Summer Miscellany by John Fanning

Summer Miscellany


by John Fanning

The Marketing Society broke for the summer with an ambitious debate on the nature of consumerism. The line-up comprised historian Diarmaid Ferriter, journalist Margaret E Ward, singer/composer Julie Feeney, and economist/broadcaster Constantin Gurdgiev. The debate in IMMA at the National Concert Hall was compered by RTE presenter John Kelly who did a first-class job in drawing out contributions from the four egos.

The Earlsfort Terrace debate was held in the old UCD lecture theatre, which has a glorious and infamous debating history, having been for a long time the venue for the L&H meetings. No stranger to a little argy-bargy then and sure enough Ferriter and Gurdgiev obliged with a disagreement on the academic’s duty to provide ideas for the public, which required Kelly’s intervention to prevent a more serious bust-up.

The attendance was disappointing but it was probably the only evening of the whole sodden summer when you could enjoy a barbecue without an umbrella. The debate itself was difficult to keep on course, but Ward was for me the clear winner, making some interesting comparisons between consumer behaviour here and in the US and predicting a possible backlash against the hedonistic consumerism of the economic boom.

I hope the meagre attendance doesn’t deter the Marketing Society from a repeat exercise. For a business that’s always trying to predict what’s going to happen in the immediate future we show very little interest in history, oblivious to the fact that without a thorough understanding of the present we haven’t a hope of being right about the future and without a thorough understanding of the past we won’t understand the present.

Not that we are given any encouragement by the history boys. The aforementioned Prof Ferriter’s mighty history of Ireland in the 20th century, Transformations, manages almost 900 pages without once alluding to the advertising of the period and how it might throw some light on attitudes and mores. To be fair, his predecessors make the same omission and the only exception to my knowledge is Clair Wills’s That Neutral Isle, a history of Ireland from 1939-45, the period known as ‘The Emergency’, but known elsewhere, not least our nearest neighbour, for some inexplicable reason, as the Second World War.

Wills makes extensive use of the advertising during the period to illuminate her text and her thesis. All this is a long-winded introduction to a short history of one of the leading Irish admen of the 20th century, Kevin J Kenny, founder of Kenny’s Advertising in 1902, one of the leading stars in the Irish advertising firmament until it succumbed to the globalisation epidemic of the late 20th century.

Written by Kenny’s grandson, Colum Kenny, professor of communications at DCU and Sunday Independent columnist, the book concentrates on that exciting period of Irish history from the turn of the century to independence in 1922. Enthused by the idealism and possibilities ignited by the Irish literary revival a generation of lower middle-class young men who were as entrepreneurial as they were idealistic began to start businesses with the objective not just of making a living, but of building a nation.

Many of the advertising entrepreneurs began life as space salesmen for the flourishing publishing businesses of the time, the most famous of all of course being Leopold Bloom. In addition to his advertising business, Kenny was a prolific publisher of directories and was heavily involved in the business and political life of the city.

He was well acquainted with the political leaders of the time, including some of those executed for their part in the 1916 Rising. He stood (unsuccessfully) for election in 1923 as an ‘independent business candidate’ and along with colleagues like Charlie McConnell launched initiatives to develop the commercial life of the fledging state.

Like McConnell, he was an enthusiastic proselytiser of his chosen profession; “everything comes to him who waits but he who doesn’t advertise waits longest”. This fascinating memoir is available from publisher, Ox Pictures in Bray, and will be invaluable to future historians who want to study the extraordinary role of Irish advertising pioneers in developing the business life of the Irish Free State.

Today’s advertising leaders, beset by the problems posed by globalisation, digitalisation and whatever ‘isation’ you’re having yourself don’t seem to have the same time to engage with the political and administrative elite on wider issues facing the country.

This is regrettable as evidenced by the current proposal to ban cheese advertising during children’s designated TV times. I don’t know enough about the specific health issues to comment, but a few months ago a dental expert, being interviewed on RTE Radio’s News at One, bemoaned the lack of a chief dental officer in the Department of Health. When quizzed by a truculent Sean O’Rourke why the post was necessary in the first place, he replied that if an officer had been in place they could have prevailed against the silly ad ban because dentists know that cheese, in moderation, is good for children’s teeth.

Leading admen could have added weight to the argument by pointing out the importance of our dairy industry, which blessed by unique climatic conditions produces the finest dairy products in the world. To date, we haven’t always been able to capitalise fully on this natural advantage but a major new marketing initiative announced by Bord Bia aims to change all that and position Ireland as the world’s most sustainable source of food.

