Welcome to the first in our new series of intra-agency dialogues on what makes for compelling communication today. Here, Insight and Strategy Developer Jesper (left) and Concept Developer Aaron discuss whether there is a lack of ambition in Danish TV advertising.
Aaron: Hi Jesper, I want to kick things off with a hypothesis that might be a bit controversial – the overwhelming majority of Danish TV advertising is bland and largely forgettable and is a reflection of the national wariness of standing out.
Apart from Partners’ ‘Så godt som hjemme’ campaign from a while back, I honestly can’t think of any TV work that has really moved me. 99% of what I see just feels very tactical and generic. There’s nothing that punches me in the stomach with emotional power, there’s no zaniness that makes me stop and go ‘woah, what was THAT?!’.
Bernbach said that in advertising ‘not to be different is virtually suicidal’. Which Danish brands are really daring to be different? My feeling is that Danish marketing directors are victims of a culture that instinctively shies away from difference. And that results in advertising that is homogeneous and boring.
Here’s an ad from British retailer John Lewis that ran a few years ago. For me, it’s ambitious in a way you just don’t get here. Its theme is huge – growing up and raising a family – and its execution is just peerless. It’s powerful communication that touches people emotionally and connects them to the brand. I’ve seen nothing comparable here.
Jesper: The John Lewis ad is sublime. I actually got emotionally touched by it. It builds on the insight of the life that most dream of to some extent – loving and being loved while enjoying the greater moments in life. Great execution. My cold Scandinavian heart thinks that it is borderline over the top, but it manages to stay on the right side in a very subtle way.
From a planner’s point of view the greatness of the SAS campaign primarily was in the insight that when we are abroad exploring the world (which everyone likes) we feel right at home as soon as we see/get into the SAS airplane with Danish speaking stewardesses, Danish newspapers, Danish food and the heritage of SAS as a Scandinavian pride (maybe to a lesser extent). Then comes the creative execution, which was just brilliant…that is your part of the game.
You mentioned Danish brands being afraid to take risks. Danish brands have taken risks over the years. For instance, the “Knolø” concept by Føtex, which however completely fell through and ended up with a rescue campaign (“Føtex er sej, vi gør mere for dig”) that incidentally happened to be talk of the town for a while – without reaching any creative heights whatsoever. It’s a brave brand manager in these economically difficult days who’s willing to do something totally offbeat. It does not happen very often, but it does happen.
This leads to your point about a lack of ambition. Well, good branding is also about having the budgets for it. Denmark is a small country and the dilemma brands face is: “If we spend money on TV, it has to sell right away”. In Denmark most brands are built in small steps – selling along the way…hence, we never reach greater heights due to lack of ambition on behalf of the brand. No one seems to believe that spending money and time on building a strong brand properly will pay off in the long run. They don’t believe in long runs – they only believe in short wins.
Aaron: I remember the Knolø campaign – it certainly stood out! I’m wondering if the problem there was that it came from a big, well-established retailer like Føtex that didn’t have a history of daring, leftfield advertising. Perhaps it was just too big a leap and it ended up confusing people by eroding their perception of the brand. In that sense, I agree that ‘weird’ advertising should still serve to deepen or enhance people’s affinity with a brand. Perhaps it’s easier for a newer, or a challenger brand to do a Knolø?
But there’s still a distinction for me between ‘weird’ advertising and the more ambitious advertising (like the John Lewis ad) that seeks to go beyond rational product messaging and really connect with people. As we all know, we’re in an era where interruptive messaging is notoriously easy to ignore. People have never been more empowered in terms of which brands’ messaging they choose to allow in their lives. If you make a piece of film that people can love, they will repay that effort – they’ll share it with their friends and amplify your reach. Right now there’s nothing to love on Danish TV.
Jesper: Well, I simply think that there were two problems with the Knolø concept:
1. No link to what it was all about
2. No appeal and misunderstood use of humour
So, I don’t think that it was too big a leap for an established brand. If the idea is great any brand – new or old – can pull anything off. It simply wasn’t in sync with the mood of the target group. It is highly unlikely that this concept was actually tested on the target group – otherwise, it would have been “back to the drawing board”. Actually, I find two David Ogilvy quotes appropriate here: “If it doesn’t sell, it isn’t creative.” And: “What really decides consumers to buy or not to buy is the content of your advertising – not its form.”. Knolø had no content, a forced form AND it did not sell – that is not what I consider to be creative.
