It's always fun debating American versus British advertising.
One of my favorite advertising talks ever was from 2012, when Dan Wieden and John Hegarty spoke together about their favorite work. At one point, Hegarty, co-founder of BBH, was asked about Wieden + Kennedy's famous Old Spice spot—and the jealously he recounted was hilarious.
"You know when something's great because you really, really fucking hate it," he said, to laughter from the crowd. "When I first saw it, I stood up and said, 'Who did that?' And they said, 'Wieden + Kennedy.' And I said, 'Oh, fucking shit. Oh shit. Oh my God.' … I said to Nick Gill, 'Have you seen Old Spice? Because I've just seen Old Spice. What are the scripts like on Axe? Are they that good? Make them better!' "
The Wieden-Hegarty rivalry would suggest U.S. and U.K. advertising markets tend to feed off each other creatively. But is that true in a broad sense? How does the creative product really compare these days? How do the two countries treat celebrity and athlete endorsers differently? How does each culture inform the work? And are the country's two advertising "showcases"—the Super Bowl in the U.S., and the Christmas season in the U.K.—representative of their general approach to creativity, or outliers that don't reveal much about the state of creativity today?
To get some perspective on these questions and more, Muse spoke with two creative brothers who are well positioned to have opinions on such matters: Dave and Nathan Wigglesworth. Dave works at Droga5 London, while Nathan is at Wieden + Kennedy New York—two of the most creative agencies in the business today.
Below, check out our Q&A with them. And let us know on Twitter what you think of the creative differences between the U.S. and U.K. today.
Muse: Tell us a bit about your advertising careers—where you've worked, what kinds of brands you've worked on, what creative work you admire?
Nathan Wigglesworth: I describe myself as the less talented version of Dave. I've spent the last several years making Wieden + Kennedy my home, working mainly on sports brands, and currently work on Brand Jordan. My first project at Wieden was to launch Lady Gaga's new album, where we created a Dive Bar Tour [for Bud Light]. I've had the chance to work with multiple sports teams and athletes and aspire to make creative work that people enjoy engaging with.
As for work that inspires me, I'm generally skeptical of creatives who are inspired by advertising. I find most of my inspiration outside of advertising and look for work that's provocative, visually fresh, and makes me slightly uncomfortable. The last pieces of work that really blew my mind were the "This Is America" music video, the Gucci catwalk where the models carried severed heads, and I really enjoy the work being done by Tyler the Creator and New York Sunshine. As for branded work, I've enjoyed the Lacoste fashion films.
Dave Wigglesworth: I have always worked in London. My first job was at St. Luke's, I then moved on to Fallon, mcgarrybowen and now my current job at Droga5. I've always worked with the same partner, Ed Redgrave. That fact alone touches upon what seems to be a difference between the U.K. and U.S. In England we tend to stay in the same partnerships, whereas in America creatives seem to move around agencies partnering with different creatives as they go. Though that may just be a view I've blindly gathered from my brother's career without any research into the matter!
Anyway, some big brands I've worked on are: Strongbow cider, Cadbury's, Amazon and Prime Video, Skoda, Honda, Adidas, Monster, Kwiff, to name a few. Personally I lean towards work that doesn't take itself too seriously and makes me laugh. That and work that has a great insight or idea at the heart of it. Campaigns like the early Pot Noodle "slag of all snacks" tick all of the above for me—though the actual executions haven't aged too well! They have humor, are self-deprecating and work off a solid insight.
Let's start with a gross oversimplification. Americans tend to be positive and optimistic, while the British tend to be negative and pessimistic. Fair? And does this seep into the advertising?
Nathan: Fair! This seeps into casting. The U.S. traditionally wants to see aspirational casting in film and photography. The U.K. allows for casting of people who can feel more relatable, real, which in turns makes the work feel more authentic. For me, Pot Noodle is the brand that comes to mind as an example of something that would never run in the States. They show body hair and bad teeth in food commercials. The Brits are more crass, whereas the U.S. audience is more sensitive.
