brought irreverence to the category and it was a bold move for a previously conservative brand like Philips. It was an early example of the value of a campaign which generates "Fame", a success factor since identified by Binet and Field.

Then there was the freshness and apparent spontaneity of the recordings. There was a simple reason for that: there were no scripts. Mel and Griff were just given a general briefing and then recorded the ads free form.

This was a nightmare for yours truly. It resulted in odd time lengths; always long and rarely less than 60 seconds (when 30 seconds was the radio norm) the occasional rude word and frequent product "overclaims" and exaggerations.

I’ve still got a priceless cassette of the outtakes and even complete ads which failed to pass the scrutiny of the copy clearance authorities or the exacting standards of creative director Tim Delaney.

And finally, what the Firips ad in particular did brilliantly was subvert the then popular view that Japanese products in this category were the best and only real choice for a discerning consumer – though it did this in a form, mimicking the way a Japanese might pronounce the word Philips, that would be somewhat questionable now.

With that in mind, how have the ads stood the test of time? Pretty well in my view, although I’m obviously a bit biased. They still sound fresh and different and stand out in a medium cluttered with ads for sales and with gabbled small print.

Listen to one of the ads here

And what lessons does the campaign pass down to us over the years? Nothing new, if I’m honest.

Firstly, a brief will only take you so far – in the end the logic has to lead to some creative magic.

Secondly, break the "rules" – radio was a radical choice for a brand campaign as was the self-deprecating nature of all the scripts.

Thirdly, trust the talent. The scope given to the agency and Mel and Griff would be unusual even today.

Finally, it’s worth mentioning we had a great client who was prepared to support the whole adventure and recognised some things might not work. The approval lines were short and needless to say, we didn’t research anything (apart from the brief).

But what about results I hear you ask? It’s a pity to spoil a good story. Philips video recorders, whilst technically superior lost out, as did Sony’s Betamax, to the VHS format for which there was a better range of pre-recorded films. Not much advertising could do about that. Philips finally sold off its consumer electronics business in 2013.

For me, working on this campaign was simply the best way to have started in the business. Whenever I hear those opening few lines I am transported back to the great cast of characters (some of whom sadly are no longer with us) who made this campaign possible.

"Morning Squire, I’d like a videocaster please, a Japanese one."

Chris Macleod is marketing director at Transport for London and a member of Campaign's Power 100.

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