Revolutionaries get shot on the palace steps

Sergei M. Eisenstein's 1925 film, Battleship Potemkin

I have been giving a bit of thought to HHCL recently.

Howell Henry Chaldecott and Lury was the defining UK advertising agency of the '90s, Campaign magazine's agency of the decade and possibly the most idiosyncratic advertising company that has ever walked the face of the earth.

I should know, I worked in its various incarnations for nine years and still work for United London, one of its offspring.

There was a little reunion for HHCL people last week and as a result the legendary HHCL planner Jon Leach (he of Tango and the AA fame) has started to record the agency's achievements over at pattern recognition.

His aphorism for the fate of HHCL is that the pioneers always get scalped. Way back he had another but similar phrase to suggest that being radical was a good idea but being revolutionary was not - the revolutionaries get shot on the palace steps. Not always true but all too often the case.

At HHCL we genuinely tried to stay radical rather than revolutionary but maybe we strayed off the radical path rather too often. Ideas and approaches that are common place now (and often regarded with awe and respect) are often stuff we tried on people years ago and got ridiculed for - from media neutrality (we called it 3D marketing) to holding meetings with clients in virtual environments where everyone adopts and avatar (we called it howellhenryland). We even created the world's frist PVR friendly ad for Mazda (half a decade before they existed).

The example that grates most though is the idea of ethical marketing. About five years ago we tried to relaunch HHCL as the world's first ethical advertising company and created an idea called Responsible Desire. I even wrote a manifesto for Responsible Desire that I have posted previously but is worth another butchers at here.

Needless to say the marketing community laughed us out of court and we filed the idea in the bin marked 'nice thought but commercially irresponsible'.

Today the concept of sustainablity in business (prompted in large part by The Inconvenient Truth) is regarded as THE big idea - Greg Nugent from Eurostar talked at length about it at the APG's battle of the big thinking. Then shock horror Disney has decided to remove junk food from its parks and its characters from junk food.

Sometimes it doesn't pay to get to a great idea first - you just end up getting shot.

By the way here is that Blackcurrant Tango ad for old time's sake. Take it away Ray Gardner...


Ahhh, so thats the ad that Mr Cambell was telling me he got the Red Arrows involved with!

Love it.

Its sad that so many good revolutionaries get shot at. But better to be part of genuinely good revolution than be stuck in the old ways until its too late to do anything...

Posted by: Rob Mortimer at October 21, 2006 04:06 PM


Posted by: Rob Mortimer at October 21, 2006 04:09 PM

In the US I hear few to no agencies talking about social responsibility. A tiny firm called egg in Seattle is one; I'd love to know of any others.

Would you add any categories/companies to a list of firms a socially responsible company would not do business with?

Posted by: Stephanie at October 23, 2006 05:22 PM

Great post. I was talking to an art dealer the other day about the growing Chinesse art market. He said the first rule of art is you don't want to get on a hot trend too late, but it's just as bad to get to it too early.

Stephanie - We're hearing a lot about social responsibility (social marketing, reputation marketing, sustainability etc) in Canada; the idea that companies should incorporate social responsibility as part of their overall marketing strategies. Rationale being it's the right thing to do, but if done correctly it can and should be business building as well.

JWT in Toronto launch ethos jwt ( and has done a bit of world globally with NGO, not for profits, CPG companies and the like.

I think a lot of companies are warming to the idea. Walmart is talking about sustainability a lot. P&G in the US just announced compaction of their laundry products. That will reduce packaging and the contents needed to fill the bottle.

I think all companies will have to have sustainability as part of their overall strategy is they wish to stay competitive.

Posted by: Julien Coulter at October 24, 2006 03:54 PM

Creating sustainability in advertising and marketing is just another "big idea" bandwagon that everyone is going to jump on just cause some pseudo-famous ad-markcom jerks talked about it an elbow rubbing shindig. Unless you have a brand whose DNA is inherently about sustainability (i.e. Patagonia, Timberland, Ben and Jerries), putting a sociably responsible happy face on let's say BP or HSBC is only going to make consumers hate you more.

I'd also like to add that we are advertisers and marketers. The purpose of our existence is to sell more shit than the other guy. Otherwise, pink slips are awaiting. Don't waste your time trying to be socially responsible unless that's what your brand already represents.

mean green genie

Posted by: mean green genie at October 25, 2006 11:40 AM

Businesses are starting to understand that their very survival depends on sustainability (economically, socially and environmnetally) and transparency (because little brother is now watching them.

