Real Beauty.

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I started so many meetings by showing this ad.  I had nothing to do with its creation, but it dominated my life for two-and-a-half years. In the line-up of very real women,  Linda, second from the right, became particularly celebrated, a force of nature packed into a remarkably small frame, and an absolute joy.

I was lured to Ogilvy, London. In name, the agency had become a truncated version of ‘Ogilvy and Mather’. In practice, it had billowed to a sprawling octopus of mini (or mini-ish) agencies. Around nine hundred people, loosely arranged in different ‘business units’, were housed in the top two floors of a building in Canary Wharf.  The bait was to be global creative director on Unilever’s Dove soap brand.  I swallowed it.

For years, the moisture-rich soap had banged on to its audience about soft skin and youthful glow.  In the previous half century of advertising, the best known – and most quoted – commercial had featured Jean Shy.  Her charming, simple testimonial had been more or less pasted and copied as a template, in repeated echoes, over and over again through the generations.

The Jean Shy commercial

Canary Wharf took some getting used to.  It was the other side of London from where I lived, an hour’s commute from its Truman Show-like setting. Fritz Lang would have recognised the place. Friends described it as ‘an industrial estate for bankers’.  A Walt Disney miniaturised version of Chicago, the ‘Wharf was no Fantasia, but on my first morning, I came up from the tube to discover a man on his hands and knees, scrubbing chewing gum from the pavement.  This is a long way from Oxford Street, I thought. 

In 2006, Dove products were sold in 154 countries.  The annual global sales were around $2.2 billion. Stacked up together, those packets and tubes of Dove soap, moisturising cream, deodorant, shampoo and conditioner would have filled seven full size Dutch barns.

In tandem with the advertising, 600,000 young women across the world were being contacted about positive self-awareness and offered (rather simple) courses to bolster their self-esteem. A fraction had grabbed the opportunity, but it still ran to thousands. The campaign was growing.

Three remarkable people had set the CampaignForRealBeauty.com in train. An equally remarkable client, Silvia Lagnado, had ‘bought’ the idea, which was then midwifed into existence by her second-in-command, Klaus Arntz. Klaus’ immense contribution was one of those ‘without whom…’ performances, late stage and critical to the four press advertisements that kicked the whole thing off. He was the client I came to know best and respect the most.

The idea was born of Olivia Johnson’s planning and Dennis Lewis’ creative directorship. Both had worked at BBH. Daryl Fielding’s vice-like grip on the hugely complicated moving parts of the business held everything steady as the work gathered momentum. Steve Hooper (also ex-BBH and a copywriter) sat with Dennis as they set about breaking through the saccharine hegemony of ‘the beauty category’: In truth, a series of codes and conventions better described as a tyranny.

But for an accident, the campaign would never have appeared.

The story has been a little mythologised, but it is true. The first photographer Dennis commissioned, the exceptional Ellen Von Unwerth, didn’t capture the ‘realness’ of the women in her shots. Although beautiful, they looked stylised and inauthentic, portraying glamorous icons of inaccessibility. Dennis asked Klaus if they could reject the images and start again. Bravely – and exceptionally – Klaus agreed, without seeking higher sanctions to write off the cost. Rankin was then contracted to cast and shoot a number of real women again (throughout, certainly to the end of my tenure, we never used a professional model, ever). His resulting photographs appeared in the first work, known as the ‘Firming Campaign’. The press ad topping this piece was one of the four. The aesthetic set a visual tone. Without having to read a word or see the logo, Dove print advertising became instantly recognisable. Rankin’s imagery gave the advertising the authenticity the approach demanded. That ‘look’ continues.

Just as the print-ready ads were being readied to go to press for publication, a late panic spread among the upper echelons of Unilever. The decree went out to ditch the work. On no account should it appear. It was dangerous, and could seriously undermine the considerable sales of the brand, associating Dove forever with an ill-judged stunt that had gone horribly wrong. Anxiety spread.

Completely by mistake, one set of ads made it it through the wire and into a German publication before they could be stopped. The magazine printed early. The first versions ever of ‘campaign for real beauty’ went out into the world. As harried Dove marketing people were instructed to chase around and stop everything, copies began to be sold from German news vendors.

Comments from readers arrived almost immediately. Journalists were alerted. Here was something different and very weird. A ripple became a storm.

The overwhelming response, from the very first email and Facebook comments (so much more innocent then) was positive. Super positive. Overwhelmingly, emphatically, unequivocally in favour. A vast, mass market brand had brought an entirely new perspective down from the mountain and, to a section of the audience, it was an oxygenating blast of fresh air. Applause, congratulation and delight filled the airwaves. The different way of communicating was howlingly welcome. At bloody last, approximated the reaction.

Within Unilever, those frantic attempts to bury the advertising were themselves buried in minutes. Instead, the Executive tribe turned on a sixpence and began to purr with the praise. Silvia and Klaus were justly congratulated. Interview requests and opinion piece offers poured in. For a while, there was a distinct sense that something had really changed. Dove had boldly rewritten the rules.

Actual sales gains were modest to non-existent for a while, but the soaps and moisturising business picked up in the following two years. Deodorants and Haircare were added in to the advertising topics. The advertising approach was stitched into campaign after campaign and rolled out across the world.

Which is when I arrived.

