Talk to someone who knows nothing about watches and within 60 seconds you’ll no doubt be asked about "that brand” with the "you know…you look after it for the next generation" advertising campaign. Patek Philippe has been using the so-called Generations campaign to sell watches since 1996 without interruption, and the sentimental pairings of sweet family photographs and seemingly timeless watches is still going strong. On the occasion of the campaign’s 20th anniversary, I spoke with a few of the people instrumental in its creation and evolution over the decades, to get the real story behind watchmaking's most iconic advertisements.
Talk to someone who knows nothing about watches and within 60 seconds you’ll no doubt be asked about "that brand" with the "you know … you look after it for the next generation" advertising campaign. Patek Philippe has been using the so-called Generations campaign to sell watches since 1996 without interruption, and the sentimental pairings of sweet family photographs and seemingly timeless watches is still going strong. On the occasion of the campaign’s 20th anniversary, I spoke with a few of the people instrumental in its creation and evolution over the decades, to get the real story behind watchmaking's most iconic advertisements.
Jasmina Steele, now Patek Philippe Communications Director, joined the company in January of 1996, and one of her first projects was to find a new advertising agency. Patek had been working with the Bozell ad agency for more than a decade, but knew it was time to move on in a new direction. They wanted something that would break with the celebrity-heavy, product-centric marketing that dominated luxury watch advertising at the time. Think back to the Cindy Crawford Omega campaigns, for example. That wouldn’t be very Patek Philippe, now would it?
Steele headed up a pitch competition from a handful of top European advertising agencies, including London-based Leagas Delaney. Principle Tim Delaney led the agency's pitch team, and got right into it.
From the beginning, Generations was intended to be a campaign for both men and women.
“As an agency, we believe in research,” says Delaney. “We do our own research and with Patek, this was a part (of it) from the very beginning. We did one to one interviews with people, often very high-end people who won’t talk in a group setting.”
During that research, Delaney learned a number of key things. When shown pictures of celebrities and famous Patek Philippe owners, potential clients had an almost uniformly negative response. "What about me?" they would remark. “Why do I have to look at other people’s stories and borrow the acclaim of others?” Delaney remembers some of them saying. After a group of interviews like this in San Francisco (Leagas Delaney’s research was global, not restricted to Europe), Delaney boarded a flight home to London with the research report in hand, ready to get down to work.
It sounds almost too good to be true, but according to Delaney, the Generations campaign was actually born on that flight from San Francisco to London. If customers didn’t want to participate in the lives of others, he needed to convince them Patek Philippe could be personal. “Begin your own tradition,” he wrote. Little did he know the line would stick for more than two decades.
One of the earliest Generations ads, and a rare "three-generation" advertisement. Note the "Begin your own tradition" tagline.
After a few trips to Geneva, pitch meetings with the Stern family, and working out the details of the campaign, Leagas Delaney won the business and became Patek Philippe’s advertising agency of record. The first Generations advertisements were put together relatively quickly and they began running in print in October 1996. There was something curious about the photographs in the first ads though: they didn't feature watches at all. They followed Leagas Delaney's original mission of breaking with product-first advertising, instead focusing on the customers and the emotions behind the products.
In early 1997, the more iconic tagline was added the campaign. "You never truly own a Patek Philippe, you merely look after it for the next generation" has become so well-known now that it’s almost a cliché. It's so successful that it's hard to imagine Patek Philippe without it.
The original Aquanaut advertisement from 1997 – notice that it features both Generations taglines.
When asked if he thinks this campaign could be a model for other brands, or whether it would work for another brand as is, Delaney is adamant in his response. "No, no they couldn’t." He believes that "this company, the way they make products, the sense that they’re not faddish, that the family is day-to-day involved, and that the Generations campaign alludes to a compassionate feeling about potential clients" are inextricably tied to Patek Philippe.
Delaney was careful to mention something else too, immediately after he answered my initial question. "We’ve never once used the world 'luxury' with Patek Philippe. They’re not in the 'luxury' business – they’re in the watch business." While I’m not sure I agree entirely with this characterization, this kind of thinking can be seen in the Generations advertisements.
Here you can see how Mary Ellen Mark's original photograph turned into a 1998 Generations advertisement.
The Generations campaign would continue on for a decade with few changes – notably, the women's campaign spun off into something different in 1999 with the introduction of the Twenty~4, and wouldn't rejoin the Generations campaign until 2014. Every year there were new photos, new stories, and new watches each finding a place. However, in 2006 Generations took a pivot. The advertisements would begin featuring watches on the wrists of the people in the photographs, not just in captions below or off to the sides.
According to Steele, this was about adding context and connecting the potential buyer with the product in his or her own mind. But it wasn’t without risk. "It was so important to find the right story to bring out this emotion, to work with the right photographer, to choose the right watch [for this first new advertisement]" Steele says.
Delaney would agree. To him, this first advertisement featuring a watch in the photograph itself is one of the best Generations advertisements, and mostly because it gets the details just so, creating exactly the right emotion and atmosphere. Shot by the famous photographer and film director Peter Lindbergh, the campaign's goal was to create a sense of youth and vitality, and to add energy to the ref. 5712 Nautilus used in the shoot. For Delaney, one of the critical moments of the shoot was when he placed large dark sunglasses on the "father," furthering the sporty vibe set by the Riva boat.
But beyond particular styling cues, there's a commonality amongst all the Generations advertisements: They depict idealized relationships. You're not meant to look at them and see the relationships you have with your family, but rather the relationships you wish to create, or wish you had had in the past. It's this sense of disconnect, of aspiration or longing, that makes the advertisements powerful.
It’s tempting to heave a sigh and ask "so what?" at this point. What's the big deal about an ad campaign? But the answer is pretty simple. For those of us who spend our days poring over reference numbers and researching complications, the Generations ads might seem a rather blasé topic, and unimportant to our horological experiences. But for many, they’re a window into the world of horology and its values and a way to connect with the idea of owning a fine watch. They make watchmaking feel personal, and relevant. For that, anyone with a passing interest in timepieces should be thankful.
The modern Generations advertisements do show the watches in the photographs themselves, in addition to by themselves.
"I’m staggered no one has come up with another insight that assumes people don’t just buy watches for the brand," says Delaney. “There’s no sense that people are emotional about this. People are emotional – much more so than rational for something like this."
This emotional connection is still going strong too. When asked if the campaign would be stopping or changing anytime soon, both Steele and Delaney were adamant that as long as Generations is still selling watches, and getting new customers interested in Patek Philippe, it would be here to stay.
There is a great irony lurking under the surface here, that I can’t leave unmentioned. The little boy from that very first advertisement, way back in 1996, could be having his own child very soon, if not already. The Generations campaign has lasted more than a generation, practicing the very thing that it preaches: longevity, timeless values, and the importance of emotion in commerce.
I won’t be surprised if it lasts another generation or more.