The recent and excellent mini series Chernobyl contains a beautifully written piece of advice that could save the advertising industry from its current malaise:
“Every lie we tell incurs a debt to the truth. Sooner or later that debt is paid.”
I humbly suggest that we’re paying that debt right now.
As I mentioned last week, advertising has spent a lot of its existence lying on behalf whoever pays for it. Exaggeration, greenwashing, the kind of bullshit that needs to be supported by small print for legal reasons… That’s most of what we’ve done, and the debt has been steadily accruing for decades.
People don’t believe what we say, they don’t like being lied to, and when they find out the truth their anger and antipathy multiplies (and of course, those ‘people’ include all of us).
So what can we do about it? Here’s a radical suggestion: start telling the truth.
When I was learning how to write ads at West Herts College back in the 1990s, our excellent tutor Tony Cullingham spent much of the time explaining that good ads contained truths; engaging expressions of what the product actually does:
See? Great ads, rooted in truth, memorably expressed.
On the other hand…
I deliberately chose three highly-awarded, well-loved examples to demonstrate a lack of truth. That’s because this effect of distrust is sneaky. We don’t usually notice when we’re being taken for a ride, especially when the vehicle is really, really good. You get the messages in a brilliantly realised way, but what’s underneath? Always has nothing to do with confidence during puberty. Although P&G products make a mom’s job easier, you could make the same case for cannabis or Netflix, but none of them should be running ads claiming credit for something to which they are only tangentially related. Drinking a pint of Guinness is entirely unrelated to the amazing strength and attitude of the Sapeurs.
But every lie incurs a debt to the truth. That debt won’t necessarily need to be repaid before the next awards do, but it will need to be repaid at some point. When people have a real experience of Always, Lynx or Audi, they’ll be disappointed. They may not consciously connect that experience to the ad, but they’ll trust other ads a little less. Then the effect will accumulate until their belief in advertising dissipates enough to make it much less effective.
So truth is the key. Yes, it’s a harder path to take, but there must be something good about your product or it would never have been made.
A great person once said, ‘Interrogate the product until it speaks’. That’s what you’ll have to do to make advertising that helps the product and the industry.
No more cars that are so beautiful they distract you from a nearby fire. No more phone graphics so realistic it’s like being inside the game/movie/concert. No more beer that will supposedly lead you to have a ridiculously great time with impossibly attractive people in a bar so perfect it could never exist.
I know you didn’t incur the debt that needs to be paid (or maybe you did. I know I did, and I apologise), but until you start paying it back, nothing will improve.
(Just to be clear, I’m OK with ridiculous exaggerations that bear no relation to the truth. That’s like your friend coming back from a fishing trip and explaining with a wink that they just failed to land a Great White. No harm done.)
OK. So that’s the fundamental underpinning that will help everything else, but what about the ‘everything else’?
There are lots of things we can do to make people hate advertising less (or, heaven forbid, actually like it), but let’s start by looking at the maths:
90%+ of advertising is crap, yet 100% of those who make it are supposedly intelligent people who don’t want to make or experience crap. So how does that happen?
I look at projects I’ve worked on over my career, and the funny thing is, no matter how gloomy things appear, I always start off by bringing my A-game. Call me a naive old fool, but I genuinely look at every brief I get and imagine the gleaming result of it sitting on the pages of an award annual, all witty, original and aesthetically stunning (I know awards aren’t the only thing we should be aiming for but it’s a deeply ingrained ideal endpoint for me, and I try to get there by coming up with a very good real ad that will solve a proper brief).
And yet, my good intentions end up being eroded by all sorts of things. In no particular order, here’s the top 5:
- Shitty Client.
- Shitty CD.
- Shitty Process.
- Shitty Priorities
- Shitty Me.
Let’s see what we can do about them.
