Making Up a New Future for Our Made-Up Industry

In crisis, we're free to invent whatever we like

Taras Wayner, chief creative officer of Wunderman Thompson North America, shared the following letter with the agency via email on Thursday. It is republished here with permission.

Like many of you, I find myself in a constant mental wresting match with what's happening in the world right now. The unbelievable suffering and loss mixed with the true acts of courage. And questioning daily, when and how will it end? How much longer? What will it be like afterwards? 

I also find myself questioning the status quo of advertising—an industry, like many, under tremendous pressure. While I'm not in any way comparing what we do with the real heroes, I do believe we bring value. The value of understanding the power of creativity, the possibility in our imagination and the beauty of ideas. I also believe these trying times offer advertising a great opportunity. Not just to try and get back to normal or hold onto the ad industry we once knew, but to take this time to reimagine the industry from the ground up. After all, the company we're part of, and the industry we love, are nothing more than a bunch of ideas made up by people like you and me. That's right, it's all made up.

It all started, a long time ago, when a couple people hatched an idea for a very cool thing. One of them said, "This thing we just made up is so cool, people will give us money for it." And a few people did. So, they made up a company, and the machines, to make more of their very cool made-up thing. But not everyone bought it. A passerby commented, "I have a lot of cool things, why do I need another one?" So, the made-up company took their made-up cool idea and went looking for help. 

They found the help they were looking for when the made-up company (with their made-up cool thing) met another made-up company—specifically made to come up with cool ideas to make people want to buy made-up cool things. Together the two made-up companies made up a reason why people needed the very cool made-up thing. It worked! People everywhere believed the made-up reason why they couldn't live without the made-up thing, and an industry was born. And those in this new industry got really good at making up ideas, to solve made-up problems, to sell made-up cool things.

As time went by, people made up ways to make the made-up industry better and better. Bill Bernbach, one advertising's great influencers and co-founder of Doyle Dane Bernbach, made up a new way of working together. Art director and designer George Lois made up a version of the industry that subverted the establishment through the big idea. In the 1960s, the first woman CEO of an agency, Mary Wells Lawrence, made up a new way to launch an airline. Advertising executives Lee Clow and Dan Wieden uncovered the soul of the made-up product, and along the way created an art form to help shape popular culture. And when someone made up the internet, Bob Greenberg created a new version of his made-up company to make up cool things for the new made-up platform.

But with our world being turned upside down by something so gut-punchingly real as Covid-19, the made-up version of our industry is reeling. We are faced with two choices: Get caught up in the nihilism of it all and continue the downward spiral. Or embrace the fluidity, imagination and limitless possibilities that come with making things up—and make it all up again. When we realize the very real fact that our industry is completely made up, we must ask ourselves: What do we want to create? Maybe it's a completely new model without any baggage of the past. A new framework for how we make money. A fresh definition of success. A roundtable of diverse thinkers and makers built around aptitudes, not titles. Anything that helps our industry discover a new north star. 

If you think it's impossible, that all is lost, think about some of the amazingly heart-bending ideas this industry has made up: a field trip that took kids to Mars, fearless statues, an island of plastic turned into a country, a dead president unsilenced, and a reignited love for a forgotten flamed-broiled burger company. Those are a few of the kinds of ideas we make up when we think outside the walls of the box and typical guardrails. The tsunami we're living through has blown the walls off the box, and the guardrails have been sold to keep the doors open. It's time to start making up what this industry of ours will become next. And quickly. 

We need to build a new foundation for what this industry will be in the future. Maybe give it a new name. We can do that. After all, this is the best made-up industry at making stuff up.

Profile picture for user Taras Wayner
Taras Wayner
Taras Wayner is chief creative officer of Wunderman Thompson North America.

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