Remember house ads?

Not for the first time, a tweet by Richard Shotton got me thinking – ‘A rare example of an ad agency advertising themselves well’.
(It showed an old Fallon McElligott house ad.)

When was the last time I saw an agency advertising itself?
I couldn’t think of one.
It’s a shame, because as well as helping clients get a sense of an agency, house ads were a great way for people like me to a snapshot of the culture within the agency.
For example, I’d come across an ad like this, and although I liked their ‘Secret Lemonade Drinker’ ad, I’d know, without a shadow of a doubt, it wasn’t for me.ABM House Ads-01*.jpg
Whereas I’d come across an ad like this and think ‘I want to be in that gang!’.HOUSE GGT House Ad-01 copy 2.jpg
So why have they vanished?
Could it be that in these austere times it simply feels too reckless to spend part of your recently reduced fee on an ad promoting yourself?
Surely not?
What would be a more damning indictment of our business than that the companies that make ads don’t value them enough to spend their own money on? Maybe it’s now harder to find your audience?
Virtually all the ads here ran in Campaign, pre-internet, it was the only place to discover what happening in the world of advertising.
Thursday mornings wouldn’t start until it had been read from cover to cover.
That’s no longer the case, no publication that has the dominance and influence that Campaign once had.
But it must be possible to find our industry? If there’s one thing online is good at it’s targeting small groups.
It could be that it’s just too hard to be the agency AND the client.
One of the reasons clients hire agencies is their objectivity, if you want an objective view of a particular child don’t ask the people who made it.
You need a bit of distance to offer opinions like ‘no-one cares about that’, ‘too much information’ or ‘ten product points is nine too many for a 20 ad”.
But, is it really harder now to create an ad for your agency today than it was then?
Agencies used to have a wide range of personalities and philosophies.
These generally reflected the people who started them.
Generally the people responsible for creating the work, if was said that an
 agency’s client list would mirror the Creative Partner’s shopping basket.
Imagine David Abbott wearing a pair of Levi’s? John Hegarty driving a Volvo Estate?
Dave Trott wearing a Patek Philippe or Tim Delaney watching a Toshiba tv?
Such clearly defined agency personalities made it easier to draw up appropriate pitch lists, choose agencies and write house ads.
But in the last decade, as ad agencies chased the latest shiny new object, world-class communication agencies have willingly turned themselves into third-rate tech companies.
In that time, tech has gone from specialised black art that clients were willing to pay a premium for to an everyday commodity that’s bought like bog rolls or tea bags.
It’s meant agency positionings have converged

Bespoke agency positionings like BBH’s ‘We don’t sell. We make you want to buy’ have been replaced across the board with a version of ‘Give us some money and we’ll do what you want’.
It’s hard to charge much for that and even harder to write a house ad for.

E.g. Here’s my house ads.
Campbell Doyle Dye.
Having had a complicated stop-start beginning, we wanted to thank all those people or companies who’d offered space, investment or good wishes.
We wanted to buy them a beer.
In retrospect we got too creative, perhaps ‘artsy’ is a better word.
It looks unusual and cool, perhaps people might be intrigued to look into what it’s about?
Big words saying ‘we’d like to buy these people a beer’ next to a list, and a date would’ve been better.

About a year or two later we had another go.
We’d done some nice work and wanted to show people.
The thing that seemed to connect all the work was that it felt confident, so we wrote a line about confidence and put this rough together.

Then it occurred to me that although all the ads within our ad exuded confidence, the ad they were within, our ad, wasn’t confident at all, it did what we talk clients out of week in week out; show every product they made.
We needed to take our own advice; Make a relevant point as simply and powerfully as possible.
I’d been made aware that each of our clients had grown in the over the last year, true, we only had seven clients at that point, but it still a neat fact.
I mocked up this. 

It seemed a bit straight, there was no clever writing, no clever visual stuff, but I liked it.
Then I worried it was a bit like this ad our friends had run.
HOUSE Fallon 'Skoda'.jpg
It had the same bald, non-clever headline, the same minimal art direction…sod it, let’s have another go.
Maybe we could give our view on advertising, maybe we could be bold and brave and get people to take in more than an eight word headline?