It also feels like most American brands believe they are going to change the world, whether they are selling insurance, cars, or something small like paper clips. While this is honorable in its intention, I'm often left scratching my head. The failed Pepsi commercial was a great example of this. When I first saw it, I honestly thought I was watching Saturday Night Live. On the flip side, there was a commercial a few years ago in the U.K. for paint that had the slogan, "It does exactly what it says on the tin." Their approach was one where they accept that, as a brand, they're nothing more or less that a can of paint. I suppose ideally there's a balance somewhere in the middle of these two extremes.
Dave: It may be a gross oversimplification, but it is very much true in my opinion! Pessimism is stitched into the very fabric of the U.K. As a kid I remember Dad drilling a very English lesson into my core being. He said "Son, ALWAYS expect to fail, then anytime you don't it's a bloody bonus." That's a prime example of positivity in the eyes of the U.K.! As a creative, this mindset has always kept me pushing, because no matter how well a client meeting has gone or however positive that piece of feedback seems, me and my partner will always expect the entire campaign to crash and burn at any moment anyway.
Humor says a lot of about a culture. How do the countries compare in terms of comic advertising? Are British ads more self-deprecating? Are American ads more absurdist? What can each learn, if anything, from the other?
Nathan: Growing up, Dave and I would get our laughs in the U.K. by watching Black Adder, Monty Python, The Fast Show, Ali G, The Office, etc., but we would still love to watch Zoolander, Dumb and Dumber, Talladega Nights, Meet the Parents. We would also love to watch standup by Eddie Murphy and anything by Dave Chappelle, the greatest comedian of all time. As an Englishman, when watching an American comedy I'd wait for the nut kick moment. Someone always gets kicked in the nuts in American comedies, and it feels like the audience love it.
Similarly in advertising, part of the U.S. humor is most certainly the absurdity. Whether it's Old Spice, Skittles or Dr Pepper, the objective seems to be how can we be as zany as possible? Dave totally subscribes to this humor and fully endorses it. I do think that the U.K. advertising has tried to adopt this humor in its work. But I do miss the witty, clever humor of the classic U.K. comedies, and hope that not too much of the American humor is adopted into the work.
Dave: Personally I think the U.K. is facing a bit of an identity crisis on this subject. Historically, England has been wonderfully self deprecating—able to laugh at itself and embrace all of its quirks and oddities. This was often reflected in the work coming out of England, and I think when U.K. advertising was at its best, this was the reason. Directors like Brian Baderman were creating advertising landscapes that were horrifically hilarious because they echoed the shoddy quirks of reality rather than creating a falsified advertising world of fake smiling actors and model homes.
For a little while now it has been getting harder to convince clients to take this approach to humor, casting and art direction. This is where the American approach to absurdist humor seems to have created a successful balance between arresting work that is still buyable. Take Old Spice as the gold standard—visually there have been all manner of insane things happening, but it is all done with the knowing advertising smile of a buyable brand spokesperson delivering a clear advertising message.
Patriotism is central to the American identity, while the British seem less comfortable with flag waving. Are those stereotypes still true, and are they reflected in the ads being made today?
Nathan: Maybe it's just because I live in New York, but I think this is an overexaggerated stereotype. I don't see as much flag waving as I expected, even when I travel to other states in the U.S. Before coming to America, I expected much more flag waving. As a child when I came to the States to visit a theme park, I can remember being completely weirded out when we had to stand and salute the military and listen to the national anthem. I remember thinking, "I'm here to watch dolphins jump through hoops, what's going on?!" But my experience has been far from that early memory.
I do think we build up these stereotypes in our minds. When I first came, I expected everyone to be wearing those U.S. flag sweatpants from Napoleon Dynamite, but that hasn't been the case. In fact, I might be the only person in New York who wears them. Most of the advertising messages being pushed are about unity, coming together, equality, but less overly patriotic with U.S. flags waving, and blue, red and white fireworks going off everywhere, thank heavens!
Dave: I think these stereotypes still hold true, from a U.K. perspective at least. We are still very reluctant to proudly flag wave. There does seem to be a little more patriotism creeping into the work over here, but it is only ever done in a way the celebrates subcultures or the quirks that make being British alright. Take Nike "Nothing Beats a Londoner," for example; if that was done in America, "Nothing Beats a New Yorker," I imagine it would have been a very different beast. An all-singing, all-dancing celebration of the city and its inhabitants, a story of one-upmanship. Whereas "Londoner" felt like a Monty Python sketch where the premise revolves around misery and one-downsmanship.
