Why good advertising practice echoes down the ages

We can learn so much about the power of good ideas by looking back, says the executive partner of MullenLowe London.

It’s a thoroughly modern idea. A bet placed on publicity rather than a traditional media buy.  (The paid-for element of the plan accounted for less than 1% of the overall spend.  Production was the big ticket.)  The sort of thing that our industry adores, and that juries scramble over each other to salute.  It would have made the D&AD Annual for sure… if only there’d been one in 1779.

Yes, cast your mind back to the Industrial Revolution.  It was a bit like the digital revolution, only more so: Wikipedia calls it "the most important event in the history of humanity".  And Coalbrookdale in East Shropshire was its Old Street roundabout.  

Abraham Darby III and his "iron-mad" friends - the tech entrepreneurs of their time - forge a new-fangled material (quite literally). Then, rather than just letting the market for iron grow organically, they decide to advertise. Not the way most of us still do today, by paying media owners for access to their audience, but rather with a piece of what we now call "content". They build the world’s first iron bridge. Spanning the nearby Severn river, it’s the ultimate product demonstration and the "Fearless Girl" of its time.

Darby’s marketing budget runs to £6,000 or so.  The biggest single cost is, well, iron.  But the viral fame that the bridge will enjoy means they only need £40 of paid-for advertising.  (It’s right there in the plan, just above my favourite line item: £15 for "celebratory beer".)

And so it proves. The iron bridge draws crowds from around the world, so much so that a hotel has to be swiftly erected on site. Iron is soon hotter than the iPhone X. Only the local ferrymen lose out.

Almost 250 years later, the iron bridge still stands… at what is now, of course, known as Ironbridge. It’s a visceral reminder that we sometimes overestimate how different today’s media and marketing environment really is. That our thinking may not actually be as groundbreaking as we imagine. That at least some good advertising practice echoes down the ages.  

In this parallel universe, the iron bridge; the Michelin Guide (created by the Michelin brothers in 1900 to increase demand for cars, and therefore tyres); and the Tour de France (invented three years later to boost flagging sales of the sports newspaper L’Auto) would all be Cannes Lions winners.  

Each one is an example of audacious problem-solving. Of lasting impression rather than fleeting message. Of the difference you can make when you trust in and commit to an idea.

Laurence Green is an executive partner at MullenLowe London

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