I wrote this.
It did a two things most clients would never do; print nothing on a full page you’ve paid for and it didn’t feature a logo. 
Is that brave or foolish?

It won a couple of awards and lead to a couple of conversations with a tractor importer in Norwich.
(I found another one I was working on that we didn’t end up running.)

In retrospect I should’ve coloured in the ‘Sold more’ headline in blue and run that.
What an idiot!
It’s the most relevant to someone looking for an agency.

Dye Holloway Murray.
In 2009, we managed to bludgeon our way onto the Volkswagen Commercial Vehicles pitch, it was 6 months into the global financial crisis, Volkswagen Commercial Vehicles were dearer than most of the competition and Volkswagen had spent decades building up an honest, totally non-bullshitting tone of voice.
I figured we needed to talk business with businessmen, explain why it’s worth paying more for a Volkswagen than a Vauxhall or Renault.

To cut a long story short, I ended up working with David Abbott on the pitch. 
(The long story is here:
Whilst at lunch with David one day, probably whining about a lack of new business, David said ‘you need some positional ads, when we started we ran an ad that said “Watch out Colletts, we’re only £34million behind you.” We did it because we liked Colletts, we wanted to think we were like them…a smaller version of Colletts. You need to align yourselves with the agencies you admire, so that people know that you’re a creative agency like them.’
The idea made me feel a bit uncomfortable.

‘We’ve run a lot of ads, I can trace a new piece of business to every ad’ he told me.
Sod it! I found David’s ad.

How do I copy that without copying it?
For a start, we don’t want to appear in it, that just seems weird.
Ok, so no picture.
We seemed to be getting premium business, Vertu, The Macallan, The Economist, so I thought it should look premium, stylish, but fun premium, not all black and serious.
So I picked a stylish font and picked words out in different colours.
But what do we say?

I made a list of agencies I admired; Mother, Wieden Kennedy and Fallon.
I didn’t want to copy, but even the sentiment ‘Watch out Mother, we’re only £200m behind you’, it sounded so cheesy… and ludicrous.
Perhaps if we were self-deprecating?
Maybe we should pick out good things about them and say we don’t have that problem;
a) Fallon – tons of accounts.
b) Mother – Multi-cultural.
c) Wieden’s – based in uber-cool Shoreditch.
That seems like a more contemporary, tongue-in-cheek way of doing that ‘Collets’ ad.
We ran these three.
DHM 'Mother'.jpgDHM 'Fallon'.jpgDHM 'Wieden's'.jpg
Not even a call from an East Anglian tractor importer.
The only response was this good-natured blog post from Wieden’s.

Here’s how others agencies did it.
Some great, like the DDB ads below, (the ‘Account Man’ one was written by David Abbott), some less great, like the Allen Brady Marsh ads way below.


Abbott Mead Vickers.

Gold Greenlees Trott.
Hedger Mitchell Stark.

Deighton & Mullen.

Leagas Delaney.

Davis Wilkins.
Fallon McElligott.

Ogilvy & Mather.

Davidson Pearce.

Maxwell Sackheim.

Wight Collins Rutherford Scott Matthews Marcantonio.

Geer Dubois.

Love this one, presumably the idea is to say ‘We’re creative too! Honest!’.
So they do the least creative ad known to man.

Richard Cope & Partners.

Saatchi & Saatchi.

Scali, McCabe, Sloves.


Elgie Stewart Smith.

Allen Brady Marsh.

Ford & Westbrook.


Ball Partnership.


Crispin Porter.

Papert Koenig Lois.
Lawler Ballard.

The & Partnership.


Leo Burnett.

Campbell Ewald.

J. Walter Thompson.



17 responses to Remember house ads?

  1. Tonimoroni says:

    Campaign used to publish a directory of agencies that would often feature house ads.

    I remember one for Waldron Allen Henry Thompson with the headline ‘We’re not going to tell you how good we are. They are.’

