Breakfast of Champions

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When his "Litany" commercial for The Independent newspaper won the Grand Prix in Cannes last year, it was business as usual for Charles Inge. After all, Inge, who is the creative head of LoweLintas London (formerly Lowe Howard Spink), has garnered more than 60 Silver and Gold creative awards, including a slew of Lions. If he's not quite the most-awarded advertising creative in the world, he seems to be slowly but surely getting there -- he's still a couple of years from cracking 40.

Just as only the rich can convincingly say that money's not important, Inge can breezily argue that awards are all relative. "It's nice to be liked, and awards are a measure of that," he says. "But try and win awards, and you won't. Because you'll just end up copying what was in vogue last year."

At LoweLintas' HQ in Kensington, London (a mile and a half from Soho, the trendy quarter where most of the city's other agencies make their home), Inge looks and acts remarkably low-key for someone who has much to boast about. But boasting's just not his style, and he abhors it in others. "Advertising is full of people being hysterical and making a lot of noise and drawing attention to themselves," he told Campaign magazine last year. "In fact, the worse the ad, the more you have to shout about it."

Inge prefers to keep things simple, understated. It's evident in his starkly decorated office, and in the biography he supplies at a reporter's request: the document contains barely more than a hundred words. Mostly, his straightforward manner shows in his work, an oeuvre characterized by economy and apparent effortlessness. Though the "Litany" spot was perhaps a tad precious by U.S. standards, the fact that it communicated a core message compellingly, beautifully, on strategy, with a minimum of extravaganza, is vintage Inge. "People who buy The Independent, or are interested in it, are independent," he explains. "Therefore, they hate advertising. They hate to be told what to do, because they believe there are enough rules and regulations already." So the spot shows a range of gorgeous black and white images, accompanied by a voiceover summing up all manner of proscribed activities: "Don't shout," "don't masturbate," "don't run with scissors," etc. The commercial ends with a shot of The Independent newspaper. "Don't read," says the voiceover -- but you know you want to.

It's one of the last pieces of advertising Inge has created himself. About a year ago, he was made creative director and put in charge of 20 local teams. Doesn't he miss generating actual ads? "Not as badly as I thought I would," he confides. "I've done it for 15 years, and it's quite stressful, really. You want to make yourself as valuable as you can. My value right now is getting great work from other people."

He's confident that the brands on which he left his creative mark, such as Stella Artois beer, Tesco, Vauxhall Astra, and Labatt Ice, will continue to do just fine. In fact, he's positively fired up about his agency's creative department. Size has a lot to do with it. No lip service to the small-is-beautiful crowd from Inge: he notes that since last year's merger of Lowe and Lintas, "we're now twice the size we were, with twice the power, and we won't abuse that. A lot of advertising is terrible. As a smaller shop, you can only do so much to stem the tide of rubbish; but when you're big and powerful, and you maintain your commitment to creative excellence, you can actually change people's perceptions. Not just of the brands you advertise, but of advertising in general." Really? One agency can make such a difference? Inge laughs. "Not completely single-handedly, I suppose. But along with other creative agencies, such as BMP/DDB."

Which happens to be in Paddington, not Soho. Is there a theme emerging here? "Well, it cannot be fantastically beneficial to your work if you socialize with ad agency people constantly," offers Inge. "You end up writing ads for advertising people, not the consumer. So many ads are `in-jokes' that have nothing to do with real life. I think it's important to know what the man in the pub is thinking."

Ah, the man in the pub. He's Inge's touchstone. Just as David Ogilvy reminded agency folks that "the consumer is not a moron, she is your wife," so Inge believes in respectfully addressing average Joes and Janes (and Ians and Hazels). His uses his man-in-the-pub image as "protection against being creative for creativity's sake," a rubric that includes the artsy, over-the-top cinematic style that so affected advertising only a few years ago. You know the genre: commercials with tribes dancing on dramatically crumbling mountaintops. Cut to cars roaring into infinite deserts full of burning statues.

"The disadvantage of highly contrived creative advertising," believes Inge, "is that [the consumer has] to do far too much thinking about what all this has to do with the truth about the brand or the product." Besides, he notes, "a hundred violins plus echo do not necessarily sound better than one violin; and someone who yells is not necessarily better understood than someone who speaks or even whispers."

Nor does the man in the pub find yelling salesmen to be very sympathetic. Inge thinks that creatives have essentially one shot at engaging this punter in conversation. Shouting won't do it; neither will arrogant, self-centered boasts, or stories that lack clarity, or outright untruths. What might interest the pubgoer is any story that is clear, true, brief, and entertaining. So, unlike most commercials for, say, haircare products. Inge: "With shampoo advertising, you don't try and blind people with pseudo-science, because you wouldn't go up to your mate and talk about advanced molecular protein systems. It makes people suspicious, anyway: if you need so much blah-blah, it can't possibly be any good."

Another cornerstone of Inge's approach -- a counterweight to his conviction that consumers deserve credit for having a brain -- is to not get overly smart. "Acting smart usually means that you drag all sorts of things into it that take attention away from the brand," he believes. "Find the core, the one truth about the brand that is significant to the consumer, and talk about it in just a few sentences, with a wink. Should our man in the pub not be interested at that moment, then at least you haven't ruined for the next time."

Inge sees the business coming around his way. "Advertising is becoming simpler and more intelligent. Our ads [in the U.K.] are rebelling against clutter," he observes. He also notes that British and American advertising seem to borrow one another's good points. "Traditionally, the British attitude was to be slightly ashamed of advertising, which means we attempted almost desperately to amuse and charm people -- perhaps to the point where they'd ask, `What was that about?' American advertising, by contrast, has always been more brash, more selly. There's been a change for the good. British creatives have become less alarmed by the sound of ringing cash registers. And American ads are more charming and beguiling now."

Thanks, guv.

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