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Why does the Pedlar Sing?

What Creativity Really Means in Advertising

In this month’s B+G Book Club, Margaret Gilsenan, Chief Strategy Officer dissects “Why does the Pedlar Sing?” by Paul Feldwick.

Paul Feldwick continues his thinking from his earlier book Anatomy of a Humbug, taking a look back at the origins of modern advertising, visiting the (not always) logical success of famous campaigns and building on the thinking of more recent studies by Binet & Field, Byron Sharp and Orlando Wood – challenging the modern interpretation of ‘creativity’ as ‘innovation’ and reminding us of something he believes is lost today in a brand’s  pursuit of having communications that are ‘innovative and disruptive’ and that is  the importance of having a positive relationship with the audience.

What did I think

I had mixed views about this book, but in summary think it is worth reading.  If you have read Anatomy of a Humbug, some of it will feel quite familiar, but Why does the Pedlar Sing has an important role in reminding us that advertising is a serious business, that the “most important search engine remains the one in your head” and therefore we have a responsibility to drive mental availability of all the brands we work with, and to remember that as Bob Hoffmann put it (and the Boys+Girls philosophy) “if we want there to be an audience for advertising……we have to make advertising beautiful and interesting and entertaining”.

Feldwick’s book gets you to thinking about why left hand brain work (highlighted by Orlando Wood) is so prevalent at the moment, and interestingly one conclusion I drew from ‘Why does the Pedlar Sing’ is that this left hand brain emphasis starts with the currently fashionable rational and reductionist nature of creative thinking, and a desire to boil every idea down to a logical summary, linking everything very rationally back to the brand, signing off every look and line in pre-production rather than allowing some creative flexibility on the shoot; all resulting in the effect that no matter how many times I have used the word ‘creative’ in the last sentence, creativity is in fact often being sucked from the process. 

The challenge is that to move away from the above, requires moving away from the security of a whole strategic ecosystem of boxes and formulae that reassure us that our advertising will achieve all its preordained metrics.  Feldwick champions a slightly more chaotic, fluid approach to the making of new work, that while still requiring the foundation of strong strategic thinking, requires more creative trust (from Suits and Clients) but is made safe by creators who think deeply about the audience for whom the work is being made. 

“recognise that creativity is to do with crafting actual advertisements….not just about having bright ideas or devising strategies.  These are not unimportant, but they are only a means to an end”.

Feldwick is vehemently against work made just for awards – arguing that they typically give very little consideration to any audience beyond a cynical Awards Juror.

He also interestingly challenges the popular view that everything needs to be original to truly engage and cut-through (Marvel films, anyone?)

I think he is partly right – I think we need the rigour of thinking and application of data to shape our initial thoughts and steer the work towards commercial effectiveness,  but we need to get better at letting the showmanship and magic back in, at recognising the power of engaging through emotion and intrigue not just logic.  If you look at ‘real work’ campaigns that have won Effies, Cannes or D&Ads, you will see that this mix is the winning creative and effectiveness formula.   

The book has interesting anecdotes from classic campaigns like Coca Cola’s Hilltop, the Honey Monster and Rowan Atkinson’s Barclaycard.  Given we Irish love to lay claim to anything with even the most tenuous link to Ireland  (think Barak Obama and Moneygall), the insight of Coca Cola as ‘commonality between diverse people’ came from Bill Backer (who taught the world to sing) observing fellow passengers during a two day fog delay flight diversion/layover in Shannon Airport.

I am leaving the final word on the importance of re-shifting our emphasis to the creation of work that engages and entertains to a quote Paul Feldwick uses from Howard Gossage “the buying of time and space is not the taking out of a hunting licence on someone’s private preserve, but the renting of a stage on which we may perform”.

Who should read it

  • Anyone working on brands (on Client or Agency side) and Creative Award Judges who have an interest in creating real work that is genuinely engaging and effective, made for the audience first, and awards second.

Star Rating (out of 5)

The beginning 3/5

The last section 4.5/5