NEW YORK — Some likened it to a bitter divorce. Others said the high wire act had grown tiresome, and many said they’re looking forward to a fresh, more fashionable approach.
That’s the reaction from advertising executives here and in Italy about this week’s split between Luciano Benetton and his crusading advertising rebel, Oliviero Toscani.
Was it all worth it?
Toscani’s notorious confrontational approach has its supporters, who argue that he managed to raise public consciousness about important social issues. Others said advertising is, after all, advertising, and the campaigns did little to build Benetton’s fashion image.
By now the images are well-known: photographs of death row inmates; dying AIDS patients; a nun and a priest kissing; a black woman nursing a white baby; horses mating and oil-soaked birds. They sure got people talking, but whether they helped sell clothing was an entirely different matter. In fact, most advertising executives believe the campaigns did more to hurt Benetton’s business than build it, especially in the U.S.
Neither president Luciano Benetton nor creative director Toscani would comment for this story. However, a Benetton spokesman told WWD, “The decision [to part] had been in the air for the past year,” and was by mutual consent.
“After 18 years, both Toscani and Benetton felt the need to renew themselves,” said the spokesman. He added that Toscani had planned campaigns throughout 2000. After that, advertising will be handled by Fabrica, the in-house creative laboratory founded by Toscani in 1993, which will now be managed and directed by Paolo Landi, a Benetton manager.
As reported, Toscani’s most recent death row campaign caused Sears, Roebuck & Co. to drop the Benetton USA line, a business that was expected to generate $100 million in sales at Sears in its first year. But the Benetton spokesman denied that this incident was the final straw leading to Toscani’s departure.
Benetton’s communications budget was $80 million, or 4 percent of company sales, which were about $2 billion worldwide last year. The company has about 7,000 stores in 200 countries. Benetton’s business, which got off to a tremendous start in the U.S., peaked with more than 600 stores in the mid-Eighties and has since fallen to about 200 stores today. In 1988, the U.S. accounted for $384 million in sales.
Gavino Sanna, president of D’Arcy, a Milan ad agency, who never hid his dislike for the way Toscani communicated, conceded that the partnership between Toscani and Benetton was “unique and extraordinary.”
“We had gotten used to seeing things out of the ordinary — whether we liked them or not,” said Sanna. He speculated that Benetton likely asked Toscani to leave. “It was an ideal and comfortable situation for Toscani. Why give it up?”
Sanna expects Benetton will now focus on product more than on label. “Benetton’s ads will probably be in line with more traditional fashion communication. If Benetton meant to pursue the social theme, he would have done it with Toscani,” he said.
Aldo Cernuto, creative director at Lowe Lintas Pirella Gottsche, another big ad agency in Milan, said, “This a historical divorce in an excellent marriage, and it took us all by surprise.”
Cernuto expressed his admiration for Toscani’s courage to unsettle creative rules, but he said he believes it’s difficult to maintain a balance in the long run. Cernuto said Toscani and Benetton had reached a peak and that they would have had to change ways to communicate in order to sustain their messages.
“I don’t think Toscani’s creativity will ever wane, but when you aim so high, you are a shooting star that sooner or later crashes,” he said. “I think it’s generally hard to understand when the right time has come to let go and to avoid the risk of going too far,” said Cernuto.
Roberto Pizzigoni, another creative director at Lowe, expects Benetton will change the direction of his campaigns. “The company can’t raise its voice more than it already has,” he said. “I doubt it will pursue the social accusation theme. Benetton is an inventor. I’m sure he’ll think of a new way to communicate.”
Sam Shahid, owner of Shahid & Co., an ad agency here, said Toscani did an unmatched job of keeping the Benetton name at the forefront of consumer attention with his creative, risk-taking campaigns.
However, he said Benetton’s fashions and its “bland” stores never matched the excitement of the advertising. “They’ve got to get the business back up. Maybe they’ll go reverse and do catalog-type advertising and become like everybody else,” he said, alluding to the tactics of The Gap and hot newcomer H&M.
Shahid said Toscani-style confrontation “can’t be done again.” Still, he held out hope that the Toscani-Benetton split won’t hamper creative, risk-taking advertising in the future. “Retail is all the same now,” he said. “It’s all about who is cheapest.”
Neil Kraft, partner, Frierson, Mee & Kraft, another New York ad agency, suggested Benetton should start again from scratch and reinvent itself a la Gucci. He said Toscani’s confrontational, issues-based advertising has grown stale and “no one’s paid attention to it in 10 years.”
“I was offended by 90 percent of what they did,” he said. “I don’t think advertising is the place to preach. I’ve always thought it was a cynical marketing gambit as opposed to deeply held beliefs.”
Ellis Verdi, partner in ad agency DeVito/Verdi, also of New York, said, “I was always one who thought that bringing up certain subject matters was better than not bringing it up at all. I love the fact that the advertising is talked about. It’s very attention getting. You can’t do advertising that’s not. I believe everything he did was terrific. Maybe they should hire his brother.
“I don’t think they did enough of it.”
For future campaigns, Verdi suggested, “I would like to take the attention-getting nature of it, and the fact that it’s interesting on some levels and it’s compelling, and now take all the qualities and give it an idea that’s a little closer to the product. That direction would take it to the next level.”
Meanwhile, Jeff McKay, owner of the ad agency here that bears his name, was never a fan of Benetton’s advertising.
“I’ve always had a real problem with heavy politics and light fashion. I think it’s like oil and water. I have a hard time believing political manifestos from a fashion designer, and at the same time, I wouldn’t believe fashion manifestos from political people. In other words, I wouldn’t want Bill Clinton to tell me what to wear.
“I would completely 1,000 percent ignore what was done before,” said McKay. “I have an awareness of Benetton, but at the lowest common denominator of human thought. I have no idea of what Benetton makes at this point. I don’t know if they make sweaters, shirts or condoms.
“I would say, ‘OK, let’s start again. We’re cool and we make fabulous stuff.’ If you reprise what you’ve done, like Controversy II, you end up with a Gap situation, trying to reprise the great dance stuff and getting this weird abortion/hybrid [the ‘West Side Story’ ads]. Like Godfather 8. There’s only one solution, and it’s to start all over again.”
Olivier Van Doorne, creative director of Select Communications, another ad agency here, wasn’t a big fan either.
“They did so many things that were politically challenging. They totally need to re-assess the brand. I don’t even know what the brand is anymore. I don’t go in the stores and I’m scared by the advertising. The dream is not there.
“They need to rebuild the history of Benetton. I would remind people of what Benetton did 20 years ago. How they had affordable sweaters in all the colors. I would try to get it back to that. There was something fun and positive in the brand that everyone forgot about. I would tell some part of the Benetton Italian heritage.”
Starting in June, Fabrica will be housed in a new complex outside Treviso, Italy, close to Ponzano Veneto where Benetton is based. The buildings include an auditorium, libraries, photographic studios and a movie theater.
The Benetton spokesman described Fabrica as a creative laboratory composed of students and Benetton employees. “They develop new and innovative ways to communicate,” he said.
Toscani, who continues as creative director of Talk, had also been editor in chief of Benetton’s controversial bi-monthly magazine, Colors. It will continue to be published by Benetton at Fabrica. The magazine focuses on photography, and each issue covers one specific topic, such as travel, religion, status symbols or AIDS. Colors always reflected Toscani’s touch of unabashed audacity and once even went so far as to feature a series of close-up photos of female genitalia.