Stories from the near future: Mike Hutcheson on television advertising

Mike Hutcheson, one of the founders of Colenso and executive director of the Image Centre Group, is a well-renowned raconteur, gadabout and occasional oratorical stuntman. But no matter how many times you may have heard his anecdotes, he tells them so well and so humorously that you don’t actually mind hearing them again. And, as his holistic, semi-philosophical presentation on the future—and the past—of television advertising showed, telling stories is what advertising is all about—and, in his opinion, television is still the best way to tell them.

Pre-1960s, or what Hutcheson calls the “halcyon days”, he says there were about five media channels to consider, which obviously left plenty of time for lunch and plenty of time to write creative ideas on napkins in bars. It was a simpler, more unstructured, and, in his opinion, more enjoyable advertising epoch back then (the secret of a good DM campaign, for example, was to have a blue signature at the bottom of the letter). Then the computer arrived, and there are now hundreds of media channels, university courses have created a process that advertising graduates believe they need to follow and advertising stopped looking like carpet bombing and started looking more like cruise missiles.

But he believes advertising was always—and still is—about good story-telling, no matter what channel is being used. Some might contest that it’s impossible to say anything meaningful in less than 140 characters on Twitter, for example. But Hutcheson tells the story of Ernest Hemmingway, who was challenged to write a story in less than ten words. His effort: ‘For sale. Baby shoes. Never worn’.

“We’re still driven by stories and the best way to tell stories is television,” he says, which, to his surprise, put him in the same camp as Colenso’s James Hurman and MediaWorks’ Jason Paris, the two other speakers at the Future of Television Advertising event.

Roger MacDonnell pretending to work on day one at Colenso in Wellington

When television was launched in New Zealand, there was a belief that it was merely radio with pictures, as evidenced by the ‘Buy Brillo Soap’ style of advertising that followed. But Hutcheson, Roger MacDonnell (whose Crunchie-inspired poetry ran for around 30 years and, in Hutcheson’s opinion, should put him in the category of Shakespeare) and Colenso’s other founders knew television was more than just radio with pictures. It was a medium that could convey emotion and tell stories, which is why they established the agency in 1969.

More recently, Hutcheson, who says he’s basically to the right of Mussolini in terms of political persuasion, has been driving Len Brown’s campaign for the Auckland mayoralty. He says Brown is a really good guy, but, after the famous head slapping meltdown incident, the only way to show his true good nature was by getting him on TV.

“You just can’t do that in press,” he says.

Added to that, people still tend to trust TV more than many other mediums.

As well as more complexity in terms of channel choice, there is now an underlying cynicism of marketing activities among the general populous that, back in the glory days, didn’t really exist, as evidenced by the story of the man who, when asked by his wife why he bought an Essex car, said with absolutely no irony, ‘because they speak well of it in the advertisements, my dear.’

“They actually believed that shit,” he laughs.

On a more holistic level, 50 years ago he says the skyline was dominated by buildings of manufacturers. 50 years before that it was dominated by churches. Now it’s dominated by “paper shufflers”. And he believes the fact that there are now around 27,000 accountants in New Zealand and around 1000 people working in advertising agencies is a good metaphor for the state of the country. It’s not about where we should be going anymore, he says, it’s all about where we’ve been.

“They used to build temples to us”, he says, “now they build them for accountants.”

While times have obviously changed, he says things haven’t changed as much as we like to think they have: we’re not time poor, we’re just choice rich, as evidenced by the fact people are still watching the same amount of, if not more, TV; we still love shopping, just as we did thousands of years ago; we grow out of creativity, not into it; and people still love stories.

As Darwin said, it’s not the strongest of the species that survives nor the most intelligent, but the one most responsive to change. Some might argue that television networks—and the ad agencies happily creating commercials for them—have been pretty slow to adapt because they wanted to protect their golden goose. But Hutcheson says advertising is about transferring an idea to someone else and television is still top of the pops when it comes to achieving that goal.

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