Dave Dye talks to Steve Harrison about his latest book 'Can't Sell, Won't Sell', career and whether advertising is eating itself.

Published on: 21st July, 2021

When I started out, lunch with my old writer Sean would end with ‘Right, let’s shift some product’.

It was irony, of course. It’s rare for creatives talk like that.

If you’d have asked me at that time about the performance of one of my ads, I’d have given you a ton of awards data, but nothing on sales.

To be fair, awards won are what creatives are salaried on, not units sold.

And if you’ve ever sat on an awards jury you’ll know that it’s not exactly a scientific process – do the assembled bunch of people like your ad or not?

Having won a few awards I started being given more responsibility, meeting the people who paid for the work I was entering; clients.

Consequently (if you’re a human being) you find you don’t want to let your new friends down and, to quote our Prime Minister, ‘Spaff all their money up the wall’.

So I became more interested in shifting product.

Also, as time moves on you become more aware that it is your actual job.

It doesn’t mean you start doing dumb, hard-sell, uncreative work; the qualities awards juries look for in work are exactly the same as those needed to get your ads noticed by the public.

Simple is better than complicated.

Interesting is better than dull.

Beauty is better than ugly.

Funny is better than worthy.

But those are all executional, what does change is the strategy you adopt or the creative route you pick.

Because your criteria is to get the uninterested to notice and act.

And one thing you find if that’s your goal – you become more open to media choices.

Suddenly, the most unfashionable channels can appear exciting.

Direct Marketing was THE most unfashionable form of advertising.

‘The shit that folds’ is how Steve Harrison described the popular view at when he joined the business in ’85.

He went on to prove that it didn’t need to fold or be shit.

His DM came in the form of water-coolers, carpet tiles, even a barge on the Thames.

Trojan objects that made their way into places that an envelope could never dream of penetrating.

Some are like Banksy stunts.

Even the stuff that did fold was great. (See the Times Newspaper summons and Court Security pre-opened letter below.)

What they have in common is that they’re impossible to ignore and they persuade you the product is very good.

It sounds so basic, so simple.

But name the last ad that made you believe that?

I’ll wait.

One that made you consider, just for a moment, parting with your cash?

Still waiting.

In his new book ‘Can’t Sell, Won’t Sell’, Steve breaks down why.

From the social and economic backgrounds of the people populating agencies to the political beliefs of those awarding them, Steve prosecutes the case that

advertising has stopped selling.

You may look through the work below, much of it from the ‘90’s and noughties and feel that the media landscape is different today.

If you do, let me introduce you to Bill Bernbach ‘It took millions of years for man’s instincts to develop.

It will take millions more to vary.

It is fashionable to talk about changing man.

A communicator must be concerned with unchanging man, with his obsessive drive to survive, to be admired, to succeed, to love, to take care of his own’.

Cheers Bill.

(Oh, and next time Bill, it’s ‘changing person’, not ‘man’, it’s 2021 FFS!)

We had a great chat, hope you enjoy it.

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The Marketing Society podcast
The Marketing Society is a progressive global community of senior marketers. Our purpose is to empower our members to be brave leaders. Since 1959, we have grown into an influential network of 2500 members.
The Marketing Society is a progressive global community of senior marketers. Our purpose is to empower our members to be brave leaders. Since 1959, we have grown into an influential network of more than 2650+ members across our global hubs: London, Scotland, Hong Kong, Singapore, UAE and New York. Our members are mostly senior clients (over seventy per cent) from brands such as ASOS, Barclays, IBM, Disney, HSBC, Mars, Samsung, Unilever and Vodafone.

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