The Shitty Client is a tough one. You might be working into someone who’s been the client for quite a few years and will never change their ways; you might have a ‘new broom’ who wants to do things their way, which is often worse (cutting fees, putting everything into SEO, triple bidding everything etc.); you might have a CMO who has little or no experience, and therefore little or no skill in evaluating work and giving helpful feedback.
All I’d say here is that every interaction with a client is an opportunity to improve the status quo. Your job is to persuasively present arguments that effect behavioural change, so make your client your target market and see what you can do to bring them over to your way of thinking. It might not be an immediate success, it might even take years, but not doing it simply leaves you in a situation that doesn’t work for you, or the ads (throughout this post I’m going to presume that your intentions are pure and you’re aiming to create effective advertising, not win a Bronze Clio with some dismal scam).
Show them examples of the good stuff. Tell them that the fame and increased sales are possible, but only if they buy work that is noticeable, original, likeable, memorable and persuasive. Yes, those adjectives tend to be subjective, but if you can get any kind of agreement that they describe your work, you’re already going to be streets ahead of almost anything currently out there.
And the attitude needs to be one of collaboration. If you come at them like they’re a tasteless pig who prefers McDonald’s to Le Gavroche, this will not end well. If you make someone wrong you will get the opposite of what you want. Instead you should bring them along with you so they feel a degree of ownership and trust. Again, this may not give you Honda Cog levels of approval first time, but this is a marathon, not a sprint (MNAS), and any steps in the right direction now might improve things for you or another team at some point in the future. It took 8 years of DDB existing before this ad happened. Patience is essential:
‘Shitty CD’ could be even trickier. It might not be your ultimate ECD or CCO that’s the problem, but maybe there’s an over-promoted writer or AD who lucked out by having their name on something good they had nothing to do with. In addition, great creatives don’t always become great CDs because the skillsets are very different. Making great work is not the same as letting people down gently while simultaneously inspiring brilliance for the next round.
But you have your CD and you’re kind of stuck with them, so how do you get around them if they’re shitty? When I was at AMV I was fortunate enough to work in a department with many excellent creatives, so no matter who my official CD might be, I could unofficially ask another senior creative for advice (I should make clear that at AMV I only had excellent CDs, so this was just a way of honing work before a review). If it was appropriate I might drop the name of the unofficial CD into the review; sometimes that helped, other times not so much.
If you’re thinking ‘Sure, but there’s no one good in my department’, I have a suggestion: use LinkedIn or Twitter to find people you think are good, then ask very nicely if they’ll look over your stuff. Buy them a drink, wash their car, offer to babysit… Be creative. If you really want to make this happen you will find a way to tap into the best people in the industry. It’s far easier now than it used to be, and people are usually happy to help the enthusiastic and dedicated.
Yes, you still have to get past ‘Shitty CD’, but ideally armed with better stuff, and good advice on how to protect it. And yes, this may not work first time, but remember – MNAS.
‘Shitty Process’ is a problem that doesn’t get discussed much. Back in the day you’d get a brief from a planner, come up with some ads, show them to a CD and they would hopefully approve them to enough of an extent that you would make them. These days there seem to be lots of steps in between: how does your idea dovetail with the social agency’s? Whose idea will be chosen? Does a Shitty Planner have undue influence? Is your deck pretty enough? What about your ripomatic? Have you incorporated the brand guidelines from the in-house design team? Are there nine levels of internal review? Etc.
Here’s a story about John Webster, the most awarded TV creative in UK advertising history: when a brief was knocking around the agency he’d let the other teams produce ideas, which would then go through various rounds of approval. This tended to mean that by the end of the process people were bored of the ideas they liked initially, so that’s when John would present his: a nice, fresh solution from the agency’s ad genius, offered close enough to the deadline that there was no time to get bored of it, or to mess around with layers of questions and amendments.
