Saturday, 24 September 2016

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Sunday, 7 August 2016

Laughter - it's a serious business

I have long held the view that clients who possess a sense of humour and are keen to run amusing advertising campaigns are those most likely to succeed in this world. It' a simple philosophy, but as a general rule, I think the principle stands up fairly well. You only have to look at some of the best loved and effective advertising campaigns to acknowledge this.

Iconic poster for the beer that refreshes those other parts.
Volkswagen and Heineken are two particularly good examples. Back in 1978, the copywriter Terry Lovelock was tasked by his agency, Collett Dickenson Pearce to create a campaign for the Dutch brewer, Heineken. His brief revolved around one word: refreshment. For weeks Lovelock and his Art Director tried to come up with something they liked, but weren't getting very far. Eventually, at the eleventh hour and as an act of sheer desperation, Lovelock decided to seek inspiration in Marrakesh. Luckily for him, the change of scene; the sunshine; the spicy cuisine (or possibly a few hallucinatory substances) did the trick, and on waking up in his hotel room at 3am, he wrote those immortal words: 'Heineken refreshes the parts other beers cannot reach.'  Frank Lowe the agency's chairman liked it and presented the idea in the form of two TV scripts to Anthony Simmonds-Gooding, the most senior client at Whitbread, while the pair flew to Leningrad (now St Petersberg) to view an exhibition at the Hermitage.  Simmonds-Gooding bought the concept at 20,000 feet and the campaign ran for 22 years, cementing Heineken's position in the market and creating one of advertising history's best loved campaigns.

Twenty years before Terry Lovelock wracked his brains in Marrakesh, Bill Bernbach's New York agency Doyle Dane Bernbach found itself with a tricky brief to sell a strange looking car that had been designed by the Nazis in Germany. Bernbach defied all advertising conventions at that time by deciding to adopt self-deprecating humour to convey the car's chief characteristics: its size and less than perfect looks, while extolling its winning virtues: reliability and thrift. With consummate wit, one of its early commercials featured a funeral cortege and the the voice of the deceased reading his last will and testament. 90% of the script is devoted to the old man berating in the most amusing terms his nearest and dearest for their extravagant lifestyles, while we see them coast past in a long cortege of large saloons. Finally, we get to see the old man's nephew driving a VW Beetle, and the old man wearily signs off: "And to my nephew Harold who oft-times said, "a penny saved is a penny earned," and who also oft-times said, "Gee, Uncle Max, it sure pays to own a Volkswagen", I leave my entire fortune of one hundred million dollars." The commercial makes you chuckle and is absolutely timeless.

Press ad for the VW Beetle.
Of course, it's no coincidence that these two hugely successful brands have relied on wit to sell. It is without any doubt one of the most potent tools that the marketing industry has at its disposal. Yet, it never ceases to amaze me that so many clients shun anything remotely amusing, firmly believing that humour denigrates a brand; and somehow makes it frivolous. The consensus seems to be that if you want to be taken seriously, you have to be seen to behave seriously. And the result is that most advertising is simply dull and instantly forgettable.

In a rather round-about kind of way, this brings me to the subject I wanted to talk about in the first place: a project of one of my own clients. Sofia Fenichell is an impressive businesswoman. She started out, funnily enough, as an executive at Doyle Dayne Bernbach, and then moved into the higher echelons of investment banking and hedge fund management, before starting her own businesses. Her latest venture, which I have had the pleasure of helping her with is a fascinating project that blends science with, you've guessed it, humour. In short, she and her business partners, have come up with Mrs Wordsmith - an ingenious way to improve the vocabulary of primary school children. Mrs Wordsmith comes in the form of a beautifully produced monthly package that is delivered directly to your door. Inside are a series of placemats that have been lovingly designed with amusing narratives and inventive word games. And all the words and stories have been illustrated by the brilliant team of artists behind the DreamWorks movies Madagascar and Hotel Transylvania. As one of the lead writers on the project, I've really enjoyed the collaborative process of working with the DreamWorks team. Sofia and her business partners, who include the neuroscientist Dr Lesley Sand, understand the importance of humour when communicating to young kids. And it's why they approached DreamWorks in the first place. Sofia was very clear about this. "If the illustrations weren't going to be funny, the whole thing wasn't going to work," she told me when I had my first meeting with her. But she needn't worry on this score, as the illustrations are, as you'd expect, wonderfully irreverent and humorous.