On my watch, some amazing things happened, but few, if any, were down to me. I found myself on the bridge of a very tall ship, peering down at the distant decks of North America, South America, Europe, South Africa, the Middle East and substantial chunks of the Asia Pacific region from Singapore to Japan. In theory, the creative brains of Ogilvy & Mather people in any of those territories were available to me – for a price – to work on whichever initiative I decreed. I took day-return flights to Europe about once a fortnight. I flew to New York, Los Angeles and Tokyo to talk soap with local agency and Unilever people. (I was turned away from the gate in Japan’s Narita airport en route to Delhi for want of a proper Visa.) The coterie of high-flyers – agency people and global clients together – that I had joined made for a fascinating, if complicated, tribe. I came to know them better as our travelling circus punched holes in the ozone layer. In the Zoom and Teams age, our flights strike now as wanton excess. Back then, it always felt better to look someone in the eye in person.

At Unilever, Silvia Lagnado had moved on prior to my arrival. In her place, a fiersome, determined Argentinian was managing Dove’s affairs, under pressure to deliver a major sales uplift.   A coiled spring of a leader, Fernando kept his claws sheathed towards me for the duration of my tenure. So huge were the sub-categories of ‘Hair’ and ‘Deodorant’, there were global leads for each under him, with the added complexity of territorial barons and baronesses in various ‘key markets’. By comparison, a number of small European states are run far less impressively – or politically.

There were wonderful people who helped me and contributed to Dove’s growing fame. Maureen Shirreff at Ogilvy, Chicago and Joerg Herzog in Dusseldorf were particular pillars of support. (By rechristening a product range as ‘Pro-Age’ rather than ‘Anti-Aging’, Maureen took a hugely successful swipe at another of the clichĂ©s in skincare retailing.) In London, Dennis continued to contribute, along with others in the creative department. I was massively helped by Sue Higgs and Andy Bird, both still leading creators of powerful advertising, at the top of their game in their respective agencies.

Perhaps the stand-out work in my two-and-a-half years came from Canada. At Ogilvy Toronto, the fabulous Janet Kestin created enough headroom, trust and momentum for Tim Piper to write a short film, in which his then girlfriend appeared, made at very low cost. His art director was Mike Kirkland and it was directed by Yael Staav.  The end product was that retouching film, which I think was the first ever Double Grand Prix winner (film and cyber) at the Cannes advertising festival. Disarmingly simple, the message couldn’t be clearer.

Evolution

With something as colossal as Dove, there were bound to be challenges, and some were insurmountable. I learned so much by listening to the views of thousands of women across the world. Unilever’s financial ambitions were sometimes at odds with feminine psychology. Whereas the idea – and the portrayal – of ‘real’ worked well for cleansing and soap products, it frequently hit a brick wall for haircare. Time and again, we heard groups declaring that, while they celebrated the best of their true selves with skin products like soap and moisturiser, when it came to hair they simply wanted ‘the Dream’, with a capital ‘D’. The notion of ‘real’ battled with a desire for movie star looks and lost. Sales figures told us that Hollywood hopes won out over ordinary, everyday reality, even as our competitors’ promises proved false with every trip to the shower. As a consequence, Ogilvy people spent a ridiculous amount of time with some very patient women, filming endless hair washing, styling and flicking shots in very slow motion. Bizarrely, Bangkok became my sort of go-to hair hub, supplying copious close-up footage of immaculately presented tresses, a swaying, swirly forest of gently waving follicles, all certified to have been cleaned and conditioned with Dove.

There were also certain countries where the idea of ‘real beauty’ simply didn’t work at all. In the UK and the US, the variation in women’s body types is quite broad (the bell curve range of short, tall, broad, thin etc). The spectrum of so many shapes and sizes was summarised to me in one research finding as “a 45% variance”. In South Korea, the figure was 7%. There is far greater physical similarity and – a contentious topic – a huge cultural pressure to conform. Back in 2007, if you showed a group of women in Seoul photographs of someone different to the widely accepted ‘ideal’, the unanimous response was always, “Well, hasn’t she let herself go“. The last statistic I saw was that something like one in four women in Korea has had plastic surgery of some kind.

There were highs and there were lows. I was lucky to have the responsibility and it was a privilege to direct Dove’s advertising work. There were moments that I felt – and continue to feel to this day – that it could, and probably should, have all been run by a woman. (In 2007, 35% of Dove’s UK sales were to men – which later prompted the launch of a dedicated men’s range.) A much greater gender balance has been achieved across Unilever’s marketing since, largely down to Leena Nair, the brilliant HR lead who now occupies the top job at Chanel. Ultimately, as with any corporate posting, I was moved on (not ungraciously) to take up other duties at the newly reinstated Ogilvy and Mather, as it should have remained throughout.

In the years since, there have been amazing, world class contributions to the campaign. Sales have grown. Other brands have aped Dove’s approach, so the mainstream advertising seems less fresh and distinctive. Less successfully, the ill-fated 2017 launch of a packaging range blew a lot of good will away with patronising, dumb stupidity. The bottles were made to – so say – mimic women’s body shapes:  as crass a piece of marketing thinking as it was possible to imagine. Social media loaded up its shotguns and sent volleys of ridicule and scorn towards the brand. From a long way off, I thought the protests utterly justified.

Epic packaging fail

Heading back to the beginning, Olivia, Dennis and Daryl really started something. It might not have been a cure for cancer, but they brought a much needed blast of honesty to an advertising sector built on false hopes, paranoia and – often – bullying. In a quiet but revolutionary way, how women and the female form are approached in advertising was put under the spotlight. A refreshing seachange was definitely detectable. It might not have been seismic in the grand scheme, nor that long-lasting (although echoes continue), but I was deeply proud to be part of Dove during my stint. And honestly, the overwhelming majority of people I both met and worked with were exceptional, doing their best for a brand that was bravely trying to change the rules.

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