There seems to be a general feeling that advertising in some kind of an existential crisis: money and talent are draining from the industry; the general standard of work has been declining for at least a decade; the proliferation of media channels has spread resources thin and lowered standards; and the relative obscurity of online work means that the perceived ‘glamour’ of TV and billboards has disappeared.
I could also mention the number of people being ousted via #MeToo; the fraudulent mess that is digital advertising; the targeting of vulnerable people with powerful messages of persuasion; the damage done to body image and gender identity; the general perception that our messages are based on lies; and the overall mental illness that comes with the constant feeling that you just aren’t good enough without Brand X.
But here’s the real problem: incrementalism.
We have got ourselves into this situation via the boiling frog method that provided an extra 1/10th of a degree of heat each week until we turned around and realised we were on the verge of death. It’s the thousand tiny cuts that have led to us needing an emergency blood transfusion.
Incrementalism is what took us from £500,000 budgets to £450,000 to £400,000 etc. until we found ourselves wondering how to make an online ‘film’ for £8,000 that wasn’t a disappointing pile of shit that thankfully would be seen by no one.
It took us from people like Frank Lowe and Frank Budgen to, well, people far less clever and talented.
It took us from ads that were better than the programmes, to ads that were desperately blocked (and blocked by the people who made them!).
But there is a way out, and unsurprisingly it isn’t through even more incrementalism.
If we try to turn the heat down a little every day, or get the Savlon and Elastoplasts out to heal those thousand cuts, we’ll never catch up. It’ll be like trying to bail out a sinking cruise liner with a teaspoon.
What we need is a paradigm shift. That’s defined as a profound change in a fundamental model or perception of events.
Personally, I think many of the big agencies that currently exist are condemned to incrementalism and therefore slow death. It’s the new agencies with the freedom to create new models that are capable of shifting the paradigm of the industry. They can look around at the people they hire, the way they design meetings, their relationships with clients, their payment system, their ownership model, their investment plans, their location, their ethics, their attitude to awards, their criteria for taking on a piece of business and literally everything else, from the toilets (why do so many of them have the loo rolls locked away? Why send your employees the message, ‘We think you’ll steal our loo roll’?) to why the hell we now need ECDs and CCOs when the plain old ‘CD’ was fine just fifteen years ago.
There are agencies that are looking at those changes right now, and they’re the ones that are going to survive and thrive. And if you’re about to start up, consider that joining the back of a train that’s heading over the edge of a canyon is commercial suicide.
Start as you mean to go on. It might take time to pull clients and employees round to your way of thinking, but it’s really the only solution.
I’m sorry advertising is no longer a vehicle for you earn enough to live in Belgravia while you crank out a screenplay in the middle of watching Ridley Scott filming your Benson and Hedges ad, but the world has changed. If you don’t change with it, you’re going to be left behind, watching the people who could see this coming disappearing into the distance.