There seems to be an earnestness in the way many U.S. brands express themselves. Do you think that's true, and are British brands better at not taking themselves so seriously?
Nathan: Here's our English secret… life is better when you plan to fail, be fired, and have very low expectations for yourself. Everything positive that happens to you is a bonus. Our mantras at Wieden are "Fail harder" and "Walk into work stupid." I think Dan and Dave were being British when they created these. So yes, British brands in general do not take themselves as seriously as U.S. brands do. For me, many American brands are that person who turn up to a casual house party wearing a white tuxedo and carrying roses. They are trying so hard to make friends and be relevant that it can put people off.
Dave: I think it is true for British advertising when the work is being made for Britain itself. It allows for a much more pointed sense of humor and brand voice. The problem that seems to be seeping into the industry in general is the relentless push for greater efficiency and globalization. More and more we are getting briefs for individual pieces of creative that need to pan many different countries, making it harder to work with a tone of voice and humor that resonate strongly with any one single audience.
Which country values celebrity advertising more highly? Does either country do it better than the other?
Nathan: Both countries value celebrity advertising, and I for one am getting tired of influencer campaigns all over every brand. I have some strong feelings about why I think neither country does celebrity advertising particularly well. I think there is a big gap between athletes, celebrities and brands. The creative agencies generally sit in a room concepting creative campaigns, but in isolation of what the athlete or celebrity would want to contribute or say. This leads to work where we see cringeworthy campaigns with athletes and celebrities delivering scripted punchlines. I think there needs to be a better effort for celebrities and athletes to be included in the creative process, so their voices are heard, as they are the ones who often end up in front of the camera.
Dave: From my experience, Britain doesn't really rely on celebrity. We have always relied on creative, trying to find that killer idea or insight that makes the work impossible to ignore. Though this has probably been driven by the fact that budgets are a pittance to that of the U.S. so using celebrity has never really been an option on the whole. Personally I prefer it this way, though you can't deny the impact when you marry both things perfectly like the "It's a Tide Ad" Super Bowl commercial. A hilariously meta idea combined with David Kenneth Harbour is double good.
Sports is an inspiration for so much advertising. Is that more of a U.S. thing? Do the Americans and the British take a different approach in how they celebrate sports stars—and sport itself?
Nathan: For both Dave and I, sport is life. We were both teenagers and watched a famous Nike commercial in the '90s with Eric Cantona defeating a demon, and knew that we wanted to work on a project like that one day. I thought I loved sports until I came to the U.S. Americans LOVE sports; there is so much of it. We played for our college football (soccer) teams in England, and if two people came to watch us, it was a success. In America, more people attend college football games than Premier League games in the U.K. It's wild.
So, yes, athletes play a very important role in the U.S., more so than they do in the U.K. Every brand in the U.S. wants to work with LeBron James, Russell Wilson, Serena Williams, etc. And U.S. athletes seem more experienced with how to navigate the commercial world. Seeing that Cristiano Ronaldo made more money last year on Instagram than he did from his contract at Juventus was a real eye-opener for me.
Dave: Although sport is ingrained into the very culture of Britain, the U.S. definitely seems to take it more seriously in its advertising. The best U.K. sports campaigns seem reluctant to be taken too seriously. I don't think you'd ever be able to make a commercial like the Lowe Lintas classic "Belly's gonna get ya" work for Reebok. Or even Nike "Write the Future." Done earnestly, that could have been a chest-beating anthem about changing the game. But done with the U.K. lens, it was a comical tale that was as relatable to real sportspeople as mates in the pub. This tongue-in-cheek approach to sports advertising is probably down to the fact that, as kids, if you played in the school team you were lucky if your own mum made it to watch you, let alone anyone else. As we were playing on muddy pitches in the pissing rain, American kids were on purpose-built pitches in front of the whole town. Probably.
A lot of people equate America's Super Bowl with Britain's Christmas season as advertising showcases. Are those ads representative of each country's approach to advertising? Or are they anomalies that don't reveal much about the industries on a regular day?
