For the Ad Industry, the Darkest Hour Is Just Before the Dawn

Thoughts on turning fear into progress

They say these are dark days in advertising; that our industry's moment has come and gone; that clients demand more for less money in faster time; that agencies can't fight for great work anymore for fear of losing a client and their jobs. And those in-house agencies. Those in-house agencies are hiring all the good people because they can pay them more than traditional agencies can. Retainer? What is that? There's very little visibility in the project world, and thus very little fun, which leads to very few talented people wanting to commit to this industry of uncertainty. 

Holding companies are reporting less revenue and less support for the agencies they've been gobbling up for the past several decades. Also data. Every marketer is up to their necks in data, numbers, decimals and percentages. Consultancies like Deloitte are now creative agencies. Clients hate agencies. Agencies hate clients. We're pitching projects that will never make us money. Facebook ads are the only ads clients want to do. And as for independent agencies? Christ, that's just suicide. Look at Barton F. Graf. They won every award, did great stuff and worked their asses off. They won business, and they're closing down entirely in four months? What the fuck? Not "WTF?" but what the fuck?! Everyone is saying we're doomed. 

But not me. My only thought is, "Jesus, I'm excited." Seriously. All this despair is good. It's needed, because it's time for a change. It's time to rethink things. It's time to question those who think they have answers based on successes from 30 years ago or business models developed under the Ford administration. Why? Because our industry has to. It's past the moment of just hiring a new CCO or head of strategy, or bringing more people with analytics experience onto the research team. 

Revolution is called for. Not evolution. A revolution that begins with it examining what is not working anymore. We have to look in the mirror, be honest with ourselves and ask: How committed are we to changing how we do business? How open are we to new ideas that alter a creative process that hasn't evolved since the days of Don Draper? To quote the Queen of Dragons, how willing are we to break the wheel? 

I have a few thoughts based on recent experiences of how we all can ensure a modicum of change that will turn the downward arrow of fear into an upward arrow of progress. 

Change your process. 

This is an important one. It sounds like an easy one, but it takes practice and, most important, commitment. Discover how you want to work, either an effective way or an enjoyable way to work, and then do not bend from it. If you realize that the best process for your team is to have pets involved because it helps relax your employees and gets the best work out of them, that's what you have to do. And yes, there will be clients you can't work with and potential hires that you can't hire because they hate pets. That's OK, because they weren't going to be a good fit in anyway. Be true to your unique creative and strategic process, no matter how unorthodox it might appear to the rest of the industry. 

Work with clients in new ways. 

Yeah yeah yeah, we all say we collaborate with clients. But here is our chance to really demonstrate what it means to be a partner instead of a vendor. How do we go deeper and learn what keeps our clients up at night? And then, how do we make sure the copywriter, not just the account director, also knows what keeps the client up at night. The real opportunity here is to be a force to bring many people together in new ways. How do we integrate a client's internal team into a process? Do you do group therapy? Do you launch every project with a softball game or visit a museum as a team? The challenge is to keep looking at new ways to abolish the work silos that are crippling relationships among teams or preventing relationships from ever happening. 

Bring on new perspectives and be open to them. 

This is one that is slowly happening in the industry, but one that might need to be accelerated. One of the ways to challenge the norms of our industry is to hire people from outside the industry. It's OK to hire people who don't have experience in advertising or marketing, especially if they are smart. Like really smart. They will bring different experiences or perspectives and won't be burdened with the bad habits of our industry. But what we can't do is bring on these fresh perspectives and force them to work in the old ways. That will be frustrating to everyone and is a humongous missed opportunity to grow and evolve our industry. We need to give those people enough room to contribute, and we need to be open to listening. 

It might appear to be dark days, but I'm oddly optimistic because I sense change is coming. Change is what is reinventing the industry and providing opportunities to millennials and Gen Z. Change is keeping Gen Xers engaged and excited to lead. We like to think of ourselves as a creative industry. Well, here is our chance to demonstrate how creative we really are. 

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Paul Charney
Paul Charney is CEO and co-founder of Funworks.