    It then had pictures of their clients with a direct line to contact them on.

    And one of the mainstays of Neil French’s career was his house advertising:

    • dave dye says:

      I have those Tony, they’re called ‘Portfolio’. Dx

    • dave dye says:

      Possibly? That’s very deep, what do you mean? Dx

  2. Jamie Hudson says:

    Thanks Dave, these are fantastic. I remember many of the 80s, 90s and 00s ads. Love the early Y&R ads and Ogilvy’s long copy ads. Agencies don’t do house ads any more, because they can’t do ads any more.

  3. paul constable says:

    I’d like to buy this new car, can you tell me a bit about it?
    Sorry, no I can’t. We don’t have a brochure or a car for you to look at.
    So how do I know if it’s right for me?
    Take my word for it.
    That’s not good enough.
    That’s all I can offer you.
    What about other people that have bought one?
    Ask them, if you like.
    But what about a test drive?
    You can do that after you’ve bought one
    But what if I don’t like it?
    Get rid of it.
    Will you buy it back from me?
    Why not?
    Because I don’t know you or trust you.

  4. jamesfrancisnz says:

    One of my favourite house ads, for AMV, was, “Why isn’t it Dave Abbott and David Trott?”
    A whole philosophy in a headline.

  5. Ewan Adams says:

    Holy shit. This is amazing! God, I love a long copy ad.

  6. david prys-owen says:

    as always, thank you. particularly pleased to see the early abbott mead ads because they include guy davies, the leon trotsky of AMV. He was bought out early on and then airbrushed from the corporate history. There are more recent pictures of tasmanian tigers online than of him. And great to see peter mayle centre stage

  7. Ben says:

    I did a house ad for AMV that appeared in the programme of the 2002 D&AD awards. It was a shit Economist ad that ended with something like ‘Thank God for AMV’. In retrospect it was a subconscious rip of that ‘how to write (or fuck up) a VW ad’ thing that added starbursts and vouchers.

    There was also an AMV one from Richard Foster and John Horton that had a boxer punching an opponent. It said something like ‘It’s better to give than to receive’. Maybe it’s was in the 94 or 95 D&AD.

    I understand the point of advertising because you’re an ad agency, but you’re asking people to part with, or shift, a huge amount of money. An ad alone probably isn’t how it happens. I imagine the Berry Bros., Knight Frank and Rolls Royce dudes do a more hardcore personal schmooze than that. It tends to be about relationships, and they’re not really built through the odd ad. That said, the confidence of buying an ad is probably helpful in some way.

    (I just remembered that TV ad for some agency that said ‘we don’t charge our hookers back to clients’. Now that was good. Although I don’t recall the name of the agency, so maybe it was poor.)

    • dave dye says:

      Hey Ben,
      I think you’re right, no client will appoint an agency based on an ad.
      But if an agency can separate themselves from other agencies by telling you what they believe, it may register; getting them a call, a visit or a slot on a pitch list.
      Agencies, like all companies do better if people know what they stand for.

      • Ben says:

        True. And, like you implied at the top of the post, the ads can make creatives/planners/account peeps want to work for you. That’s an interesting virtuous circle people don’t talk about very much.


  8. Dave, hello from Bangalore and thank you so much for maintaining, constantly adding to this archive of the best advertising from the past. I’ve learnt a lot from reading all the ads, your points of view and about the process itself. I must also mention that I’ve recommended your site to many of my colleagues as a benchmark and a crash course in good advertising writing. Please don’t ever take this website down, at least for those of us across the world. I don’t know of any other such archive on the internet that’s so exhaustive and easily accessible today.

  9. Penn L Hoyt says:

    Wow! What great stuff. My grandfather and father were both admen back in the day (Grandfather created the Chesterfield Girl, father with B&J) and seeing the classic ads from some of the names in the agency business brought back a lot of memories. My father always said copy was a true art form and these sure are classic examples of that. My son is now in the business here in Dallas. I’ll have to forward this on to him! Thanks so much!

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