From Richard Brim to Katie Lee, advertising figures reflect on how a campaign based on some fairly shaky wordplay became a beloved campaign that’s lasted 10 years
Who’d have predicted 10 years ago that by 2019 one of Britain’s most beloved fictional animals would be an aristocratic Russian meerkat... made famous via an ad campaign... for an insurance price comparison website? Shut up. Nobody would have. But in this twisted version of reality we’re living in, that’s exactly where we are.
Aleksandr Orlov and his meerkat friends and family have gone on to become kids’ favourite cuddly toys, they’ve partnered with blockbusters like Frozen, Star Wars and Batman and even shared the screen with the likes of Arnold Schwarzenegger and Nicole Kidman. Aleksandr’s "autobiography" was released in October 2010, entitled ‘A Simples Life: The Life and Times of Aleksandr Orlov’. It got more pre-orders than many other books released that year, including Tony Blair's memoirs, and more than doubled the pre-orders of Cheryl Cole's, David Jason's and Russell Brand's autobiographies.
That the campaign has lasted for 10 years with the same agency, VCCP, and the same animation production company, Passion Pictures, making every spot is remarkable in itself. It’s even travelled from UK to Australia, where the brand launched in 2013.
Here’s the ad that first introduced us all our new furry favourites:
And here’s the sort of thing the campaign is doing these days:
Whether they realised it back in 2009 or it slowly dawned on them later, for many in the advertising industry the meerkats have become one of the ultimate ‘I wish I’d done that’ ideas. We’d wager that there are even a few people rising through the ranks of agencies today as a result of Alexander and Sergei. We caught up with a few industry admirers to consider how the campaign has lasted so long.
Chief creative officer
There’s no real science to creativity for me. But normally the moments that have paid off are where you hear an idea and it’s like ‘what the fuck?’
Ten years ago, in an office in Victoria, quite a down-and-dirty company really set the standard of doing something different.
There was an environment there that meant a creative team felt empowered to come in and present an idea that was: ‘You know this business, Compare the Market? Well, what about we do Compare the Meerkats?’
It’s like something out of Nathan Barley, like what people think we in advertising do. It’s just so fucking stupid!
But what I really admire is they had the gumption to present that with any sort of seriousness. Somebody had the foresight and bravery to say: ‘Actually, that’s not bad!’ as opposed to: ‘We’re going to get fired if we present that.’ And a client who did the same. There are so many points in that process where that might not have existed.
Whether you like the ads or not, they’ve clearly worked. It’s clearly what the public wanted. VCCP has built a business on it, the clients stayed with them and it’s doing the business for them. People know about it. I guarantee you now you go out on the street and tell people to name four ads from the last 10 years, that will be one of them.
We’re entering an era where the industry is unfortunately writing for itself again. What I loved about the Meerkats is it’s big, populist, my nephew’s going to care about it. Nothing makes me prouder than going home and telling people I did the John Lewis ad. Those creatives have got exactly the same pride. They go home and say: ‘I created the meerkats.’ What social currency that is.
It’s proper stuff that people care about and has changed the business. I wish I’d done it.
Chief executive officer
I must confess I love an advertising mascot. After all, I was brought up on a diet of mascots, jingles and sugar. But that was in the glory days of advertising, before the collective crisis of confidence. And that’s just one of the things that I love about the meerkats campaign, it shows what advertising can do. How it can be joyful and silly and unashamedly populist, it doesn’t always have to be purpose driven or tech enabled.
‘Meerkats’ is a campaign that has become part of culture: adults taking out insurance to collect meerkat toys and ‘simples’ getting into the Oxford dictionary. Yet, it’s also a campaign that appeals to our advertising snobbery with its supposed conception arising from a clever way to reduce search term costs in a massively price-inflated category. Whether or not that’s a post-rationalisation, I still think it’s brilliant.
I pity the agency and client who has to make the long-awaited second album, and that time must be coming. You know you’re clutching at straws when you have to introduce dream sequences – let’s never forget Bobby’s return in Dallas. But I wouldn’t want to be the one to kill off these national treasures.
