Life in Advertising

As a business there’s nothing more absurd than an advertising agency.

It doesn’t own what it makes.  It’s manufacturing operation walks out the door everyday.  Its business model is at the discretion of its clients.  Its business ebbs and flows with the fortunes of others.  There’s no loyalty. Everybody believes they can create a better product.  Everything is subjective.  Everything is personal.

Somewhere at the very beginnings of the industry the idea of creative ownership was lost.  Nothing an advertising agency creates is owned by the agency.  It’s a though somewhere in the copyright laws there’s a clause that excludes advertising agencies.

Agencies spend a great deal of time and money to recruit, remunerate and keep brilliant creative talent.  This talent is as rare as finding gold bullion in your back yard.  Few agencies have it, and when they do, it usually doesn’t stay. All a talented copywriter has at the end of the day is his reputation, his portfolio and his salary.  If he can deliver client-loving and product-selling work over and over again, he will have achieved a degree of job security.  But only a degree.  When the client goes away, the creative team likely goes away, especially if the team is junior.

Imagine if recording artists couldn’t copyright their songs?  Isn’t this why the recording industry went nuts when Napster arrived on the scene?  Imagine if Oliver Sacks couldn’t copyright his work, and every other day some other writer regularly stole his titles and sentences and ideas?  “The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Diet-Coke.”  It’s called plagiarism and there are copyright laws against it.

But this occurs every day with advertising copy.  Take two of the most copied examples: Goodby Silverstein & Partners’ “Got Milk” campaign and McCann-Erickson’s “Priceless” campaign for MasterCard.  How many times have we seen these campaigns ripped off?  I’ve even seen “Got Condoms?”  A creative team in San Francisco or New York sweated hours to think up these ideas.  Their work makes their clients and their agencies famous.  But they receive no commensurate financial benefit from having created these ideas, these words.  There are no residuals that accrue to creative talent, as they do to acting talent.

It’s said that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery.  No, it’s not–not in advertising.  It’s creative theft.  Let others think up their own ideas and respect the talented–more talented–people who created the original work in the first place.  Advertising that enters the vernacular isn’t fair game for imitation.  Frankly, I avoid any product that has appropriated another’s campaign, or anyone who bends the ideas to his personal self-aggrandizement.  These simply lack integrity.

The other thing agencies gave away, most specifically to management consulting firms and so-called branding agencies, is their intellectual capital.  (OK all you viewers of Mad Men.  You might be thinking what “intellectual” capital?)  During the final year and a half of Digital Equipment Corporation’s existence, a well known, Boston based, consulting firm was brought in to develop the final dissolution strategy.  By “brought in” I mean over fifty consulting firm employees on site, the CEO personally managing the process and legions back in the home office developing alternative scenarios of how to break up and sell–never save–the company.  Of course the agency, nor I as the global account lead, was not party to most of this strategizing.  We were asked, however, to recommend our own solution, based on our day-to -day experience with the eleven divisions across sixty plus countries.  Led by our strategic planner, our recommendation exactly matched that of the consulting firm.  And how much was Bain paid?

I’m not venting sour grapes.  Agency talent, whether creative, account, planning or media, become well compensated when their work is successful in the marketplace.  Agencies are great places to work, a benefit above getting the right salary.  Where else can you work when in a single day you collaborate with people of wildly different backgrounds, talents and aspirations; where you become versed in multiple industries; where you get to travel around the world in service to your clients and company; where you make friends for life with such diverse people you might never had met had you worked in, say, a bank.  So many of my own friends are agency and client colleagues in such diverse places as Tokyo, Vienna, Hamburg, London, Paris, Singapore, Melbourne, Barcelona, Sao Paulo, Hong Kong, Stockholm, Copenhagen, Amsterdam, Prague.  Much less spread across the USA.

I remember one day, again back at DEC, when our agency CEO Keith Reinhard–a long time mentor–and I went up to Maynard, Massachusetts to present new creative work to the president of DEC’s failing PC division who had resisted the idea of a single global campaign.  We set all the Wall Street Journal ads out in DEC’s large boardroom and waited for this man to arrive.  And waited.  And waited.  Finally, he walked into the room, glanced around and walked out, wrapped in his immense Italian arrogance.  Keith to his credit stopped Enrico outside and asked wouldn’t he please come back and let us present the creative ideas to him.  The president said, “I saw nothing I liked,” and walked away.  Keith turned to me, smiled, and said, “The great thing about advertising is that we make new friends every day.”

