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Dominic Mills: the good, the bad, the weird... and the distracting

23 Mar 2020  |  Dominic Mills 
Dominic Mills: the good, the bad, the weird... and the distracting

What sort of column do you write at times like these? The answer is: not a normal one. So here goes with an attempt to do things a little differently this week and the next few...

The good and the bad

Let’s start by acknowledging that there has been no shortage of brands willing to step up to the plate to offer government/society what they can, whether that’s at local or national levels.

The likes of LVMH, Brewdog and the Deeside Distillery have stepped forward with making hand sanitisers; a clutch of hotels, including Premier Inn, Best Western and Travelodge, are discussing with the government how they can make their hotels and cleaners available to the NHS; Guinness is setting up a support fund for bar staff; BT is removing home broadband data caps; Facebook is offering the WHO free ad space; and, sadly curtailed now by the need to close its outlets, Pret was offering NHS staff free drinks and discounts on food.

It’s a reminder that brands are run by, at heart, people (even if in normal times they sometimes behave like dehumanised clones) who are asking themselves ‘What can we do to help?’.

But not all. There are always those with a tin ear, like Lenovo. It emailed me to suggest I bought my mum a laptop or tablet for Mother’s Day. Apart from the fact that my mum has been dead for 15+ years, are there women who unbox a laptop and say “Hmm... a laptop. On Mother’s Day. Just what I always wanted. How thoughtful”?

And then there was the direct mail that arrived last week headlined “Tulips in Amsterdam. Waterfalls in Norway. Your favourite destinations are coming to life, with smaller crowds and lower travel costs...” Damn right there’s smaller crowds, but you can’t actually get there.

This was an offer from All-Clear Travel Insurance which, guess what, wasn’t even offering cover against the very thing you might want cover against.

I’d like to show you the letter, but in a fit of rage I tore it up.

The weird: not a lot of people know this...

A senior planner in the autumn of his career told me recently that he started his working life on a toilet-tissue brand (and some people might give their eye teeth to do that now, what with the possibility of ‘testing’ samples at home and all that).

In those days — perhaps it is true to a lesser extent these days — it was a requirement of the job that you knew and understood everything about the product.

He soon became an expert in what he called the ‘poke-through quotient’ of the tissue. In a bizarre way, he was quite proud of this, although it was not something he ever shared with friends or family.

The ability to acquire this sort of arcane knowledge is one of the things I love about the ad business.

I was reminded of this by a wonderful Twitter thread posted earlier this month by nomadic creative Faris Yakob in which he asked friend and followers to contribute items of weird stuff they found out while working on client briefs.
You can read it yourself here, but here’s a selection of things that made me smile: it’s like Trivial Pursuit IRL, although some may be urban myth.

Direct mail still works

Email marketing is more effective than social (in certain categories, I assume)

The PPC term ‘roulete’ costs more than the correctly spelled ‘roulette’ because people who can’t spell spend more on gambling

Scotland, along with Myanmar and North Korea, is one of the few countries where Coke is not the #1 soft drink (good old Irn Bru, eh?)

Last year a publisher produced 10,000 articles written by AI, and no-one noticed

Anyone working on Ann Summers is invited to visit the warehouse and help themselves to a sex toy

Mobile phones have more germs than toilets

Listerine is as effective as flossing

Sometimes, when clients give feedback, they’re quoting their mother

Eating chicken wings in bed is popular

Homes with pregnant women over-index on ‘new tyre’ searches

Gyms communicate more with heavy users than light ones; they don’t want to remind them they have a subscription they’re not using and risk cancellation

In concentrated form, cheese flavouring for crisps is corrosive

There are more saunas than cars in Finland, and 40% of Karhu beer is drunk in a sauna

Clients with marketing in their job title often don’t understand the first thing about it

Screen distractions

Blimey, you suddenly have all that extra time because working from home is so much more efficient; no commute; no pointless chat; no endless rounds of making tea for the team.

But so dull. What you now have is the opportunity for some screen distraction. You’ve all watched Mad Men, so we’ll park that.

So here is my list of five films set in and around the ad industry with which to while away the odd afternoon.

How to Get Ahead in Advertising. If you like your films surreal and black, and you’re uncomfortable about your chosen profession, Richard E Grant as Denis Dimbleby Bagley struggling to make an ad for spot cream is the man for you. This film is from 1989, peak Thatcher/peak Saatchi and Saatchi, peak London adland scene.

Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter? Never was the cliche ‘they don’t make them like this anymore' more apt than to describe this 1957 satire on Madison Avenue, starring Tony Randall as the eponymous copywriter who needs to persuade famous actress Jane Mansfield to endorse Stay-Put lipstick. Of course it’s dated, but the dialogue just crackles. Rock, by the way, finds success but moves to a farm to get away from it all.

FM. An eccentric bunch of DJs push QSkyFM station to the top of the ratings. Management decides to capitalise by maximising ads revenue, including running ads for the US Army. The DJs rebel, take control of the station and ban the ads. Set in 1970 so obviously wouldn’t happen now... but a great selection of time-capsule music.

What Women Want. I find it hard to imagine that this film could even be conceived now, let alone made, but 2000 seems like an age ago. Alpha male Mel Gibson is passed over for promotion at Sloane Curtis. He electrocutes himself in the bath and finds he has a superpower — the ability to hear what women are thinking. It all goes badly... before it goes well. Amiable rubbish, really.

Passion. Crime-meister Brian de Palma takes on the ad industry. Noomi Rapace nicks Rachel McAdams’ boyfriend, and in return she nicks Rapace’s viral idea for a smartphone campaign (very 2012). There’s blackmail, theft, murder, lots of blood, plot twists and a mysterious twin.

Are they about advertising? They’re about power, ego, identity, love, jeopardy, money, the changing human condition, revenge and betrayal. The same as every other film. It’s just that advertising is sometimes a good vehicle through which to tell the story.

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27 May 2020 

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