The Strategy Interview

Tony Brignull, Senior CopywriterAbbott Mead Vickers, BBDOLondonTony Brignull began his career in advertising in 1959 as a trainee at J. Walter Thompson in London. A winner of three d&ad gold awards and 18 d&ad silver honors, Brignull is now senior copywriter...

Tony Brignull, Senior Copywriter

Abbott Mead Vickers, BBDO


Tony Brignull began his career in advertising in 1959 as a trainee at J. Walter Thompson in London. A winner of three d&ad gold awards and 18 d&ad silver honors, Brignull is now senior copywriter at Abbott Mead Vickers, BBDO in London. He made his reputation at Collett Dickenson Pearce and Doyle Dane Bernbach, both in the British capital. Brignull was guest speaker at the Newspaper Marketing Bureau’s Extra awards earlier this month.

Q. In Canada, the traditional agency-client relationship has taken a real bruising led by the very large clients. What’s the situation like in Britain?

A. Yes, they are calling the shots, the big retailers, and the car companies, of course. The brewers perhaps not so much; they’ve always been the most generous with their trust in their agencies, probably because they know they don’t have a logical story to tell. They don’t have a price story; they know they have to charm. So they’ve always done some of the best advertising in Britain.

However, in almost every other sector, the recession has caused clients to get nervous. And when they’re nervous, they’re jumpy, and they make the agencies jump, too.

Our biggest client, Sainsbury’s [a supermarket chain] is going on the defensive, cutting back all what you might call its brand advertising because supermarkets in Britain have become beholden to prices. Price, price, price. As a consequence, their advertising is very similar to everybody else’s.

Q. At your own shop, 10 years ago a large client would have demanded this, now it’s that.

A. Those clients, the p&gs, the Mars, haven’t changed at all. They have always demanded compliance with their wishes, which is, ‘If you wish to work with us, you do it our way. Take it or leave it.’ In return for which they pay virtually full commission, are very loyal, and they flatter you to death.

Meanwhile, big clients are definitively aggressive now. They want to scream at [consumers,] ‘This is the best, believe us, it is the best.’ It’s funny how quickly even the most educated clients who’ve chosen a great agency can go backward.

Q. How can agencies regain the trust of clients? In Britain, has creative complacency crept in?

A. I suspect that clients want agencies to be in the shape they are. I don’t think they want to see them fragmented. They want to feel that they are substantial; their financial grounding is safe and sound. And that they are run by businesspeople.

And then, on top of that, the creativity is there. And yetÉit’s very tempting for a client, when everything else has failed, [to say] ‘Now I’m going to kick the agency.’

I think agencies simply have to stick to their creative guns and their principles, whatever it costs, and keep saying, ‘This isn’t the way to do it, there is a better way.’ Never take it lying down; otherwise they will walk all over you.

Q. You’ve said the competition for customers is fierce in Britain, and deal-making is now standard. Do you welcome this change?

A. Yes, yes I do. But it has, from an advertising point of view, made our lives much more difficult because the money’s going there, it’s not going into brand advertising. As I said, the supermarkets in Britain have become their own brands now, their own brand values.

I believe that they will come back to [brand advertising] because there is no alternative to it. Once all the prices are the same, what are they going to say?

Q. A common practice here is for American creative to be imported and given a Canadian voiceover, or have a two-second Canadian shot edited in. To what extent is the British advertising community concerned about this sort of practice?

A. [Canadians] have a right to be concerned about [globalization.] Not so much that the consumer minds terribly, but that it does demoralize the local agencies.

I believe it works when the products are American. I don’t mind Pepsi-Cola running American ads in Britain. They’re usually very well done these days.

It’s when you get American ‘tat’ exported, which is bad advertising in America, and it’s worse when it gets across the Atlantic and it’s cut down to 40 seconds, or 50, or something of that sort.

Q. From what you’ve seen of Canadian advertising [Brignull was in Canada five days] how does it stack up?

A. It’s not yet first division, I’m afraid. You wouldn’t even include it up there with Australia and Spain.

Canadian advertising is at the top of the second division, I would say. Better than Italy, France, Germany.

I haven’t seen a lot of the television, so we’re discussing print advertising.

There aren’t great print campaigns, not really serious, big, long-term campaigns in which it’s always there, always talking to you, making a friend of the reader.

It must be that print is used with the bit of money that’s left over from television.

What print I’ve seen… there is obviously talented people there. There’s some nice stuff, even the small ads have been well thought out. The desire is there.

What you need is the commitment of certain big advertisers to take the medium seriously. That way you would get some long-term campaigns.

That way you would attract more and more creative people, and more and more other people to take the medium seriously.