Steve Harrison is a legendary copywriter, creative director, and author who has seen the advertising world go through peaks, troughs, and total reconstruction. We spoke to him about leading teams through upturns and downturns, about exploitation and fast turnover during the digital uprising, and about his love for simple, problem-solving advertising that puts the customer first.
Hough: Throughout your career, you’ve lead teams and organizations through both “recession and renaissance”. Are there any particular leadership principals that helped you to continue getting great creative work from yourself and others over the years?
Harrison: I’m a firm believer in process, and probably the most important process is that of the brief. It’s my opinion that if the brief that goes to the creative department isn’t right, then the creative work won’t be right either. During the ‘good times’, when you have the luxury of time and money and clients who are on your side, those processes are quite easy to stick to. But in recession, when you have clients who are worried about the bottom line and about their jobs, and they’re putting you under pressure, the temptation is to cut the process stage in order to rush things through to the client. And that is a huge mistake. In bad times, more than good, you must keep your nerve and stick to best practice. As far as leadership is concerned, in these moments, leaders need to have an almost innate understanding of when their team is at a love-forty moment, and should have the ability to get the situation back to deuce, and then hand it back to them.
Hough: It’s been a few years now since you “left agency life.” Can you comment on how the role of the agency has changed over the past decade, and the advantages, perhaps, of witnessing these changes and challenges from an outsider’s perspective?
Harrison: Well, this ties into my first point about sticking to best practice. I think post-Lehman Brothers, post-financial crisis, the mindless embracing of digital by clients and the unscrupulous selling of digital by agencies put the offline world of advertising very much on the back-foot. Many agencies gave up on the best-practices that made them reliable and dependable partners to their clients. Because digital could be turned around in a heartbeat, advertising could now be turned around in a heartbeat. And of course it can! But you can have it quick, or can have it good. I’m afraid we sacrificed the latter for the former. Bill Bernbach said you haven’t had a principal until it costs you money. I don’t think there are too many advertising agencies that are willing to sacrifice money in order to have the principals that enable them to do their jobs properly.
Hough: It’s not just the world of agencies that’s changed over the years, but that of their clients too. Likewise, here at the Berlin School, we teach an eclectic mix of creative and corporate minds. Copywriting is an area that bridges these two skillsets. What golden nuggets of advice do you offer these students, who often have polar opposite ways of looking at a brand?
Harrison: To me, the answer is quite simple. Whether you’re on the client side or the creative side, you don’t actually have a point of view. It isn’t your point of view that you need to get across – it’s the customer’s point of view. You’re not writing for yourself as a creative and you’re not writing for yourself as the client. You’ve got to see the world through the eyes of the person you’re selling to and trying to help. If you approach a job with the self-conscious awareness that you’re the client or the creative, then you’re doomed to fail. You need to forgot your job title and your discipline – it’s the customer that’s important.
Hough: If you could renew one ad campaign from your lifetime, which one would it be and why? (It doesn’t have to be your own work!)
Harrison: Blimey, there are countless! I love great advertising and I regard bad advertising in the way that an environmentalist looks at a beach strewn with plastic bags. It horrifies me. But I love that pristine beach of great advertising. If I had to pick just one, I’d have to pick the Volkswagen Snowplow commerical because it was such a breakthrough piece of work. I’m a great believer that great advertising is a simple execution of problem/ solution. You identify the problem and you posit your product as the solution. The Volkswagen was almost impossible to sell in America in 1960. But through research they found that it was genuinely the most reliable car in the world. And in the US in 1960, this message was a wonderful thing. Everything else that was being sold in this buoyant consumer society had something called “built in obsolescence” – they were made to break down, so that people would buy a new car, year after year. Here, you had a car that would start every time, no matter the conditions. If you lived in the Midwest, which is anywhere between New Jersey and the Rocky Mountains, and, if you’ve ever survived a winter there, then you’ll know you’ll might need to be dug out of your house four or five times a year. Look at that in the context of this TV spot: “The Volkswagen is the most reliable car in the world. It starts first time, every time.” The film was simply a dramatization of that, and it’s regarded by people smarter than me as the greatest commercial ever.