Indeed the most significant steps towards changing the way humanity impacts on each other and the planet will come from businesses seeing economic advantage in facilitating that change - through cost savings on production, competitive advantage and consumer affection.

I don't advocate marketing greenwash (though I do believe that any organisation can decide to sell responsibly)but I do advocate making significant steps towards sustainability part of any brand's communications.

And this can't just be about the little guys (unless they are going to be big guys any time soon). Lets face it Nestle going fairtrade would have a far more significant impact than any number of Cafe Directs.

Posted by: Richard at October 25, 2006 12:03 PM

True, but the reason Nestle have started a fairtrade coffe and would ever consider going that way is because of the brands like Cafe Direct.

Posted by: Rob Mortimer at October 25, 2006 11:04 PM

Is longevity the measure of success? Or is it influence?

HHCL influenced me more than anything else in the early 90s and like a great author, spawned lots of other developments (including St Luke's). We all owe it a debt of gratitude and maybe its even a good thing not to have an Elvis style middle age?

The mainstream will always be 12 years behind. CSR or 'Total Role in Society" as they called it was Andy Law and David Abraham's big idea for the future of advertising, back when we were in the Chiat/Day network in 94 - a good few years before Jonathon Porritt even coined the term sustainability. None of our clients bar the Body Shop remotely understood it, but it surely influenced all of us in our lives and subsequent careers.

I agree that what's next is seeing the opportunity. It's not about it being important it's about it being sexy. (RED), innocent, slow food pubs and similar are just the start. At least I'd like to hope so.

Posted by: John Grant at October 26, 2006 07:52 AM

Yep, St Luke's tended to get the trend a wee bit too early. We had an ad-funded TV programming division back in '99 when the opportunity to do such stuff was practically non-existent. We also did a precurser of MySpace music for BT when nobody had broadband (It was pretty popular nonetheless) When we announced that we were the world's first carbon-neutral agency a couple of years back we were mocked by Campaign (who did retract the next week after getting a bollocking on their letters page from all sorts of carbon neutral friendly people.) Actually, we wanted to respond by making Campaign carbon neutral whether they liked it or not, sort of eco-terrorism in a nice way.

Thing is, somebody's got to get there first and if you do, the anecdotes last forever.

Posted by: phil teer at October 26, 2006 02:13 PM

Wow - two St Lukes planning legends on one post.
I realise that there were two revolutionary agencies abroad in London in the 90s and in many ways St Lukes was more forward thinkingin the arena of business practice and social and environmental responsibility. We chared alot of DNA and some of my favourite thinking of all time comes from St Lukes.

Posted by: Richard at October 26, 2006 03:16 PM

Sorry to crash the party - I was reading all the glorious nostalgia and getting a bit misty-eyed. We did, of curse, steal most of our 'innovations' from HHCL and Chiat/Day. And Howard Goassage got there before any of us were even born.

Anyway, good to find you alive and kicking, Richard. Its been a while.

Posted by: Phil Teer at October 26, 2006 04:38 PM

'of curse' freudian slip phil?

I think what maide HHCL and St Lukes effective was that they used the ideas... it doesn't matter who had them first.

I recall AMV making the point about Brand Citizens (way ahead of Mike Willmott) as part of their Millenium project in 1997. They did nothing about it: HHCL and St Lukes did, so good for them.

Posted by: jemster at October 27, 2006 05:23 PM

Of course you are right. As movie scriptwriters like to say: all character is action.

I suppose its less about who got there first or whether later arrivers learnt from mistakes and made lots of dosh and more about the fact that a highly creative environment, firing on all cylinders is by nature an ideas-a-popping innovative kind of place and in the process of trying to reinvent everything will produce a lot of groundbreaking work. Anyway, too much nostalgia is never a good thing. Keep changing and the good ideas will keep coming.Why, just this afteernoon...

Posted by: phil teer at October 27, 2006 06:02 PM

Having just had a 9 year career break from advertising (at HHCL) I have just returned to find it much the same as in 1997. Why is the idustry wrestles so much with the basic concept of having good ideas? Not advertising ideas but business building cultural ideas (you can made damn fine ads from). It really is very easy. Hmmm.

Posted by: richard at October 27, 2006 07:28 PM