Steve Henry: Mad man


The adman behind “You’ve been Tango’d” on his industry’s chequered past and challenging future

Remember when you were Tango’d by a fat man in an orange bodysuit? Or when the AA became the fourth emergency service?

What about when good things came to those who waited for Guinness?

Responsible for those ads (and many more) is Steve Henry: the man who proclaims advertising a “criminal waste of money”; describes TV commercials as “the wasps at the picnic”; and dismisses his profession as “something to do while you write your film script”.

Henry has certainly earned the right to speak his mind: he’s been showered with industry awards, from the D&AD Gold Pencil, via the Grand Prix at Cannes, to the President’s Award at Creative Circle (he has two of the latter).  

Dressed in a white t-shirt and jeans set off by a killer tan, Henry lounges on his large cream sofa in his Kensington flat and explains the adland paradox:

“On the one hand advertising is incredibly trivial – people would rather pay a gas bill than engage with it. On the other hand it creates brands that are potentially the biggest and most powerful things in the world.”

When Henry named the AA “the fourth emergency service”, the vehicle recovery firm’s membership base grew from eight million to 11 million in two years

It’s quite a contradiction – and one that Henry has earned fame and fortune exploiting.

As one of the founding partners of HHCL, Henry’s enfant terrible approach to marketing revolutionised brands like Carling Black Label, Egg, First Direct, Tango and the AA.

But, more importantly, it transformed the industry by proving that to make adverts worthwhile you had to “break all the rules”.

This maverick method led to sales of the soft drink, Tango, growing from one million a day to 1.3 million. The “you’ve been Tango’d” ad became so popular it was eventually banned after kids started slapping each other.

When Henry named the AA “the fourth emergency service”, the vehicle recovery firm’s membership base grew from eight million to 11 million in two years.

So why the scathing words about the industry that made him?

Henry’s negativity has its roots in the demise of HHCL. The agency went from cult status – winning Campaign’s Agency of the Decade in 2000 – to losing many of its best clients within a year before being rebranded as United London and eventually merging with WWP’s rival agency Grey London in 2007.

It was a rather spectacular fall from grace, and one that provoked much speculation. Some contend that HHCL became a victim of its own success; that it failed to innovate its approach, despite the fact that innovation was its purported mantra.

Having already left HHCL in 2006, two years later Henry said goodbye the world of advertising altogether. Then he had his epiphany.

“Most decisions in the house are made by mums… online forums are gold dust to advertisers”

“I realised that you only see ads when you’re in [advertising]. People in the industry – both client side and agency side – look at the ads but nobody else does.”

Henry became convinced that conventional advertising simply doesn’t work and that as technology advances, consumers’ exposure to ads will be diminished even further.

So what next? Despite his noisy departure from the ad world, Henry is now back as a creative consultant. But like many, he believes that the future is online – starting with mothers, via the hugely popular Netmums and Mumsnet.

“Most decisions in the house are made by mums… online forums are gold dust to advertisers,” he explains.

But isn’t starting a discussion in an online forum merely market research?

“What you want advertising to do is start a conversation about your brand. The Sony balls advert – everyone looked at that said s**t did they really release a quarter of a million balls down a street in San Francisco? That’s what stands out; it’s making people think ‘God, you can’t do that, can you?’”

So the future of advertising is about social communities and conversations, not banners and flashing ads. Anything else?

“Fighting a battle on behalf of the consumer” also has legs, Henry adds. What made recent campaigns from Virgin, Nike and Apple so interesting is that they championed issues for their customers, he says.

Henry describes Sir Richard Branson as a “consumer champion”, for rescuing the airline industry. As for Nike, their fight was against fat: “Just Do It”.

But did we really? Aren’t we fatter now than ever before? I don’t point this out. Henry is so convincing, so intense, so fast-talking, that interjection doesn’t come easily.

I imagine he is a formidable force in the boardroom – once you’ve dragged him away from Mumsnet.

Henry on…

London town: I love London, it’s tolerant and friendly and open, most of the time! I love all the different cultures that are here.

Favourite restaurant: Maze or Le Caprice

Favourite Brand: Anything but Harrods, maybe Selfridges or Tate Modern

London 2012: Following on from the amazing spectacle of Beijing is going to be tough. I think we need to employ typically British creativity, i.e. be original and thought-provoking.