One of countless illustrations by DreamWorks for Mrs Wordsmith.
The entire concept has in fact been based on masses of research into how young children learn a wider and richer vocabulary. And how a wide vocabulary at a young age will help children to confidently master all subjects at school including maths. Research has also shown that certain rich words that aren't on the primary school curriculum are usually learnt at home; particularly if families sit around the dinner table and engage in conversation. So Mrs Wordsmith employs placemats to be used at mealtimes in ten minute bursts every day. Repeating words in different contexts through the use of amusing illustrations and stories is, according to Dr Sand, the key to success. Instilling a love and understanding of words early on also develops a love for reading.

Surprisingly, there is no other paper based programme quite like it on the market. Kumon is the only other system out there. It's been around for years, but is very dry, humourless, and is based solely on learning by rote.

To date, the educational establishment have been raving about Mrs Wordsmith. It does precisely what every school wants every parent to do at home with their kids - but with minimum effort.

By being irreverent, amusing and mischievous, Mrs Wordsmith is certainly going to appeal to kids. And it'll only be a matter of time before it makes its mark. Indeed, in ten years from now, I suspect it will become a household name. Embrace humour wisely, and sooner or later you'll be laughing all the way to the bank.

Alex Pearl is author of Sleeping with the Blackbirds

Wednesday, 27 April 2016

The magician with chutzpah

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Chutzpah, if you didn't already realize, is a Yiddish word that has found its way into the Oxford English Dictionary. The writer Leo Rosten defines it as a word meaning the ultimate in gall, brazen nerve and effrontery. And by way of definition, claims that it is the quality enshrined in a man who, having murdered his mother and father, throws himself on the mercy of the court because he is an orphan. As it happens, there is someone I have encountered who can claim to possess this trait in spades. Allow me to elaborate.

Many years ago when our kids were considerably shorter than us, we were faced with organising a 12th birthday party for our son. In the past we'd had the usual parties in the garden or in school halls and the like, but this particular year we'd thought we'd arrange a a cricket match for the boys as our son at that time was particularly keen on the game. The weather, however, conspired against us on the day and the cricket was going to be a non-starter. In retrospect, there can be fewer more regrettable situations to find oneself in than having 16 boisterous and highly excitable twelve-year-old male birthday guests on your hands with no birthday activities or venue for them to do them in.

My wife, ever resourceful, had a brainwave. "I know. I'll call Lee. Her son Julius is a member of the Magic Circle. We'll get him to do some magic tricks in the house; I'll sort out tea; and you can organize a quiz." Two hours later, 15-year-old Julius shows up with his box of tricks and sets up, while I attempt without much luck to interest our excitable guests in my history quiz. Tea consisting of sandwiches, endless packets of crisps, lots of fizzy drinks and, of course, the obligatory birthday cake, comes as a saving grace. I'm frankly exhausted by it all. But the energy levels of the assembled throng, having fed on copious quantities of fizzy drinks is now at an all-time high and one boy in particular by the name of Daniel takes a great deal of delight in winding up everyone around him.

By the time we let them onto our magician, things are at fever pitch. But thankfully, Julius has a certain way of handling his audience.

"Ok guys. Would you mind shutting up now please. I'm going to show you some pretty cool stuff. But if you don't shut up right now I'm not going to show you anything, Ok?" And with this, the crowd calms down and Julius launches into a pretty impressive magic trick involving a pencil and a deck of cards. The boys seem captivated. The tricks continue. Coins magically disappear and reappear in strange places; a £5 note is torn in half and is then restored to its former glory; interlinked metal rings are magically pulled apart. Everything seems to be going swimmingly, until, that is, Daniel can no longer contain himself. "That's rubbish. That's not magic," he declares raucously, and for a moment the spell over the boys is broken and there are giggles and guffaws. But before things get out of hand, Julius takes control of the situation. He quite literally leaps into his audience and gets Daniel in a stranglehold and then pins him up against our wall and twists his arm behind his back. "Ok. If I hear another peep out of you I'll break your arm. Do you hear?" Daniel goes white and doesn't say a word. Julius returns to his magic table and the show continues without a hitch.