Nathan: They do feel like anomalies to me. The Super Bowl generally involves everyone watching brands spend millions, trying really hard to crack a funny joke, and generally falling short. It feels a little like New Year's Eve, with big expectations to have a great evening, when in fact, it's just another evening. My experience is that most people are a little disappointed after the Super Bowl. "What has happened to all the funny commercials?" is generally the tone. My all-time favorite was the Will Farrell Old Milwaukee commercial, where the film cut before he could even say the name of the brand. It still makes me laugh now when I watch it.
The Christmas ads in the U.K. seems to be a more recent thing. Ever since the huge success of the John Lewis commercials, everyone is trying to make us cry in December. I will say that I think it's much easier to make someone cry than it is to make them laugh. The Super Bowl seems like a harder and more rewarding challenge to me than the Christmas competition in the U.K.
Dave: I am very jealous of the Super Bowl, especially as the Christmas season is seen as the "U.K. equivalent." The Super Bowl is just a huge eyes-on moment, with the only stipulation being who can "win." It feels like a creative shootout—arguably it's just becoming a spend-out. But in principle it is a great thing for the industry and for creativity.
Sadly, Christmas is not this. Clients want saccharine and heartfelt work that is dripping in the heave-inducing magic and sparkles that come along with the festive period. Beside a few clients that are brave enough to go against this, Christmas is a blight on creative. I personally don't think it reveals much about the U.K.'s approach to advertising in general. In fact, I'd say it actively goes against everything that usually makes British advertising great.
Are there elements of U.S. and U.K. advertising that actually aren't very different from each other? Have the markets been learning some tricks from each other?
Nathan: Humor in U.K. commercial work has become increasingly more bizarre, and that is partly due to Dave. As we've traveled back and forth, it seems there's less testing in the U.K. Testing is a huge hurdle to interesting creative. Many big brands in the U.S. insist on testing, and neither Dave nor I have seen much, if any, good work come from testing. Unfortunately it feels like everyone seems to constantly replicate each other, so everything feels the same. But the distance between the U.S. and the U.K. allows trends in film and design to evolve independently. Stylistically, the film in the U.K. tends to be darker and grittier, which is a style I love, and is gradually being adopted. U.S. film is usually a lot brighter and slicker. The recent series Top Boy is a great example stylistically of British film at its best. So this is one style that I wish U.S. brands would adopt more often.
Dave: U.K. clients seem to be reluctant to buy work that borders on absurd or fantastical. We as Brits are usually pretty reserved, and so it always seems to be a hard ask to push into these areas. This is something that America seems to be nailing, and thankfully this is having a knock-on effect over here. For example, we had a historically reserved client pivot to making a much more unexpected campaign simply because they'd just seen great work from Mailchimp and Skittles.
Is it worth trying to export an approach that's working in one country into the other country?
Nathan: I'm always reluctant to try and use blueprints for successful campaigns and adopt the same approaches in new briefs. It just feels like the beauty of our industry is that each project is unique with its own set of challenges. It generally works best when you wipe the slate clean and say "How can we create the best piece of work for this project?" instead of constantly holding up a previous piece of work and trying to replicate the journey. Of the approaches that do work, U.S. brands, don't take yourself so seriously. Both U.K. and U.S., let's find a better way to work with celebrity talent and athletes so they don't have to embarrass themselves so frequently. Please, U.S., let's adopt the darker, grittier film look used in British cinema; not everything has to be so bright.
Overall, which country is doing the better advertising over the past year or two?
Nathan: Loyalty comes first, so I would normally say U.K., but in this instance I'm going with the U.S. While there's a lot of work that is white noise, I do think the most impactful and provocative campaigns of the last few years have come out of the U.S. The piece that comes to mind, which was my favorite, was the Colin Kapernick poster we created at Wieden. It was perfectly timed and so relevant. It was a bold, provocative move. I can remember feeling something when I saw it, and was proud of Nike for making the statement.
Dave: Britain, obvz! Joking aside, I personally think the work in the U.K. is of a better standard overall. Probably because we make much less stuff over here, so when we do manage to squeeze money out a client, we need to make it count! That being said, when the U.S. gets it right, they get it very right.