Given how important fame is to any campaign or brand, we don’t talk about it enough argues Faris Yakob.

The day before the pandemic really kicked off I got to have lunch with Paul Feldwick in London. We had attended the inaugural meeting of The Attention Council and were invited out afterwards, where we sat next to each other and had a delightful discussion. A day later I was changing my flight and hurtling back to the USA to hunker down. How fast things change! Well, some things do, and some things don’t.

I am a Feldwick fan, ever since reading his book What is Brand Equity, Anyway? Published in 2002, it was the summation of his various writings from the 90s in which he explored the then novel idea of accreting brand value, rather than simply reinforced brand image. He explained that it is a necessarily vague, multivariate idea, like ‘personal health’ or a ‘sound economy’, both complex topics that have been salient in the last year. “Such questions” he wrote “are not answered fully by any one measure” because they are diffuse and inherently complex. This is, of course, always the right answer if you are a strategist. The only answer that is always true is “it depends”.

In his new book, Why Does the Pedlar Sing?, he delves deeper into the many possible ways that advertising works through the different models that have captured our collective imagination across advertising eras. Our mantras and slogans change while humans remain the same. He draws from his own experience to unveil some of the ordinary chaos that lies beneath the heavily redacted case histories we submit to award shows.

The idea that was ultimately produced as the long-running, effectiveness award-winning BarclayCard campaign featuring hapless secret agent Richard Latham started life in the winning pitch as something very different. Time pressure fomented the conditions that allowed a thought from a focus group about an abandoned direction, suggesting they “use Rowan Atkinson, anyway, because he’s usually funny whatever he does” to rise to the fore. The agency approached him and he agreed but only on the proviso that he play a new character he was developing... 

Understanding Fame

Read an exclusive essay from Paul Feldwick based on his new book, Why Does the Pedlar Sing? On WARC.

In the advertising industry we have spent the last couple of decades getting up to speed on modern behavioural economics and psychology, developing our current new model. We have begun to understand and research the drivers of brand growth as they work inside people’s heads. We have accepted that reach matters, penetration is the key driver of growth, and that the creative element has a disproportionate impact on the effectiveness of media spend. Mental availability is key, building and refreshing memory structures is the role of advertising.

However, as Feldwick points out, “mental availability – the likelihood that a brand will come to an individual’s mind fluently in as many situations as possible – is a psychological construct.” How does one come to create it, more efficiently and effectively? Despite the endless flux of modernity and all its new marketing opportunities, and the knowledge that “it depends”, Feldwick comes to a singular conclusion: fame, and it ever was thus. 

Fame is the driver of successful advertising and a social construct. It emerges from the interactions between people, the media, and each other. For something to be famous it’s not enough that we know about it - simple awareness - but rather that we also know that other people know about it. Something cannot be famous to a single person.

As described by Binet and Field in their effectiveness research, fame is the biggest driver of commercial impact and fame advertising made “people feel differently about the brand…in a way that inspired them to share their enthusiasm on and offline.”

Feldwick’s thesis is that as advertising began to professionalize a century ago it, consciously and unconsciously, tried to sever the industry’s link to singing pedlars, patent medicine hawkers and the master of humbug, P.T Barnum. In doing so we anchored to rational models of message transmission, consumer benefits, and selling propositions (unique or otherwise), surrendering to the left-brain analytical model of communication. We began to decry borrowed interest, interrogate the products and lean into selling as the primary model for advertising. As David Ogilvy wrote, “Don’t sing your selling message. Selling is a serious business”, hoping to appeal to the serious-minded clients of his time. Advertising needed to be taken seriously and so abjured the frivolity and frippery that often seems the hallmark of famous things. The nascent industry wanted to guarantee results, so it created logical models for advertising effect, learning to measure what it could, and what gets measured gets done.

Agencies couldn’t tell clients that all fame is dependent on some element of luck, because ‘being lucky’ isn’t a comforting strategy for consumer packaged goods manufacturers. As Feldwick goes on to establish, the components of fame are replicable but not sufficient, there is always some unknown ingredient. That said, it’s an agency’s ability to put on a show, creating something distinctive, compelling and enjoyable, somehow tied back to mortgages or chocolate bars, that is of “central importance to creating the fame which makes brands so potentially lucrative and valuable.” 

Over the last year, in times of ongoing and acute personal and professional strife, it’s been even harder that usual to consider how to make advertising fun. Read the room! But at its most powerful, that’s what advertising is: fun to watch, to read, to engage with. Enjoyable, in and of itself, rather than simply a sugar-coated sales message we can trick people to swallow. Sometimes, if an idea has some intrinsic merit, can reach enough people often enough, is distinctive enough, and inspires people to talk about it, it becomes famous. That is and should be the ultimate goal of all advertising.

Successful creative leaders have always intuitively understood this. In 2009 Jeff Goodby bemoaned that most of that year’s Cannes winners went to activities no one outside of advertising had ever heard of. “I think we have to demand that awards judges take into account the sheer ‘famousness’ of a piece of work when they make their determinations”.

Even earlier, the sage of WPP Jeremy Bullmore penned a reasonably famous essay that every practitioner should read, Posh Spice and Persil, in which he foregrounds a quote from Victoria Beckham’s autobiography: “Right from the beginning, I said I wanted to be more famous than Persil Automatic.” Persil, a Unilever brand known as Omo in much of the world, is undeniably famous in the UK. As Bullmore points out, Posh Spice had fantastic instincts because "the only thing all successful brands have in common is a kind of fame”. New disciples of the Ehernberg-Bass Institute will be gladdened to know that it was arguably Ehrenberg himself who first established this idea. Based on his lifetime of research he finally decided that advertising is “mere publicity” and Alex Bogusky echoed this in his creative principles at CPB, where he insisted that good advertising must generate its own headlines.

Those of us without the publicity instincts of Goodby, Bogusky or Posh Spice will have to wrestle with our analytic minds, which tend to revert to rational models when we go to work even if we intellectually appreciate they aren’t what works.

As the miasma of the pandemic begins to clear, bold brands emerge eager to capitalize on a cautiously embolden customer base. Wrigley’s Extra gum didn’t build their new anthemic commercial from a unique benefit of their particular product (it launched as the manufacturer’s first sugar-free product) but rather from a new sentiment in the increasingly vaccinated USA. The big budget spot shows people emerging from a year of solitary and enjoying themselves, a lot, with each other, in many places (great for broad mental availability in various contexts) while Celine Dion sings “It’s All Coming Back To Me”. It’s over the top, heart-warming, mainstream and well timed to sneak in just ahead of the inevitable wave of post-pandemic positivity advertising that’s about to appear.

I’m now talking about it via the media to you, so with a bit of luck it might become famous enough to generate outsized benefits for the Extra brand. Hopefully it’s a harbinger of fun. As we like to say at Genius Steals, it won’t be any good if it isn’t any fun.