His approach, though unconventional, is very effective. But I can't help feeling responsible for Daniel and become very concerned that his parents might want to sue us for any physical and emotional harm to their son. So once all the kids have finally dispersed with their party bags and the detritus created by 16 small people is shovelled into several black bin liners, I get onto the phone to Daniel's mother. I spend what feels like several minutes apologising for the unfortunate incident involving strangleholds and bent arms and express my hope that Daniel wasn't traumatised. "Oh don't worry about that Mr Pearl. We're used to it. It's always happening to Daniel. Thank you for the party." I put the phone down with a certain relief.

I have since learnt that Julius went on to perfect his magic while doing his A levels. On one occasion at school, he apparently tore up his homework in front of his teacher and then made it magically reappear in one piece on the teacher's desk.

Now, while at university his magic has reached new heights. Julius Dein has performed for Google, Nelson Mandela, Arsenal FC, and several prestigious events attended by the likes of Russel Brand, Simon Cowell, Alan Sugar and Stephen Hawking, to name just a few.

His mother is desperately worried that he won't achieve his degree in politics with all his extra curricular activities. But if I were her, I wouldn't worry. This young man will obviously stop at nothing to hold the undivided attention of his audience, and seems destined for great things. And though he no longer resorts to strangleholds, the chutzpah is certainly in evidence. You can take a look at some of his antics here.

Alex Pearl is author of Sleeping with the Blackbirds

Wednesday, 20 April 2016

The day Sir Robin Day cut my hair

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At the age of around six I very clearly remember being taken to The Savoy Saloon barber's shop in the Cranbrook Road, Gants Hill by my mother and having my hair cut by none other than Sir Robin Day. You remember him don't you? He was the darling of political interviews, used to chair Question Time in the days before David Dimbleby, and would always sport a bow tie. It took some considerable time for me to work out that the chap in question who never did utter anything particularly witty or ask any probing questions regarding the government's economic policy while snipping away with his scissors, wasn't actually the real McCoy moonlighting in a barber's shop in the suburban backwaters of Essex. He did, however, sport a bow tie and could easily have passed for Mr Day's younger brother. This said, that feeling of being in awe and dumbstruck is one I still feel whenever inadvertently rubbing shoulders with someone who not only looks like someone we all know, but actually is that very same person.

e1afa45e-4dd3-4f05-86e7-772d29ca88b0-2060x1236.jpeg (2060×1236)The first time I remember seeing a genuinely well known face in public was when I started secondary school and began to use the London Underground. On this particular occasion I can remember taking my seat on the Northern Line opposite none other than the Right Honourable Dennis Healey in a light coloured raincoat reading The Times. The strange thing was that everybody in the carriage simply pretended that they hadn't recognised him - myself included. Such is the British reserve that it takes someone either half drunk or not all there to have the Dutch courage or sheer audacity to introduce themselves and intrude on the well-known person's privacy. It's a sad indictment of our times that senior politicians can no longer be spied on public transport for the obvious security risks. Indeed, many are now shadowed by a bodyguard or ten.

Dustin Hoffman 06.jpg (1499×1000)Then there was the time when I worked in the fashionable King's Road and saw Dustin Hoffman brazenly stride down the street in a t-shirt and jeans. (It was the year he made 'Tootsie' and was no doubt promoting the film in London.) No one acknowledged him until a middle-aged lady selling flowers from a flower stall smiled at him, and as a result, he bought a bouquet and kissed her on the cheek. Needless to say, the effect was seismic. Within seconds she was running around like a headless chicken declaring to the entire world that she'd just been kissed by Dustin Hoffman. I've never forgotten that small gesture by this giant Hollywood star who isn't particularly tall by the way.

mw82578.jpg (626×800)For some curious reason, I seem to bump into politicians rather a lot. On one memorable occasion, I was fortunate enough to meet the former Prime Minister, Harold Wilson while dining in, of all places, the Berni Inn Steakhouse in Oxford. I was with a group of friends, one of whom was a very charming lawyer by the name of Nigel who took an active interest in politics and knew that Wilson had just been recovering from illness. On spotting the distinguished figure shuffle through the dimly lit restaurant with his wife, Nigel sprang to his feet. "It's very nice to see you in Oxford, Sir. I do hope you're feeling better now."

