My Favourite Five Ads: David Billing

To celebrate the IPA's centenary this year, we are asking adland's finest to pick their top five ads from the past century. This week, David Billing, ECD at Above+Beyond shares his hand-picked favourite ads "because you didn’t need another middle-aged guy telling you how great Guinness 'Surfers' was, did you?

Permit me to begin with a major disclaimer. You see, unlike most men, I don’t really like making ‘best of’ lists. I like to chop and change; stay fluid and flighty. It’s not just about me being whimsical.

I think the best work can never be judged outside its context. Thirty years ago, the best way for a brand to puncture culture was by making a TV ad. And whilst making great TV ads was never easy, at least the public was generally receptive (or captive) to their charms. Today, it’s harder for brands to get people to give a toss. But on the upside, there are loads more channels, platforms and opportunities to get in front of today’s more liberated consumer.

So some of my favourite ads of the last hundred years are TV commercials. And some, from more recent, ad-resistant times, aren’t. Both are brave ideas that a brand and its agencies have been plucky enough to put money and love behind, execute to the best of their abilities and release into the world. Commercial messages that have played within the context of their times. Sorry if this doesn’t seem like playing fair. But hey, you didn’t need another middle-aged guy telling you how great Guinness “Surfers” was, did you? 


Levi’s, Laundrette


As a 12 year old, this switched me on to the power of advertising. The ad is pretty good, but my god the cultural power of it – single-handedly resurrecting Americana in gloomy post-punk Britain; reviving the fortunes of soul music in a synthpop landscape by putting Marvin Gaye back at the top of the charts; and turning the at-first-unpromising 501 into an ubiquitous object of denim desire. You could call it integrated, I’d say it was pretty much a cultural hand grenade. The agency was BBH – I wonder what became of them.

By now you may gather that I’m quite into the music side of ads. So much so that the whole business of writing and producing pop music kept me safely away from advertising until the early 2000s. There are many, many ads where music or sound design is arguably as powerful as the visual component. Which might have given me a chance to talk about Guinness “Surfer”. A beautiful but (whisper it) borderline pretentious film that is made amazing only due to the inclusion of original music from Leftfield. Music that arguably creates half of the film’s palpable tension. There are many more. But here’s a favourite – the dumb, funny, sexy musical nonsense that is:


Levi’s, “Flat Eric” (1999)


Choosing two Levi’s ads is probably a horrible faux-pas. So sue me. This Hegarty chap was clearly on a roll, and hottish on the heels of Nick Kamen and his boxers came this lovely, messy jumble of a cultural happening that started with French electronic producer Mr Oizo and ended up selling singles, albums, puppets – and, oh yeah, jeans. Who cares that the idea probably started with Mr Oizo (Quentin Dupieux) himself, not the agency. That’s just smart cultural appropriation. Right? One of those great ideas that works everywhere the consumer experiences the brand. But still manages to be a joyously simple and weird little film in its own right.


Compare The Market, Aleksandr

Maybe I have a thing about brand mascot puppets you can buy as toys. It’s possible. The meerkats have long outstayed their welcome and I suspect most of us would welcome the chance to throttle these cheery Slavic Suritacas these days. But I think the original ads in this campaign were sheer genius. In a me-too, dry-as-rot category, they basically hero the brand’s URL in an absolutely unforgettable manner. They’re DRTV ads. Shouting out a website address over and over and over until we’re screaming it in our sleep. Just also, along the way, creating a backstory for a whole family of aristocratic small carnivores from Russia; inventing a line of sell-out toys, books and orthopaedic pillows (probably). Going on to put meerkats up there with Keep Calm merchandise in the loving bosom of late 2000s British culture. Insidiously clever. And funny (once).


Burger King,  McWhopper


There is nothing that Burger King could have put into a TV ad or onto a poster that would have got up into the public’s grills (pun intended) like this bold campaign. Sure, it started with an open letter to the New York Times (a single page ad, then); but it snowballed from there. This peace offering to its arch rival McDonalds was done with (almost) full sincerity and massive confidence – from the mash-up of the rivals’ star burgers, to the design of the pop up shop and staff uniforms. And the outpouring of social love from the public was enormous. Who can blame them. Burger King went all in and broke a commercial taboo: brands collaborating for the common good (world peace, and world tastebuds, not necessarily in that order).


Red Bull, “Stratos” (2012)


So if the last entry wasn’t an ad, this is even less of one. But if a brand gets the heeby-jeebies as it watches a script go from page to screen, can you imagine the collywobbles Red Bull experienced as it tried to get a man from space to earth? “Stratos” was a little trickier than the average TV production. The Red Bull space diving project saw Felix Baumgartner free fall from a balloon 23 miles up in the stratosphere to earth. He landed fine and broke a few records whilst he was at it. The live stream of his fall made a Super Bowl spot look as boring as a banner ad. Unbelievable, once-in-a-lifetime, edge of your seat viewing that you felt the brand had been an integral part of rather than just a logo on a shirt. Just showing the lengths that a brand must now go to make the world pay attention.

 David Billing, ECD at Above+Beyond