Phil Bilbrough: The easiest and hardest advertising campaigns

The easiest and hardest

By Phil Bilbrough

The easiest was my first. The hardest I’ve yet to do. I’m not talking about taking grief and a “hard” time getting the campaign out the door. All campaigns that I have development had wobbles, difficult clients, and dickhead creatives. I’m talking about being asked to tackle a problem through advertising that is tackled each year by many agencies in many countries for many years. That’s hard.

But the first the easiest. Early in my career I was a marketing co-ordinator for a Christchurch electronics firm. One day they decided to run an international advertising campaign – their first ever – and they told me to do it by the means of dropping a bunch of telecommunications engineering (telephony) magazines on my desk. They didn’t use words back then.

I went to work and came up a with a concept using ocean going racing sailing yachts to illustrate the “must-not-fail” and performance benefits of our industrial telecommunications products. My bosses said nothing about my concept, but queried the costs. As the ads rolled out, and media invoices rolled in and the exchange rate dived the bosses queried the costs with intent… until the first inquiry came in.

A telecom from a large persian country called. The earnest silence of the company quietened further, a few people went pale, and then the scurrying began and didn’t stop. Million dollar orders weren’t uncommon, tens of millions happened twice a year – this order promised another zero. This came from their first ad in the first publication of their first campaign. Nobody showed any interest in the campaign or me after that… I should put this success down to my genius, but I haven’t. The lesson here is that if a company has never advertised then the first time that they do, with a decent budget, it will be a success.

The hardest campaign is when you are the latest in a long line of campaigns about the same thing. Most ad agencies have done an anti-drink or anti-drink driving campaign. The measures of success could include less fatalities on the highways, less late night fires in the kitchens, less domestic violence, less fights, less vandalism, less vomit on streets, less all blacks in the news….If I were asked to come up with the lasted campaign after 40 years of ad agencies trying, I would feel some trepidation.

The Gruen Transfer discussed Australian and English ads in this drunken sector. It was a pity that they didn’t have a look at us, because, as I’ve said before in this blog that I think NZ agencies develop great campaigns for the Government, and to prove me right there is the “Ghost Chips” ad.

The Gruen panel were generally pretty hard on the Australian (and British) alcohol abuse ads. The exception was an ad made by the Australian alcohol industry and that irony wasn’t lost on anyone. My feeling was that the panel were too tough. I thought that they were all pretty good. (I’m embarrassed that this Gruen episode is not yet online.)

I think that ad agencies and whoever briefs them do OK, because its an impossible task.  Ad campaigns can only do so much to limit drug abuse. Alcohol, a socially acceptable drug, temporary releases people from their mundane lives and clumsy banter and nervousness and that is more than enough to give it god like status.

The examples showed on Gruen Transfer offered different strategies. And each strategy seemed (to me without having read the research) valid. So where would I go if I got briefed to do a stop drinking or start drinking responsibly campaign? I don’t know. Perhaps try not to feel weighed down by the great work that has gone before… so I would probably re-watch Gruen and try and get them to make me feel more superior to everything that has gone before.


Phil Bilbrough is a freelance online advertising specialist who is blogging on the subject for Scoop at He can be contacted at

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