Wilson eyed up Nigel and smiled. "I'm feeling much better thank you very much. In fact, I'm just back from giving a talk in America." Nigel, ever the courteous listener enquired how it had gone down. Wilson sensing he had a bit of an audience, turned to all of us and explained that it had all gone down rather well. "But then, it was America," he added with a twinkle in his eye. "I could have said anything and they'd have still given me a standing ovation." And with that, he shuffled off with his wife to a table at the back of the restaurant. He passed away a couple of years later and I remember all the tributes and obituaries, few of which highlighted his obvious sense of mischief. If I'm correct, when standing down as leader and making way for Jim Callaghan, he was asked by a BBC reporter why he'd decided to stand down. "I'm making way for an older man," he quipped and stepped into his parked limousine. Jim Callaghan was indeed the older man.

John_Bercow_Senate_of_Poland_01.JPG (1426×1405)Very recently my brother and I visited our mum at her care home in North London and on entering the communal living area, we both quite literally bumped into Mr John Bercow, the Speaker of the House of Commons. He was apparently settling his own mum into the home, and was very keen to hear how our mum was finding it. We ended up chatting to him at length. He's very charming, personable and down to earth.

rev-richard-coles-emailed1.jpeg (577×665)Most recently, I have found myself sitting very close, by chance, to the lovely Reverend Richard Coles (the UK's funniest man of the cloth, surely). In fact, rather spookily this has happened to me twice. The first time was while travelling on the London Underground (Piccadilly line this time). He sat next to me but I didn't know it was him until he started humming to himself while reading a leaflet designed for the 'Memorial Service for Sir John Tavener.' He was no doubt humming one of the late maestro's compositions. I couldn't tell as the underground train was making too much noise, and I didn't like to ask. No more than a couple of months later, I was in the bar of the Holiday Inn in Regent's Park with a friend, and on leaving, Coles arrived with a friend and sat at the table we had just vacated.

Sadly, I've yet to have my hair cut by one of the media's national treasures. But one can, I suppose, live in hope.

Alex Pearl is author of Sleeping with the Blackbirds 

Wednesday, 3 February 2016

The Russian way of death

On the surface there is little that Grigori Rasputin, the so-called Mad Monk shares in common with the Russian dissident Alexander Litvinenko. Until, that is, you consider the manner of their deaths.

They were both regarded with considerable disdain by the powers that be.

Rasputin had managed to gain the friendship of Nicholas ll (the last Tsar of Russia) and, more importantly, the tsarina Alexandra by apparently healing their son, Alexei Nikolaevich (the heir to the Russian kingdom) from the traumatic effects of hemophilia. This said, his presence in the Royal Court and his influence were a cause of much embarrassment to the ruling class of St Petersburg and senior officials. After all, Rasputin was nothing more than a peasant with foul, uncouth ways. He was soon to become synonymous with power, debauchery and lust - and the increasing unpopularity of the imperial couple.

Over 100 years later, Alexander Litvinenko, the former Russian KGB officer who fled Russia to escape prosecution for his outspoken accusations against both president Vladimir Putin and the Russian secret services, was granted asylum here in the UK. He was clearly viewed as a dangerous traitor by the Russian authorities.

Both figures were seen to pose a threat to the powers of the state, albeit in wholly different ways. Both became the prime targets of very wealthy assassins. In the case of Rasputin, Prince Felix Yusupov, and in Litvinenko's
case, the multimillionaire Andrei Lugovoi. Both men, of course, fell victim to a poisoning plot. Rasputin was poisoned with potasium cyanide powder while over a century later, the KGB chose to use radioactive polonium for poor Litvinenko. And both targets proved to be difficult to poison. According to the findings of the government's recent public enquiry, Litvinenko was poisoned twice; the first attempt didn't work and only made him ill. And as we all know from our history lessons, Rasputin proved to be an extremely difficult bugger to bump off. In his case the initial poisoning attempt didn't work either, and neither, come to that, did a bullet in the head. His assassins had to finally resort to drowning him.

So here we have two very different men; both vilified in equal measure by the Russian authorities; and both the subsequent targets of poisoning plots that initially didn't work. A case of history repeating itself perhaps?

Alex Pearl is author of Sleeping with the Blackbirds