How the “outsiders” upped British creativity in marketing as well as music, literature and film in the 1960′s and ’70s

I am indebted to the brilliant contemporary British historian and storyteller Dominic Sandbrook and his excellent new history of British creative industries, “The Great British Dream Factory” (Allen Lane) for this post on creativity through diversity.

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I, we, talk a lot about diversity in our PR industry. A lot of our focus, rightly, is on greater gender equality. Indeed my firm has just published new research which looks at gender as a new driver of corporate reputation.

In advertising The 3% Conference  – see below – has highlighted that until recently only that tiny percentage of advertising creative directors were women, and now thanks to their campaigning that’s up to 11% and rising. I am also focused on racial and social diversity, the subject of previous blog posts and action by the PRCA, The Taylor Bennett Foundation and others.

Sandbrook highlights a previous case study in the British advertising industry in the 1960s. He notes that at the time agencies were “introverted, conservative, stuffy places dominated by the old officer class”.  Creatively ambitious recruits headed for New York and joined the Mad Men.

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When a young John Hegarty joined his first agency in 1965, he found “the staff consisted of public school educated account men who were trained only to say yes”.  He thought they were good for pouring the perfect G&T and little else.

Compared to their American counterparts, British TV ads were clunky, pedestrian, badly shot, badly acted and often hectoring and lecturing in tone. At the end of the 50′s British ads made up around 20% of TV and cinema entries at Cannes, but won few if any awards.

Within a decade or two, all this had changed. A golden age of British advertising came about, from the bike pushing Hovis boy to the hysterical Smash Martians, from Hamlet cigars soundtracked by Bach to the Sugar Puffs Honey Monster, and most admired of all Hugh Hudson’s surreal “Swimming Pool”.

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From 1974 to 1978, British ads went from winning bugger all at Cannes to dominating the festival, winning half the Golds as well as the top Grand Prix awards.

What changed? Sandbrook sees a crucial element being the rise of the ambitious, creative, post-war generation educated not at Sandhurst and Eton but grammar schools and art colleges (an interesting parallel with the rise of British pop that took America by storm in the 60s, The Beatles, the Stones et al, through to Roxy Music and Mick Jones, Viv Albertine etc in 70′s punk). “As outsiders they were naturally hungry for fame and fortune” notes Sandbrook, “but their ambitions were artistic as well as financial.”

Hegarty was the son of an Irish labourer who attended Hornsey College of Art. Alan Parker, who after advertising went on to direct “Fame”, “Bugsy Malone” and “Mississippi Burning”, was a painter and decorator’s son from North London. Another adman turned movie maker, David Puttnam, was also a grammar school boy outsider.  The Saatchi brothers were the sons of Iraqi Jewish immigrants. Ridley “Bladerunner” Scott went to Stockton on Tees Grammar and Hartlepool College of Art.

They were young, working or lower middle class, creative outsiders. They were the John Lennon’s of commercial visual art. Puttnam has talked about he and his fellow outsiders dreaming of ripping up “the world of privilege and position and place and deference”.

Fast forward to this decade.

The 3% Conference was founded to act on the depressing stat that only 3% of US advertising creative directors were women. “Diversity is the best thing that could ever happen to creativity” declared founder Kat Gordon last year,  talking of advertising being “broken due to a failure of imagination”. There is a growing body of evidence that diversity boosts creativity.

In PR we need to break the self-perpetuating cycle of largely white middle class university graduates who hire yet more white middle class university graduates. As Kat Gordon says; “What can we get from a room full of people in the same situation, validating instead of challenging each other?”

For the golden age of PR, itself rising at Cannes, we need more outsiders.

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