Things ain’t what they used to be? Great…

Colin Montgomery takes a trip down Scottish advertising’s memory lane. With a baseball bat. And a grudge against hopeless nostalgia merchants.

Looking back on it, I’ve never been keen on retrospectives. As for all that “going forward” malarkey, the moronic mantra of middle management? Well, let’s just say it’s not exactly a favourite of mine either. So, by a process of elimination, that must make me a zeitgeist zealot, hot for the here and now, living as though each second was my very last, right?

Nah, none of the above please. Or rather all of the above. But at the same time. And no specific time at all.

So, a man trapped ‘out of time’ then? Well, going by my dodgy haircut, some would say that’s apt, but as an advertising copywriter I don’t see a fluid response to influences past, present and future as a bad thing. Quite the opposite. For me, a chronological cocktail is not just advisable, it’s the healthiest response to any brief. Indeed, when considered within the context of the Scottish psyche, it becomes nigh on an imperative, an almost instinctive act of national expression.

For it could be said a certain creative fluidity has come to define Scotland’s understanding of itself and its place in the world. We move easily from glory to grief, from gallus to glaikit, from grandeur to grit. We are pessimistically in thrall to past victories no longer attainable yet ever ready to entertain the hope of future success. We are by turns brittle and buoyant, feisties and fearties, proudly independent and er…not quite so independent (enough said about that of late).

Of course, any fool can play the armchair psychologist — and I’m sure many do routinely after a few down the local. But what has it got to with advertising? Well, the Scottish IPA, the industry’s official champions north of the border, has been gearing up for its 50th anniversary (clearly the most important success story across these isles in 1966) and a whole bunch of luminaries have come together to celebrate the best ads from Scotland. And believe me there are more than a few…

Tennent’s, IRN-BRU, s1Jobs, HEBS…the back catalogue of classics makes for impressive reading — and viewing. But with the exception of a late smattering of near-contemporary corkers, this is very much a back catalogue, looking into the rear view mirror. No problem there, this is a retrospective after all. It’s when all those fond reminiscences gives rise to the moth-eaten croak of despair that is ‘things ain’t what they used to be’ that we run the risk of a meek surrender to time.

‘Things ain’t what they used to be’ is up there with ‘I kent your faither’ in the Big Book of Caledonian Comedowns. It’s a miserablist’s manifesto. A sneer before another cynical beer. The justification for not fond but feeble-minded nostalgia. Believe me, I’ve succumbed to its cosy charms before, idly wasting hours wondering how to imitate the magic of advertising past; the officially sanctioned greatness we are all supposed to aspire to. But it’s a false comfort.

Whether we’re talking ads or not, the world wasn’t better back then it was just different. Sure the differences may have included bigger budgets and a less fragmented media landscape (everyone sitting down dutifully in front of the telly to suck up your advertising genius because there was bugger else to do but play with your old Chopper outside), but fundamentally, people were still in the business of solving problems, answering briefs and making advertising of all sorts.

There are those who would question that reading, their view coloured by suspicion towards the emergence of digital as an increasingly important advertising medium. I share in part that suspicion, but only towards the bullshitters, carpet-baggers and parvenus who are always present during times of change. You still get them working in conventional advertising mediums, like print or TV; they just blend in more. To use that as a platform for a regressive mythologizing is ludicrous.

Instead of seeing the antics of charlatans as evidence of a grand malaise, we should be redoubling our efforts to apply the simple timelessness of past lessons (if that’s not a paradox) and applying them to today’s commercial challenges and opportunities. The greatness of a single-minded strategy. A beautiful proposition. Simplicity, empathy and truth in a story well-told. All of these qualities can and should be the hallmark of creative advertising of any era — past, present or future.

Ultimately, it’s up to us, Scotland’s creative community at large to make that happen. And strangely, ‘things ain’t what they used to be’ may just be the place to start — because read another way, that gloomy observation can become a stirring call to action. Yeah, of course things aren’t what they used to be (thankfully, otherwise I’d be nibbing this into vellum in some dusty abbey) as change is inevitable. It’s how we respond to that change that truly matters.

The choice is simple. We can wave a white flag and retreat to our drinking dens to raise a weary glass to past glories. Or we can knuckle down right now to create a body of future work, of its time but not defined by its time, that’s worthy of praise fifty years from now. I know which I would prefer to embrace and I suspect, deep down, so does everyone else — but that’s for the future. For now, here’s to another half century of the Scottish IPA and memorable Scottish advertising.