That took experience, but John was such a good creative, he even approached the process part of his job with effective originality. Again, I’ll remind you that you’re a creative. Find the solution to your problem and find a way to make it happen. If you listen to the Peter Souter episode of Dave Dye’s ever-excellent podcast you’ll hear a story of how he overheard a creative being crabby about feedback in the office next door. He then sprinted around the floor to get to the elevators as the disappointed account person was leaving and offered to help solve her problem. One D&AD Pencil later (and a few other things) Peter was the ECD of the largest, most awarded agency in the country.
I can’t offer specific solutions because I don’t know what your specific difficulties are, but here’s another chance for you to apply creative thinking to something other than an ad. If your Account Director wants you to lean towards the safer, duller option in the client presentation you could take a few moments to explain the negative long-term consequences of that decision; you could wait until the client meeting to remind everyone that so-called safety leads to anonymity and failure, and is, ironically, the riskiest path to take; or you could ‘accidentally’ leave the one you don’t like in the taxi. Anything is better than rolling over and waiting for your career to die.
‘Shitty Priorities’ is the most insidious problem because you may never know what those priorities are. As you think up a way of getting your client some more fame and increased sales, his or her real goal might be nothing of the sort. I’ve worked for companies that have literally run ads for no particular reason, just because they happened to have the media space. I’ve seen brilliant accounts leave brilliant agencies because of international realignments. I’ve produced work for people whose main motivation was to look cool to their colleagues. Did all those situations lead to worse work? No, but they made the process of coming up with ads much more difficult. If you’re trying to find a solution it helps to know what the problem is.
So the first thing you have to do is look for the signs. Does the brief mention the goal? If you ask what success looks like, are you met with blank faces? What kind of ads did the client buy before? Is this a proactive effort to get the client to spend money he wasn’t otherwise going to? Is it nearing the end of the tax year? Is the product a car, to be sold by many local dealers who might also be stakeholders in the advertising? Is it awareness or sales? Product or brand? All of the above?
What I’m saying is, do your homework. Forewarned is forearmed and a slight angle might be all you need to get another 5-10% buy-in or budget. Make friends with the people who might know. Remember that your job needn’t stop at ‘thinking up ads’ and ‘choosing directors’; there’s often much more under the surface that could help you succeed. Find out what it is and use it to your advantage.
Finally we reach the Shittiest of all Shitties: ‘Shitty Me’. You’ll find plenty of schools of philosophy and self-improvement that suggest things will only really improve when you start to take responsibility for everything that happens in your life. Of course it’s hard to do anything effective about the fire in the Amazon rainforest, but if you really wanted to stop it you could probably do a lot more than you’re doing right now. And that applies to everything, but it’s a tough chat to have with yourself.
Did you really put in the effort or did you kind up put in whatever amount of the effort would be consistent with going to the pub at lunchtime? Did you have that tough conversation or did you hope things would change while you watched Netflix? Did you write a personal letter to that director you wanted? And when she laughed at you for sending it, did you resolve never to do that again, or did you resolve to do it better next time? Did you go to that typography talk your CD arranged or did you go home early to maintain your back-of-the-bus cool? Did you fill in that form to be a judge on the D&AD website or did you think they’d never want little old you to do something as important as that? Did you start that blog or were you worried about what people might think of your opinions? Did you do your very best at every turn, or did you let your enthusiasm wane as each round of reviews chipped away at your original vision (my favourite)?
I’m not saying any of those options is the ‘right’ thing to do, but if you’re not where you want to be right now, producing great work that makes you proud, take a look at why that might be and consider the answer might be staring out at you from the mirror.
It’s fine to put in 40% effort and go to the pub. It’s fine to roll your eyes in client meetings. It’s fine to hide in the toilet while the traffic guy comes around with that radio brief.
What’s not fine is regretting what happens because of those choices.
This post contains all sorts of advice. Almost all of it might be rubbish, or it might not apply to you, or it might be too difficult, or it might be unlikely to succeed. No problem. But if you want things to be different to how they are right now, you’re going to have to stop doing things in the same old ways.
Change yourself. Change your industry, Change the world.
It’s up to you.