I’ve lost count of the amount of agency meetings I’ve been in over the last decade where someone from the agency (usually) or the client (occasionally) has uttered the phrase: 'we don’t want to get ourselves locked into a formula'.
This statement is normally followed by everyone in the room nodding sagely as if someone had just uttered an unarguably powerful truth. But I’m really not so sure about this, as I think generally that formulas tend to be quite good. Just ask Einstein.
What people generally mean when they say this is: 'we’ve just done an ad that was very successful and we’re not sure whether we can repeat the trick this time round'. It is a perfect get-out clause in case the next campaign you do for a client isn’t as loved or shared as the previous one. What would be more truthful to say, in my experience, would be 'we don’t want to get locked into a formula – unless we find one we all really like in which case we’ll repeat it forever until the cows (or gorillas, cute kittens, meerkats) come home'.
What exactly is wrong with formulas any way? I have to declare here that I love a good formula. I say find something good that works, repeat, then watch the pounds roll in. If the formula leads to good work, why would you change it for the sake of it? It smacks of self-indulgent industry-serving profligacy. The problem only comes when people repeat crap ideas, doesn’t it?
No one moaned at Ian Fleming that he needed to come up with another less-suave detective after his first novel. The world wasn’t screaming at JK Rowing to write something 'other than that speccy wizard' or criticising Beethoven for not inventing Hip Hop. Formulas work, they are useful and they are more-often-than-not also commercially successful. Agencies have to remember occasionally that they are not artists, but commercial artists.
Smash martians, PG Tips chimps, meerkats, Lineker and crisps, Leonard Rossiter/Joan Collins in Cinzano... etc, etc. If you look at lists of the most loved and lauded campaigns of the last few decades then you’ll find formulas all over them! Punters love formulas, and their attention spans are ten times longer than agency or client folk.
This month’s formula (in the words of Laurence Green, founder of agency 101, in 'Campaign' 13/03) is 'cute-animal-meets-cheesy-'80s pop-tune'.
I’m going to state very clearly for the record (and have to declare my interest as the planner on Three’s 'Pony' ad) that I reckon there is nothing wrong in this formula, at all. People like cute animals, people like '80s music – and unsurprisingly agencies are following this proven formula to create commercial impact for clients. It might be a little bit, ahem, ‘formulaic’ but it works.
I hope I’ve made the case that formulas are quite good things. Nothing wrong with following the Animals+Music=Success (or a+m=£) in my opinion.
And for any agency folk who are looking for the next pony, kitten, platypus, pug or budgie campaign, here’s one for you. Find a wombat, get a post-production house to stick him on a Pogo Stick, whack a Bonnie Tyler track on it and then take the rest of the year off. No need to thank me.
Kevin is executive planning director at mcgarrybowen London. Read more from him in our Library.