A creative look back at drinks advertising through the years

Tom Harvey of YesMore Drinks Marketing Agency interviews an advertising legend, Tony Malcolm - including advice for brands trying to get famous now!

Hello, I’m Tom Harvey, one of the two co-founders of YesMore - a creative marketing agency focussed on advertising for drinks brands and the hospitality industry - and The Drinks Trusts’ guest editor this month.

When I was asked to interview someone in the industry, I knew immediately there was one influential legend of advertising I knew could share an exciting peek behind the curtain of the world of advertising for the drinks industry - Tony Malcolm. Enjoy…

What’s your connection to the drinks industry? Professionally I mean. And your background in advertising?

My connection to the drinks industry started when I was at an agency that had the Tetley beer account. I remember the Creative Director coming up with a line ‘A man can get attached to a Tetley’. I know, the pronouns weren’t even a thing back then and we were in the grips of the patriarchy that Ken would have loved, Barbie, less so.

My creative partner Guy Moore and I were asked to make some sense of this line and we set about writing some scripts that took the line literally and no matter what situation a man found himself in, his Tetley’s never left his right hand. Hilarious scripts ensued where King Richard, in the grips of a witch with a voodoo doll ordered by Prince John, puts poor Richard through all kinds of contortions in front of his baffled knights of the realm. His head is twisted through 360 degrees, he is made to do the splits, crushing his cod-piece and is bent out of shape in a whole host of ways. Not a drop of his Tetley’s is spilt during this ordeal, earning him applause from his Knights and the rage of the witch trying to crush his regal standing in front of his subjects. The whole spectacle is accompanied by the track ‘Bend It’ by Dave Dee Dozey Beaky Mick & Tich and was shot by legendary ad director Paul Weiland.

Other films included a man who’d accidentally got stuck to two workmen’s planks outside a pub and slid off downhill to the tune of Ski Sunday, managing to not spill a drop of his Tetley Bitter whilst doing all sorts of flips and tricks.

I started in advertising having attended Hounslow Borough College and doing a graphics course. As part of the course, we were introduced to advertising and once a week would travel into London to advertising agencies where professionals would critique our work from a brief they’d set. It was sometimes brutal, but the agencies were lavish and the beer they laid on was free, so that was it. My mind was made up. I wanted to be a copywriter and after visiting many creative agencies and leaping through more hoops, landed myself a job at Saatchi and Saatchi at the tender age of 19.

“They were my debut ads into the world of beer back in the 80’s. Beer was linked with fun times and the ads mirrored that with their entertainment value.”

What ad campaigns or brands have you been involved with in the drinks industry?

I have been involved with many breweries and distilleries creating work for them. I have written press campaigns for Hennessy XO Cognac and Drambuie, creative campaigns for Marston’s Pedigree and Low C, been a Creative Director overseeing work on Absolut, Whyte and Mackay, Newcastle Brown and McEwan’s Lager. I was even filmed by a programme called ‘Making The Break’ on Channel 4 following the making of a Pimm’s commercial.

Recently I have been working into Diageo on their Scotch Whisky portfolio and as I’m under an NDA, that’s all I can say about that. I have worked on Diageo in the past on Guinness, which is one of my favourite drinks being part Irish and being brought up on the Black Stuff. I also worked on Miller Genuine Draft which took me around the world shooting imagery for their global library, from exotic party locations around a pool, to glitzy clubs and the quintessential beach party attended by all the beautiful people, me not included.

Where do you seek your creative inspiration when coming up with a new ad campaign?

It totally depends on the brief and the audience. I rely heavily on an insight from a strategist/s which may be about the drinking occasion, or the provenance, or connoisseurship.

For instance, Guinness used to have an image problem, where it was deemed the drink of older men who had the time to stand about waiting for the drink to settle. That negative connotation was brilliantly overturned by the line ’Good Things Come to Those Who Wait’ and compared to Surfers waiting for a wave. I didn’t do that ad, but was extremely envious of it when I saw the spectacular commercial with the white horses as waves all accompanied by a track from Leftfield called Phat Planet. It still, a few decades, on is voted one of the UK’s favourite ads in numerous polls.