At a time when we should be taking pride in our natural produce and urging the rest of the world to taste the benefits of our largesse, the last thing we need is an official government indication that we are ashamed of one of these products. It wouldn’t happen in France. I recall years ago working on a pan-European campaign for Irish Distillers at a time when you could advertise whiskey on TV in many countries, except France.

Yet, you could advertise brandy on French TV, what a coincidence! When will we ever learn strategic, joined-up government thinking like the French? And finally… if we are going to be listened to, we need to be a little more careful about our language; we seem to be having trouble with the word ‘passionate’ at the moment. We can hardly be taken seriously if we keep running around like headless chickens telling everyone how “passionate” we are about this, that and the other. I’ve been waging a one-man war against the use of this word for some time, alas to no avail whatsoever.

But the cavalry was suddenly visible in a recent issue of Admap; the only journal to rival magazine for serious comment on marketing communications in these islands. Their redoubtable columnists, Les Binet and Sarah Carter, had this to say;

“In the world of marketing anyone who says they are passionate is either ignorant, a liar or a lunatic – passion is usually intransient, irrational and uncontrollable – it’s an unhinged state of mind, so when senior executives say they are passionate about their product or service, they are really saying that they are mad, or out of control.”

Thank you, Binet and Carter.


Pat Stephenson, Boys and Girls and Jonathan Ryan, Kraft Foods, at the Marketing Society debate on consumerism at IMMA in the National Concert Hall.

Sample Article Pullout


Recently I reviewed David Jones’s Who Cares Wins, where the CEO of global giant Havas and Euro RSCG argued that we are entering an ‘age of damage’ where businesses who are not socially responsible will be severely hit by a new digitally empowered generation who will reward businesses who will, so to speak, put ‘people before profits’.

Now there’s an offering suitably titled Uprising: How to Build a Brand and Change the World by Sparking Cultural Movements. It is penned by Scott Goodson, who just happened to be head honcho in another global agency; Strawberry Frog (it would be, wouldn’t it). He argues that there is a growing sense of restlessness among the great unwashed, as they look to businesses to be less interested in maximising shareholder revenue and more concerned with improving the societies in which they operate.

So what is it about all these high-flying mad men suddenly getting in touch with their inner Joe Higgins? I can’t really answer that one, but it suggests to me that this little financial crisis of ours may be in the process of changing more than how we regulate the financial services sector. There are however differences in approaches in the two books. Uprising is less idealistic and although sincere in wanting businesses to be more responsive to a wider range of stakeholders than would have been normal in the past, it sees social responsibility as a way of solving one of the most pressing problems for all businesses today; how to stand out from your competitors, when in most industry sectors the public can’t see any difference in quality, value for money or service delivery.

The book’s main recommendation is to define not what a business does, nor how a business does it, but to go back to the more fundamental question of why the business was set up in the first place: what is it ultimately trying to achieve? One of the most intriguing examples of arriving at a suitable definition is from Mars’s Pedigree Chum. The marketing department reassessed its role and purpose and came to the conclusion that the basic raison d’etre was a belief in dogs, that they were there to support the canine population. This led them to produce a new company handbook, Dogma, and a new philosophy; ‘We’re for Dogs’. This may all seem a bit schmaltzy, but it apparently had a profound effect on employees, who were no longer working for a company that made petfood but for a company who supported, what is often called, man’s best friend.

To further emphasise the point, employees were allowed bring their dogs to work and healthcare benefits were extended to employees’ dogs. The author acknowledges that there have been examples of successful campaigns in the past which have tried to create a ‘movement’, a kind of crusade in favour of what one brand stands for in opposition to a dominant ideology of the time which characterised competitive brands.

A famous example would have been DDB’s classic VW campaigns in the 1950’s and 60’s featuring the much-publicised ‘Think Small’ and ‘Lemon’ print ads. Goodson argues that this campaign was built around a vague dissatisfaction with 1950’s American consumerism and a ‘bigger is better’ approach. He argues that there is a similar sense of dissatisfaction out there today. The financial crisis and consequent economic recession and slowdown is an obvious cause of our discontent but he suggests that this may only be part of a wider malaise with people in search of a greater sense of meaning and purpose.

Goodson quotes Daniel Pink and his theories which he wrote about in Drive – how people are looking for mastery, autonomy and connectedness, rather than purely monetary rewards. Not everyone will buy into all of Goodson’s thesis but this is a stimulating read and he even adds a cool new acronym; “It’s a permanently VACU world out there folks”. Volatile, Ambiguous, Complex, Uncertain…since you ask.

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