Tall tales: Hazel Phillips on charting the history of Kiwi advertising

After covering the advertising industry for a couple of years for the NBR, I’d realised there was an inordinate amount of rich content lurking in the archives, but the stories lacked a cohesive home. Advertising is such an integral part of our culture—think of the Fernleaf family, Spot the dog, the Bugger ad—and it becomes part of our cultural capital. So given the stories lacked a home, it became important to me to get those stories down on paper.

Initially I thought it would be a relatively simple task of interviewing a bunch of ad men about the back stories around iconic campaigns and compiling it all together in a book. Perhaps it would be one campaign per chapter, with the stories hung together roughly in chronological order to get a sense of how it had all rolled out.

Repent, fool! Recognise thy naivety! For there is far more to the advertising story than just a bunch of campaigns, as I soon found out. In fact, there’s a whole thread that runs through our history—one of deregulation, protectionism, morality—and you can get a fascinating take on society if you're wearing your advertising glasses.

The end result—warning, self-promotional plug coming your way—is Sell! Tall tales from the legends of New Zealand advertising (buy a copy here). Happily, it’s more than a bunch of stories about a bunch of campaigns, but rather a narrative arc that pulls in politics, economics, deregulation, the loosening of social mores, and, of course, those deliciously naughty anecdotes you hear at lunch.

So how did it change, I hear you ask? In the early days, advertising men were basically a bunch of hustlers. They’d buy up space in newspapers and sell it on to clients at a 20 percent commission, adding in the creative work as a freebie on the side. Charles Haines, who started up in the 1890s, was one such hustler. Later, Charles Haines became an established ad agency and lives on today in another incarnation as DraftFCB.

Around 1960, when television advertising started coming into its own, the ad industry was dominated by the ‘big three’: Charles Haines, J. Inglis Wright and Ilotts. Until Colenso came along and ruined their party, scurrilous rogues that they were.  

The ‘big three’ had the gig all sewn up. To get commission, you had to be accredited. And to get accreditation, you had to apply to the Newspaper Publishers Association. But on the board of the NPA sat the heads of the ‘big three’, so getting accreditation was a hopeless task.

So when Colenso started up, the agency used MacHarman Advertising’s accreditation in order to earn a crust (though I don’t know what MacHarman did. Perhaps Sir Bob Harvey slid under the radar somehow, gaining some sort of diplomatic immunity from being a Westie and hence not being seen as a threat. Just a theory).

Once the likes of Colenso, MacHarman and incoming international upstart Ogilvy got a foothold in the market, creativity took off, though there were still some clients who preferred the safety of the likes of Charles Haines, "Accredited Practitioners of Advertising". 

Then along came the 1980s and 1990s, with the legends we know and love, who started winning awards on the international stage and contributing those iconic ads to the Kiwi culture. And then there’s the digital revolution, but you all know about that already.

So what’s next for the advertising industry? I don’t know. My crystal ball is broken. But if the past is anything to go by, you’d better hold onto your nipples. It’s going to be a wild ride. 

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