I agree with you that people are being more and more careful about which brands they let into their lives, and that if you engage them by making ads they love, you are in a good place as sharing has never been easier – hence everything will spread like rings in the water. However, that is no guarantee of success for at least two reasons:
1. The person sharing will inevitably rub off on the brand perception in the minds of others
2. They might not be the ambassadors we want for our brand.
Success is volatile in a world where everyone and everything is competing for just a brief moment of a person’s time. So to state the obvious: one great ad won’t do. It has to be consistent over time, yet adaptable and evolving in order to keep people engaged. A very tricky balance!
To your last point – and to get things down to earth again – I actually love the current campaign on Danish TV for Oister mobile. I find it very distinct and memorable for the tele market, and I think it is a wise move to have cartoon oysters singing the selling points in a reggae song. I wouldn’t say that it touches me on a deeper level, but it makes me laugh, so I guess I consider it creative:
Aaron: I think we’re coming full circle now because to me the Oister commercial, which is admittedly very cute and catchy, is ultimately just a series of product claims sung by computer animated characters. There’s a phrase in our industry that goes something like ‘if you can’t say it, sing it’ and that’s what’s at work here.
I think you’ve covered the rational reasons for why there is so little epic and emotional advertising on Danish TV but I still want to challenge you on the cultural aspects: isn’t there a fear of standing out that leads to marketing managers taking the safe choice every time? And isn’t that symptomatic of the national character?
Jesper: I don’t think there is a fear of standing out – standing out is essentially what every marketing director dreams of regardless of national character. But you do have a point. There is certainly a lack of balls, or, to put it less bluntly, a lack of willingness to try something more creative and stand out. The responsible marketing directors are simply too focused on short-term wins and too conservative, so most advertising ends in the gutter.
I sometimes wonder why there seems to come much more original creative output from Swedish agencies. In many ways Swedes are “the Germans of the Nordics” – safe and to the point. So why is creativity in Sweden taken to a higher level? I don’t believe that the reason is bigger budgets only (it plays a part) or that people from Sweden are more creative. I believe that they just have an environment, where the clients also have ambition for the brands (and not just for selling products), which allows the agencies to have a bigger playground that essentially leads to more sustainable brand building that also sells in the long run.
So in conclusion: I wouldn’t blame national character. It might have something to do with the context of marketing environments in Denmark, but I don’t believe that marketing directors are afraid of standing out.
One last note that might rip this discussion right open again: looking at Danish TV ads it seems that 90% have “Danish humour” built into them. Could that be the reason that you think it does not take off creatively? Can great advertising contain humour? I think it is a difficult balance. However, whenever people ask me what my favourite ad is, the first one that comes to mind from the last decade is this one from CareerBuilder.com – the insight is so obvious and the execution nails it:
Aaron: I think you make a fair point about my sensitivity (or lack thereof) to Danish humour. Though I’ve lived here 7 years, of course I’m never going to understand all the nuances. But the fact that I don’t get all the jokes doesn’t disguise the bigger picture which I think we now agree on – marketers need to think bigger on behalf of their brands. But I also think it’s our job at agencies to make the business case for creativity.
When you’re working in a risk-averse environment it’s even more important to fight for the big, bold, brash idea. It’s easy to tone your own ideas down if you know deep down it won’t get made. That’s dangerous for any creative I think.
And thanks, I’d never seen that Career Builder ad – monkeys are never not funny! While we’re talking favourite ads, here’s mine, from back in 1997. This is everything I think a good TV ad should be – original, ballsy, unexpected and, most importantly, impossible to ignore:
The views expressed above are the writers’ own but we’d love to know your thoughts too. Join the conversation in the comments!
Here’s a terrific short video with Dan Wieden outlining his take on the future of TV and its relationship with interactive media (I don’t want to choose between TV and interactive. That’s ridiculous. It’s like saying, ‘Choose between your left hand and your right hand.’ I want to use both hands!)
He makes some insightful points about the enduring importance of broadcast (TV commercials) when it comes to creating the attention needed for effective engagement and online interaction. And he also reasserts the Wieden + Kennedy mantra that ‘this business is not about selling, this business is about creating the strong, provocative relationships between good companies and their customers.’ While not everyone agrees with him on that, it’s difficult to argue with an agency that has helped to create such strong positions for clients like Levi’s, Chrysler and Nike.