Yes we do.  Yes, it’s an absurd industry.  And yes, I’ve loved every minute working in it.

Old Think

Commenting on Chinese concerns over the ascent of Kim Jong-Il in North Korea, my Bowdoin colleague Christopher Hill (former US Ambassador to Iraq, Poland and South Korea and chief US negotiator with North Korea 2005-2009) wrote, “But perhaps the greatest difficulty worrying the Chinese stems from an underappreciated but familiar theme in international relations: “old think” – the inability to comprehend, much less address, new realities.”

 “Old think” isn’t confined to international relations.  It’s practically everywhere.  In the world of marketing—from the products that get manufactured, to understanding customers and how to reach them, to the relationships between clients and agencies—“old think” dominates every aspect of the business.

 Imagine for a moment if an entire industry could be re-thought based on new realities unencumbered from old ways of thinking.  What would General Motors look like? Would we have a multi-divisional corporation manufacturing a variety of totally undifferentiated car brands and models?  Would we have a Buick?

 Walk into any grocery store and ask yourself does the world need seventy-five different breakfast cereals?  Does the entire market reflect the realities of how we shop and what we eat?  Even Whole Foods doesn’t escape the “old think” grocery store paradigm.

 Or take the sticky world of politics: would we have a polarized two party system if all the new realities we face in the world were actually part of the government’s mission?

 John Lennon said it best:

 Imagine there’s no heaven

It’s easy if you try
No hell below us
Above us only sky
Imagine all the people living for today

You, you may say 
I’m a dreamer, but I’m not the only one
I hope some day you’ll join us
And the world will be as one

 Bringing this down to the prosaic world of marketing, too many businesses continue to operate as though it were 1956.  They think if their brand exists, people will want it.  That if they shout about their brand, people will listen.  That if they advertise, people will go out and buy. 

 How many young people do you know who actually want more stuff in their lives?  I know my sons don’t.  They live by the rule that for every new thing in, there’s an old thing out.  Less is more.  And when they do make a purchase, it’s decided outside the world of advertising.  They go to online forum discussions, review sites, blogs and their friends’ experiences and advice.  In fact, they are suspicious of all claims made by a manufacturer and always search for third-party validation before considering a purchase.  These are boys in college or grad school so admittedly they have an informed view of the world, though I don’t think their experience is unusual among kids their age (and younger.)

Having no TV, I am likely the last ad man on earth never to have seen an episode of Mad Men.  My son Adam is staying with me over his college winter break and we’re watching season one on Netflix.  Last night we watched #8, in which Don Draper is accused by his girlfriend’s pot smoking hippie friends for creating the wants in society for products no one needs.  Don’s response is essentially “get over it.”  “There’s no big lie.  There is no system.  The universe is indifferent.” This is the world we live in; there’s nothing else.

 I’m no utopian and truly can’t imagine living in a world untouched by materialism.  I can imagine such a world’s existence, but not living in it.  The inextricably linked businesses of manufacturing and advertising—together with a legal system that supports and protects the entire selling and buying enterprise—bear the collective responsibility for perpetuating “old think” across the board.  Our efforts to think differently (thank you Apple) are merely inroads into the much larger landscape.  Yet we need to go there in all of our affairs.

 In the early ‘90’s, Karen Stabiner wrote Inventing Desire: Inside Chiat/Day.  Together with Randall Rothenberg’s Where the Suckers Moon, it’s one of the best books ever written on the ad industry—and a vastly truer portrayal than in Mad Men, which is about characters, not an industry, anyway.  As its title explicitly states, that’s what marketing and advertising is all about: creating desire for things.  Sometimes we can rationalize away the dirty undertone by saying it’s creating a desire for things we need: a software solution for greater productivity; a better way to get grass stains out of a pair of khaki’s; a hybrid car.  Or that television advertising remains the best way to communicate to a mass audience.  Or that a mass audience still exists at all.

 As in international relations, it’s really hard to move beyond “old think.”

 In another post, I’m going to write about the relationship between advertising agencies and their clients—truly relationships built and stuck in “old think” thinking.