The Death of the Death of Advertising
When I started in advertising, and got a job at Cliff Freeman and Partners, I thought I had entered a better version of Hollywood.
CF&P were responsible for all the work I idolized. Fox Sports. Budget. Mike's Hard Lemonade. Little Caesars. Staples. Awards lined the halls in dismissive piles. Outsider art filled display cases, and Cliff was every bit as eccentric, unpredictable and creative as legend had promised.
My office was within easy shouting distance of Cliff's, yet he would always have his assistant call me on the phone to let me know he wanted to speak with me. I would sheepishly enter, stand nervously for an oddly long amount of time, left to imagine why I was there, probably to be fired, only to have Cliff eventually look up warmly and ask if I thought a really skinny nun was funnier than an obese one.
I had the same feeling again, years later, when I bamboozled my way into Crispin Porter + Bogusky. The energy in the office was frantic, dangerous and exciting. Alex was charming and wise and oddly calm against a never-ending, swirling chaos. The work we were doing was different. It felt important. Again, I was proud and excited.
It wasn't just me. When I spoke to friends who worked at other places, they were proud and excited, too.
Gradually—I don't know when it started happening, exactly—people started complaining more. And more. Little complaints turned into bigger complaints, and eventually it all became actual discontent. Now, people in advertising seem ashamed. Apologetic. Dejected.
Why? What happened? I think we may have been our own worst enemy here.
There is an oversaturation of essays, opinion pieces and media coverage about what's wrong with the industry. How we are hemorrhaging the best talent to tech. How our models are broken, our methods outdated, and our thinking old-fashioned. How we can take this a step further, or do this and that better. Our client's anger is surpassed only by our people's misery. An incredibly vast and well-trained army of mouth-foaming enemies chomp and gnaw at our knees. It goes without saying our death is imminent. Most of these are written by us!
As a result, it can feel like there isn't anything going right. That we really are dying out. This doesn't help with morale, with recruiting talent, or with public perception. It certainly doesn't help clients have confidence in us. Most importantly, it's not the whole story.
We're paid to solve problems, so it makes sense that we like to talk about our own. We're also paid to promote things, so it also makes sense that a lot of these articles are promotional pieces for an agency or an individual's particular solution. I'm all for both, but for the sake of our collective future, we need more balance.
I was recently chatting with a well known VC we work with, who joked that he'd love if more of his portfolio companies were able to operate at the profit margins of a marketing agency. We're not dying. Far from it.
Our fixation on our own demise is dangerous, the constant public airing of our issues counterintuitive to our own success and probably self-fulfilling if we keep trying hard enough.
We need to start talking more about what's going right. About what there is to love about advertising right now. Not in the future, but right this very second. We need to start celebrating ourselves and each other. Celebrate the positive change, the successes, and the great things we are doing for ourselves and our clients. Here is a start.
A few years ago, at an agency where I worked, a team had an idea to rename a planet. This idea was taken as seriously as any other idea. It was reluctantly determined, after a lot of phone calls, research and trying, that it is not possible to rename a planet after one of our clients.
Advertising has forged an individual bursting with curiosity, creativity, hustle and delusional optimism. A brutally smart, but not condescending, kind and empathetic human. A dangerous combination of business intelligence, creativity and hard work. Someone much more powerful than they realize. We are actually uniquely trained to navigate these turbulent waters we find ourselves in. We've been solving the impossible (people buy Old Spice now and call Domino's a tech company) and not letting reality get in the way of what we've wanted to do since forever. The best of advertising's people are the best of people.
Before we had Droga5, we had Honeyshed. An incredibly bold and risky idea well ahead of its time. It foreshadowed the way influencers sell on Instagram and YouTube, almost half a decade early. While it was a failure, it became the foundation of a very innovative place, capable of bringing that foresight and willingness to leap to its clients.
In this age of hyper-flux, we are built to take risks, embrace uncertainty, and navigate the change necessary for short and long-term success. This is one of the most valuable and magnificent qualities of our industry. Inability to recognize and adapt to change kills businesses and stymies people. We help clients embrace oncoming change. We help predict change in consumers. We look for places to change ourselves. Our industry now runs side by side with Hollywood, tech, consulting, venture capital and more. We strategize, we build, we produce, we analyze, we write, we design, we incubate, we invest. We work in-house, out-of-house, and in between. We chase new ideas, uncharted places, and unknown outcomes. We might not know exactly what's coming next, but we're ready for it anyway.
I started in finance. I used to pull nose and leg hairs out in meetings to stay awake. Then I was in tech. The snacks were ample and delicious, the offices lavish, and the hours sometimes shorter, but it just never compared to the intangible "what is in the air" of an agency.
I encourage anyone to visit a busy creative agency and just walk around. I think you'll feel a very different vibe than the necrosis we're constantly reading about. Anyone reading this is welcome to come to OOB. Our door is always open. If you came today, you'd see a pop-up shop for a new plant-delivery service in the front of our office, a small edit suite in the back making stuff, walls covered in ideas for products to incubate in-house, investments we're considering, and design, strategy and marketing work for our clients. Stay until 7 p.m. and you'll see our doors wide open to the street, our people drinking wine, eating arancini from the restaurant next door and mingling with people from the neighborhood. We're only 12 people. Walk into a much larger place like Wieden + Kennedy and feel this x100. I'm sure they would also welcome you.
I live for energy and new ideas, and I have yet to walk into a place that is so bursting at the seams with both than a creative agency. You can feel it in the halls, on everyone's face, and most importantly, in the atmosphere. In order to put something new into the world, it has to be born in a place like this. It's not easy to make places like this, and we're really good at it.
Are we getting everything 100 percent right? Of course not. You've already read about that, though. But we're getting more right than we've let on. I've barely scratched the surface here. If there is any interest, maybe I'll keep covering something new and wonderful in this space, every week. If there is no interest, I'll just write something about how billing for time and not deliverables is destroying the fabric of our very existence.
Top photo by topher76 on Flickr.