NEW YORK — Ed McCabe, chairman and chief executive officer of McCabe & Co., a New York ad agency, is perhaps most noted for his innovative work for Perdue. His current client roster includes Renaissance, a beauty company that produces Chantilly and French Vanilla fragrances; Hebrew National; Rally’s, a fast food chain; Russian Military Jeep, and Maxell.
Q: What’s wrong with fashion advertising?
A: What fashion advertising has become is the hot photographer with the good-looking girl. They re-execute the same notion over and over, and when you get the breakthroughs is when you get someone like Calvin who pushes it to the edge. Why has no fashion advertiser done an all-copy ad? In the annals of great advertising, you won’t find much fashion and beauty advertising. It tends to be vapid. It’s all style and no content. For some reason, there’s a belief if you have content, you don’t have style. They’re afraid it will diminish their perception of style.
Q: Which fashion ads do you dislike? Which do you admire?
A: Eighty percent of [fashion and beauty] advertising I don’t like. I hate the Joop [fashion] ads. Somebody doesn’t know what they’re doing.
The most brilliant advertising is Guess. It was clear, it was defined. It’s very rare that people who do it themselves do it right. I love the fact that Guess kept it going. They put themselves right in the middle between Calvin Klein and Levi’s. Their image-making was excellent; it was a brilliant job of branding and positioning. The money they spent on advertising was worth it.
Q: What place does controversy have in fashion and beauty advertising?
A: I think controversy has always been at the heart and soul of advertising. When Charlie was launched it was controversial — this striding feminist-type woman. It was the first time it’s ever been codified. It was a breakthrough in its time. Her wearing men’s clothes — it was very aggressive.
Calvin has always done it pretty close to the edge. Benetton did some controversial stuff. It wasn’t well-focused and got in the way. A lot of what Benetton did was very good. The AIDS ad tarred the whole campaign. It became the AIDS campaign. This is a mistake people in fashion make often. They stir the fires of controversy and burn something else. It’s a waste of good controversy. It has to be focused and come back to what you are and what your competition isn’t. You just can’t be controversial for controversy’s sake. The last thing the Benetton ad did was make you want to buy a sweater or a franchise.
Q: Is fashion and beauty advertising different from other advertising, and why?
A: When I was trying to write a book about advertising, I had a chapter on fashion and beauty advertising. ‘Stay away from it because it isn’t [advertising]’ was what I wanted to say. But I’ve changed my idea. It’s much more difficult. That’s why you see so many people making fools of themselves. Fashion and beauty ads tend to be driven by egomaniacs who don’t know what they’re doing.
Q: Are fashion and beauty clients more opinionated than clients in other fields?
A: They’re all too opinionated. I think fashion — of necessity — is. If you’re dealing with a designer, if they’re not opinionated, you should throw in the towel. It’s a tough challenge. That’s why so many resort to doing it themselves — qualified or not.
Q: What are the ways advertising can hurt business?
A: I’ll give you an example. If I saw a John Weitz suit drowning, I wouldn’t save it. Perfumes, fashion and car advertising are all the same. Would you like to be seen in that car? I wouldn’t be caught dead in anything John Weitz designed.
Q: How does fashion and beauty advertising weigh in, in terms of creativity and sophistication?
A: It’s very high in sophistication and generally very low in creativity. But that depends on your definition of creativity. If creative is doing it a new way, there’s not much new being done out there. It’s very self-conscious. The best advertising is not self-conscious.