My Nan has a meerkat toy, updates her contents insurance through Compare the Market and regularly asks me when “the advertising people” are bringing back baby Olaf. Proof (for me at least) that not everything has to make sense all of the time for it to work.
As our industry becomes more and more pressured to quantify and prove the potential efficiency of every single creative thought and semi-formed idea at its moment of conception, I think the meerkats are a great reminder that ideas work best when they’re given breathing space to grow, surprise, entertain, reinvent themselves and infiltrate culture.
Hats off to the agency team who walked into that first creative presentation 10 years ago, armed with a scamp of a meerkat dressed like the love child of Hugh Hefner and a Russian Bond villain and a funny observation about the similarity between the word “meerkat” and “market” (I’d love to have been a fly on the wall for that one).
Head of planning
Aleksandr Orlov, let me count the ways I admire thee.
You arrived in a period when distinctive assets, fluent devices and characters were unfashionable and have shown that fashion dated.
You created an enduring brand property from endlessly repeating your ‘brand’ name.
You were built for a digital shopping journey to bring down the cost of search.
You jumped ahead of your time to set your company up for success in a world of voice search.
You have shown a way for low interest, low risk, low differentiated products and services to fight against commoditisation (something increasingly vital in this algorithmic world).
You broke with myopically focusing on relevance to understanding the role of love.
You lifted the creative bar within your category, something everyone benefits from.
You have shown how agencies (and clients) can create entertainment franchises, partnering with Arnie, road trips and beyond to become talent management for brands.
You have moved into merchandising for real.
You have created enduring fame, something that has eluded most other brands.
You have demonstrated the power of consistency in building your highly valuable brand.
Sharon Lloyd Barnes
Compare the Meerkat is a brilliant example of brand, agency – in this case VCCP – and production working together to create an ad campaign that has not only successfully grown a business and brand awareness – but introduced a catchphrase and characters that have both become part of British culture.
It’s hard to talk about the characters or Compare the Market without adopting Olav’s accent and using his legendary line. As Binet and Fields’ recent study on marketing effectiveness confirms, it’s striking the perfect balance of longer term brand build and direct response that reaps rewards for a business or brand.
Memorable ads are those that find a different way to tell a story and Compare the Meerkat has certainly done that for the price comparison site sector. Simples!
Executive creative director
Anthropomorphic meerkats in smoking jackets. It’s not the most typical of pitches for an insurer brand. And yet here we are, 10 years later, still listening to the inexplicably Russian tones of Sergei et al.
Compare the Market’s meerkats campaign is much braver work than most people give it credit for.
Changing the name of the site back in the day was bold. Giving away a soft toy to seal an insurance deal made people pay a (little) premium. And today, people talk about Meerkat Movies and Meerkat Meals like they’re as common as BOGOF at the supermarket.
It’s also entered common vernacular which isn’t ‘simples’. It’s not as easy as it seems to write something that sticks in consumers’ collective brains and is used in the pub and playground alike. And just when you thought it was running out of steam, it seems to have a new lease of life. Impressive work.
You get a brief for a brand called Compare the Market. It needs a big idea that can run and run. It needs to carry different messages, work across all different touch points and if it can stand out in a confusing marketplace, that’ll be good too.
Sounds a bit of a tough one, but nothing in comparison to how hard it must have been convincing the client that the big idea they were after was basically an outrageous pun.
Cut to 10 years later, however many billion insurance quotes, nearly as many ads, sold more cuddly toys than Hamleys ever did, free cinema tickets and two-for-one meal deals later….
You’ve got to take your hats off to a brave client that trusted its agency, an agency that backed itself to take a very simple idea and ride it for all it’s worth, and in doing so proved those fury little fellas had some seriously strong legs. They not only carried the brand for a decade, they marched themselves into the nations’ hearts and made themselves, the brand and everyone involved famous along the way.
Simples…. Oh fuck, they got us all saying that too didn’t they?