Books: An ad retrospective that omits the spice

This is a definitive record of 50 years of persuasion, says Tim Ashton, but it's oddly silent on the industry's current crisis.

Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

I can count on the fingers of a mittened hand the number of tomes on advertising I've picked up, enjoyed and really taken something from. Coming to an airport bookshop near you, Mark Tungate's Adland attempts the near impossible then, and damn near pulls it off.

Let's deal with the title first. The blockbuster-like power behind this one (imagine typography cut from stone) sets up an expectation in the reader of an irreverent, warts-and-all romp through the excesses of an often maligned trade. But instead, the investigative journalist in Tungate shines brightest as he tries (successfully) to reduce the history of advertising into bite-sized pieces of tightly written prose that drive you chronologically through 50 years of persuasion, capturing the key moments and relating them neatly to each other in a way that is easy to follow.

As a definitive record of what happened and why, there is none finer. Whether you're a novice in the industry or, like myself, a veteran of 25 years, there is much to learn. Tungate has done his research and one dreads to think how many achingly cool ad exec's offices he visited to compile this history. The pain was worth it, as the comprehensive summary of an industry at a crucial time - right now - is impressive. I've never seen this done before: a well-researched precis of our business, as it happened, why it happened and what it meant.

Tungate may have started out with a cynicism for our industry - advertising as the manipulative, dark, under-regulated, over-supplied and over-rewarded - but the journey persuades him that it's a business to be admired. He concludes (as have I) that at its best, this industry produces real talent: Ridley Scott, Alan Parker, Michel Gondry, Salman Rushdie, for example. A business that works really hard under huge pressure.

The industry acts as a barometer for the times, occasionally producing tiny gems of popular culture. Would we be poorer without 'whassup!', tango slap, Bravia balls, Guinness surfers and 'Just do it'? Tungate, like me, believes so. By pulling the curtain back on this industry, we find less spin and covert practices and more belief and pride in some very clever people adjusting to an equally clever audience.

Some years ago, as creative director of a big UK agency, I 'hired' Hale and Pace for a TV series called Jobs for the Boys. Having learned how to ballroom dance, to commentate at a horse race and to rally drive, this pair of performing comedy writers had to try their hand at writing and producing ads.

After six weeks, they admitted that they'd had enough. Never had they worked so hard at anything where the odds of producing good, let alone great, results were so stacked against them. They left with a much greater respect for the business than when they started.

The author may be a victim of his own harsh editing with this, his follow-up to a similar book on the fashion industry, for although there is no fat in his prose, there is also a certain lack of seasoning too.

This is a colourful industry, with some cracking stories that have passed into folklore, so it's a shame there wasn't the space or inclination to weave them in. What you gain in the stripped-down empirical nature of the book you lose with Tungate's reluctance to offer his perspectives and conclusions. He keeps to himself his views on where the industry is going, and often you're left wanting a little more than just a factual rendition. This is especially true of the turbulent '90s when the industry went through serious navel-gazing and set itself up for the challenges of newly empowered consumers.

The issue of the book's title is thrown open here, as what was once simply 'Adland' is now something more complex, subtle and challenging. In fact, it was the mid-90s when one of the main cast, Saatchi & Saatchi, dropped the word Advertising from its name. That decision should be a fulcrum point for a book bearing this title. The decline of a burgeoning industry that had grown in confidence, reach and power to one that has panicked and been left arguing with itself is a theme not covered or developed as well as it should be.

At such a turbulent, exciting or threatening time for the industry, the book should hold as a pretty definitive record. But the challenges haven't really been given enough coverage. This seems strange. We are experiencing such an exciting time in this business, with things moving so fast, that I think Tungate could have added a substantial 21st chapter titled simply 'Adland?'

Maybe that'll be his follow-up.

Tim Ashton is creative director of creative ?consultancy, Antidote.

Adland: A global history of advertising
Mark Tungate
Kogan Page £18.99

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