Isn’t it iconic? Maybe not…

Ads to Icons
June 22, 2007

Start as you mean to go on” is a precept Paul Springer obviously holds dear. At the beginning of Ads to Icons , he quotes the hackneyed old maxim: “I know half my advertising budget is wasted. But I’m not sure which half,” and he attributes it to the late industrialist Lord Leverhulme. Although it sounds pregnant with meaning, this maxim is vacuous twaddle, as many advertising writers have pointed out. Does it mean half of every commercial is wasted, every second poster site is wasted or what? The Leverhulme attribution is mistaken, too. The maxim is a bastardisation of something said by New York Times publisher Adolph Ochs in 1916.

Having launched himself into vacuous twaddle and mistakes, Springer goes for them full tilt. I hesitate to mention many of the errors in the book, as the review copy was a proof and it is to be hoped they will be corrected. But lots of the mistakes are built into the text. Springer claims that the difference between what is called above-the-line advertising (television, press, posters and so on) and below-the-line advertising (for example, direct mail and promotions) was defined by the old advertising agency commission system, under which agencies charged 17.5 per cent (wrong figure, he means 17.65 per cent) on above-the-line advertising and less on below-the-line. This is rubbish. He believes it was changed in 1992 when clients decided to pay only 4-8 per cent to their agencies. More twaddle. It was changed, but not to 4-8 per cent, and in 1979, after the extension of the Restrictive Trades Practices Act to service industries made the agency commission system unlawful.

So it goes on, for page after erroneous page, reaching its apogee towards the end when Springer says advertising agencies launched between the late 1950s and late 1980s tended “to bear the names of the collaborative teams who founded them.

Typically, a combination of creative, financial director and strategist” (yet more ­twaddle). As examples, he lists the names of five agencies, getting several of the partners’ names and roles wrong, including: “Abbott (planner) Mead (business) and Vickers (creative).” In a book about advertising, this is an almost unbelievable gaffe. Abbott Mead Vickers is the largest agency in Britain and has been since 1996. Far from being a planner, David Abbott was the foremost British creative copywriter of the 20th century. Peter Mead and Adrian Vickers are both client service directors; neither was a planner nor in charge of “business”.

The structure of the book is no better. Chapters one to six outline 50 case studies of “iconic advertising from around the world”. Nowhere does Springer define what he means by “iconic advertising”, but I doubt any advertising practitioner would recognise the selected 50 as iconic. Nor are the “case studies” more than flimsy sketches. In many of them, the budget is not given, the results are risibly vague and Springer accepts their protagonists’ claims of success without demur. These are the kind of sloppy case studies students and trainees are taught not to write.
The Institute of Practitioners in Advertising’s Effectiveness Awards — which have now been running for over a quarter of a century — exemplify how case studies should be written: rigorously and sceptically. None of Springer’s case studies would be acceptable from a first-year marketing student. Which brings us to another boo-boo. The final chapters of the book, which purport to analyse the feeble case studies and “provide food for thought”, show an awesome misunderstanding of what marketing is — confusing it with marketing communications — another dreadful gaffe.

What does it all mean? Springer sums his book up in a final, enigmatic sentence: “When ads are our icons, all space is adspace”. You cannot say less than that.

Winston Fletcher is chairman, The Royal Institution.

Ads to Icons: How Advertising Succeeds in a Multimedia Age

Author - Paul Springer
Publisher - Kogan Page
Pages - 336
Price - £29.99
ISBN - 9780749449360

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