Sometimes inspiration comes from the weirdest places and Guy once showed me a picture of lots of disparate images making up the profile of Prince Philip (as he was then known). It led to a series of collages making up unusual Scottish characters sipping Drambuie and the line ‘An intriguing Scottish blend, for a more unusual character’.

I loved doing those as Drambuie was my Dad’s favourite tipple, being half Scottish and there is a lot of mythology surrounding about how the recipe was handed down by Bonnie Prince Charlie to the Mackinnon family as reward for them secreting him off on a boat to the Isle of Skye, aye

Is there a creative process or ritual you go through when solving the challenges of your clients?

I always drink the produce, savouring every flavour profile and letting the subtle tastes wash over my palate. I will go on a brewery or distillery visit and talk to the people closest to making the product and I will go on a tour of pubs or drinking establishments incognito to see how it is consumed in its natural environment. I once did a tour of Tetley pubs in Liverpool and that was a proper eye-opener. It was in search of stories about the venues with the line ‘Wherever You Find Tetley’s, You’ll Find a Certain Character’.

I have done the same with Marston’s going into the brewery on a fact-finding mission and seeing the Burton Union System in action. I found out a lot about the properties of Burton water revered for certain minerals, including sulphur that make it perfect for the brewing of bitter. I heard they have actually put football fields over the wells at Marston’s to prevent developers building on the land and contaminating the water. I also learnt a lot about yeast and how it has been growing for decades and people come to the brewery to take samples away for use in breads and other brews. The whole premise of Marston’s being a great Victorian pint followed on in the advertising and I once wrote lyrics to the song from Half a Sixpence ‘What a Picture’, exchanging the word picture for bitter, and shooting it all on hand-cranked camera with the director Mike Stephenson in the Victorian Theatre at Richmond.

As I lived very close to that theatre, there were barrels and ample bottles of Pedigree left at that location over the weekend and I collected them and had a hell of a BBQ with the Pedigree flowing freely. I had also learnt how to tap up a barrel as part of my onboarding and I took a lot of bitter on board that weekend for sure. I have learnt and respected many rituals over my career and of course, my biggest lesson is always drink responsibly. A hangover on Marston’s doesn’t just affect the head as that sulphur content has devastating effect in a more southerly region of the body.

Which pub/bar or drinks brand do you think produced the best advertising campaign of all time? Is there an ad you wished you made? And why?

I think I started to answer this question earlier when I mentioned Guinness. Over the years, Guinness has produced some of the most iconic work that has been built on imagery as well as great storytelling. The Toucan not only defines Guinness but Irish bars where you know the craic will always be good and the décor authentic. I used to drink at The Toucan in Soho and the Guinness was particularly good with traditions followed to the letter. Guinness Surfer was an ad I wished I’d made because it stands the test of time.

I was at Abbott Mead Vickers at the time when it was being put together and the creatives involved themselves were legends. Tom and Walt never stuck strictly to a script and a simple concept was built upon until it was a work of art. They wanted to put Richard Burton’s reading of ‘Under Milk Wood’ on the commercial, but to avoid any copyright issues, wrote their own enigmatic words inspired by Moby Dick. “He waits, that’s what he does, And I tell you what, tick followed tock, followed tick followed tock. Ahab says I don’t care who you are, here’s to your dream” are the words that echo over scenes of a dodgy-eyed surfer and his Polynesian surfer mates wait for that wave to come. And when it does come it is accompanied by white horses.

As a sailor, I know the meaning of white horses as seen in the painting as depicted in Walter Crane’s 1893 painting ‘Neptune’s Horses’. The fact they are white against the black waves, as the whole commercial is shot in black and white, only contributes to that desire to drink a pint of the black stuff through a tightly frothing head. As they emerge through the spray, the drums from Leftfields ‘Phat Planet’ swell in volume too as we hear more voices churned up from Davy Jones locker saying ‘and the old sailors returned to the bar…here’s to you Ahab’ and a gravelly voice growls ‘and the fat drummer hit the beat with all of his heart’. Our hero surfer stays upright as his comrades succumb to the waves. Someone slaking their thirst with a hearty ‘aaaah’ emerges through the track. The triumphant surfer celebrates on the beach as the male bonding moment is observed with his mates celebrating alongside him, ‘Here’s to waiting’ is the final refrain as we cut to a shot of Guinness being poured with great patience

 What a commercial. I’m salivating just thinking about it. I also think it observes that time-honoured tradition of being a bit idiosyncratic with Toucans, Rutger Hauer, crazy dancing men and ‘Not All Things in Black and White Make Sense’ dutifully honoured.

