De Beers looks like it’s not doing much advertising these days. That’s because it’s doing its best advertising yet.
“Good morning Sir John!” says a secretary decked out in dozens of diamonds. It is half past ten at Anglo American's headquarters in London and chairman, Sir John Parker, edges his way from the revolving door to the lift.
Other big names are lurking in the building. On the first floor, American diamond boss Stephen Lussier, the brains behind every diamond advert anyone has ever seen, is sitting in his office, leaning back in his chair surrounded by Warhols, a Picasso and two photographs by Richard Hamilton of Mick Jagger being arrested.
In 1980, Lussier joined ad agency NW Ayer on Madison Avenue in New York when he was 22. The first account he worked on was De Beers. Now, he is head of its advertising and marketing department, a post he has held for nearly 25 years. He is also chief executive of Forevermark, De Beers' diamond brand, which opened its two-thousandth shop-front in February.
It is an awesome office to hold: from tinkering with Hollywood movie titles to inventing the tradition of diamond engagement rings in Japan, De Beers is responsible for some of the most iconic (and devastatingly effective) advertising the world has ever seen.
Diamonds are more common than television sets in the US. The tradition of buying diamond engagement rings meanwhile took off around the same time as the microwave oven. But ever since 1940, the Oppenheimer family, who owned De Beers, have worked with NW Ayer to indelibly link diamonds to the idea of
preciousness and love.
In 2011, the Oppenheimers sold out to Anglo American. De Beers' advertising budget has meanwhile been decimated, falling from over $300m in the 1990s to under $100m in 2015, even as group sales have ticked in the other direction. Marriage rates have never been lower. Emeralds and rubies are back in fashion. And diamond sales have run-up against competition from other pricey goods, from iPhones to leather handbags, which have ballooned almost
uncontrollably. For the first time in history, the majority of women in America are now not married.
Have diamonds been degraded in the eyes of the consumer, their preciousness lost? Are bolshy young consumers simply not that interested in buying them? Is Lussier now presiding over a decline in the diamond market? What went wrong? And is it too late to fix it?
When Lussier arrived on Madison Avenue, “it was what I call the Perrier era,” he says. “It was all cool to have a Perrier at lunch then, they'd
just arrived.” The hard-drinking days of advertising had “largely gone”, but the power of brands, and the agencies that gave them colour, was at its peak.
American consumerism, Lussier says, can be split into three phases. From 1900 until 1950, mass production reigned supreme. Whoever churned out cigarettes the fastest (British American Tobacco) or rolled-out the most cars (Henry Ford) won the market. “If you could produce it, then people would buy it... You just had to make.”
In the 1950s and 60s, “the world switched.” Mass production was now the norm, so companies could no longer compete on volume alone. Instead, they had to position their products ahead of rivals. “That became the classic marketing era, where the creative idea would push one product dramatically ahead of another.”
Agencies were charged with generating “preference” and “desire”, and they were good at it. “I think the power then of Madison Avenue, and the big agencies in New York, their ability, because of the dominance of three television stations and a couple of dozen TV programs, to reach everybody, the ability to influence was very powerful.”
De Beers thrived in both eras. It had cornered production, so when the billboard era took off, was perfectly placed to spend big on advertising, persuading baby-boomers to associate diamonds with possession and status. “The teenager guy couldn't watch a football game without getting these messages over many, many years, so you had diamonds as a symbol of love engrained into your being by the time you got to your engagement,” Lussier says. “You could just drive it. As long as you had enough money, and were creative enough, you would see the behaviour go.”
There was an ulterior motive to meeting...