If you could take the reins of any drinks brand, which would it be and why? What would you do with it?

That is a great question and one I am trying to think of through the many brands, varieties and flavours I have been exposed to, I love drinks with a story and provenance. I want to make them have relevance in this world. I have been amazed how a serving suggestion can revive a brand like when Magners served their cider over ice and Aperol it’s spritz.

I remember how Gordon’s used to run a cinema ad that was just lemons and fizz and liquid cues over a Human League track that made me want to just guzzle that ad from the silver screen. I remember when Stella Artois was ‘Reassuringly Expensive’ with fantastic commercials emulating Jean de Florette, with a peasant farmer giving away all his red flowers, just for a taste of that nectar. How ever did it nosedive to become known as wife-beater?

Heineken Refreshes The Parts Other Beers Cannot Reach’ led to some outstanding work for years, but now is disappearing into the morass of other European offerings. I’ve loved creative advertising campaigns from Smirnoff through the years with their line ‘The Other Side’ producing great posters and commercials including Smarienberg.

I used to be the Creative Director on Absolut Vodka and wonder where their art inspired campaign has disappeared to. I now see all these celebrities bringing out their own spirit brands and using themselves as the ambassador or influencer and doing some hilarious comms that I wonder, if they were to go through the relevant authorities, would be greenlit for broadcast? The Ryan Reynold’s ad encouraging the Peleton woman to drink Aviation to console herself from a partner giving her an exercise bike as a present, is a point in question.

What advice would you give to owners of start/scale up drinks brands looking to make some noise around their brand?

Be more like Ryan. Don’t take yourself too seriously and don’t follow culture but try to create it. Drink (alcohol) is to be enjoyed, even when connoisseurs are paying through the nose for it. Give it value in today’s world. Drinking is on the decline because punters understand the inherent dangers of drinking to excess. But pubs and clubs exist to give enjoyable experiences and great memories, not leave vomiting through your nose after a fist fight with a bouncer.

Fine, link your brand to fashion and the desire to look good, but not to the detriment of a great tasting product. Choose your influencers carefully and only those that feel right with the brand. Product placement is all well and good, but we can all tell when someone is just taking the money to expose you to their huge following.

Be authentic, be honest and ensure your brand has enough good brand associations to survive a celebrity induced shitstorm. You have to be built on more solid foundations than that. And if you are sustainable and do good things out there in the world, say it with humility, Don’t brag as your reward will come in heaven, not in increased sales.

Finally love what you do, as that infectious enthusiasm for your brand comes across and as the Beatles once wrote ‘All You Need is Love” man, Bring it in, Group hug.

What advice would you give to individuals wanting to work in the marketing and advertising of drinks brands?

If you have chosen drinks brands as your specialist subject, get to know the entire landscape from what you can say, what you can’t say, what you can do and what you can’t do. Then spend your time working out how best to get around them. And be honest with yourself, am I committed to this? I see huge profits and massive opportunities to worldwide fame, but that will only come with insights that resonate around the world. It’s all about the insights.

Crack them and you’ve cracked life. Go forth and conquer.

I also think we do need to lighten up on beer ads again, as it’s all a bit serious now, Budweiser’s ads like Whasssup and three frogs chirping in with a Bud, a weis and an er are hilarious, Now Bud has fallen foul of the wrong sort of influencer posting about their brew. And don’t get me started on Brewdog.

No, my desire to work on a drinks brand goes no further than Hoegaarden. And that is because of the Lynn Anderson’s tune “I Beg Your Pardon” is followed by the line ‘I never promised you a rose garden”. How catchy would that be if transformed into ‘I never promised you a Hoegaarden’ from an overprotective drinker who doesn’t want to share his or her favourite and most revered pint with anyone. I’ll leave that with you and if Hoegaarden sees this and decides it’s a goer, I’m sure Tom will provide you with my contact details.