I was just reading this interview with recently-appointed VP of Apple, and 17-year R/GA veteran, Nick Law.
There’s a bunch of stuff in it that I’m not quite sure about, but I currently have four day jobs (at least one of which actually pays), so I’m going to concentrate on a single paragraph:
It doesn’t surprise me that a lot of more programmatic or digital advertising is bloodless. These platforms and technologies transform in the hands of creative people. Unless creative people are engaged and manipulating these things every day, they can’t create a new grammar. The grammar of Instagram Stories is not being created by agencies, it’s being created by kids. If people think technology right now is being used in a mechanical and uninteresting way, that’s because we haven’t figured out how to manipulate it. It’s all technology and we need to learn how to wield it and use its potential. When we do that, then the work will be vivid.
Programmatic advertising has existed for a couple decades now. Thousands of very smart people and billions of pounds have been cast in the direction of making it brilliant. ‘Creative people’ have been engaged with it, and have been trying to manipulate it, for about the same amount of time.
We don’t want to make shitty banner ads, but something powerful keeps dragging them down to that level. It might be lack of investment, it might be lack of interest from clients, and yes, by now it might be creative ennui. But the idea that creatives have just been picking their noses instead of trying to ‘engage’ or ‘manipulate’ seems to miss the point.
And yes, some of the ‘grammar of Instagram Stories’ is being created by kids, who have no brief other than to impress and interest their followers. Tell them to launch the new Sainsbury’s loyalty card and they might just find their grammar manipulation drying up.
Or, if they really are rocking the grammar manipulation, we could learn from them, couldn’t we? After all, advertising is rarely above a little bit of ‘borrowing’ from our betters. So are these kids really laying waste to the vagaries of Instagram Stories, or do 0.00000034 of them occasionally fluke a success?
And we’re not usually the remakers of media anyway. Was film stretched by Godard, Scorsese and Jarmusch, or DDB, BBDO and JWT? What about words? Much as I love Abbott and Bernbach they didn’t exactly compete with Amis, Vidal or Delillo. Comparing us to the people who have the whole vast canvas to play with is a little unfair, and makes the criticism less than constructive.
Beyond that, TV, press, radio and posters have been around for decades, and people still regularly fill them with crap, but then so does tech. By definition quality is rare, so the idea that we’re just waiting for a key of genius to unlock a magical box of wonder that we can all choose from is either fanciful or naive. It’s literally never happened (it partly happened once with Bernbach), so it’s not going to, no matter how well we learn to wield the potential of anything.
Good ‘voice’ ads await us, but so does a tidal wave of dull voice ads. ‘Twas ever thus, and no amount of guilting the ad industry into an alternative is going to bring one about.
If you’ve been in advertising for a while you’ve probably noticed that the number of ads has proliferated:
This shows that, despite the number of advertisers halving over the last decade, the number of advertisements has increased sixfold.
Clearly this process began as digital came to the fore: one press ad or poster became many standard banners, queen banners, Instagram posts, Facebook Stories, Snapchat whatever-the-fuck-happens-on-Snapchats etc. Each TV ad became a rich media this or a preroll that, and even radio ads found new ‘leases of life’ on podcasts and Spotify.
So has the industry taken on six times as many people to handle all this extra work? No (with a little bit of yes). I think we can all agree that you don’t need a new person to make each banner, so most of the extra work has just increased the hours of each copywriter and art director, for no concomitant increase in pay (sigh). In addition, feel free to look back over those years and see if the ads have improved (spoiler alert: they haven’t). That’s because producing six times the work in the same amount of time for less pay is not a well-trodden path to larger amounts of brilliance. So to be a little more accurate, the number of shitty ads has proliferated.
Thanks for nothing, Tim Berners-Lee.
Returning to that ‘little bit of yes’: there are more people involved. The press, posters, TV and radio used to be done by a few teams working into a single CD. Now we have digital, social, experiential, SEO, global and many other kinds of CDs and creatives.
But in the interests of keeping costs down, there’s been a general policy of having them all smoosh up together, tackling briefs that are some way outside their wheelhouses because that saves money. Sure, we’re all ‘creatives’ and sure, we can all apply ourselves to producing ideas and executions in newer media (let’s face it: a banner is just a tiny digital poster and a pre-roll ad is just a short, woefully underfunded TV ad), but the barrier to entry used to be very high. When there were fewer jobs they tended to go only to the most talented and driven. Now you can find your way into the Ritz wearing ripped jeans and a baseball cap, scratching your arse and… you get the picture.
And yes, I get to use the word concomitant again: that has come with a concomitant reduction in quality. Sorry, but it has. It’s just maths. No judgement on any of the newcomers.
The real issue here comes at the CD level: with lots of disciplines involved, the person who rises to the position of CD might not be entirely qualified to do that job for every medium. And that means great TV/print CDs might not be wonderful at judging and shaping influencer-led social takedowns that dovetail into a global experiential airline tie-in. But equally an influencer-led-social-takedown-that-dovetails-into-a-global-experiential-airline-tie-in CD might not be a great judge of TV. Or radio. Or art direction.
And yet they might have to be the person that makes those judgements because they are the CD. And they might have risen to that position because the rest of management likes them. And the rest of management might like them because they smile often and are ‘good in meetings’. And when no one really knows or cares if the work is 7/10 instead of 9/10, all of this is permitted and encouraged.
Six times the work, some less extensive multiple of staffing, no increase in salary, diversity of skillsets applied to inappropriate tasks…
Now that’s how to fuck up an entire industry.
I reminisce for a spell, or shall I say think back. Twenty-two years ago to keep it on track. The birth of a child on the 8th of October. A toast, but my granddaddy came sober. Countin’ all the fingers and the toes now I suppose you hope the little black boy grows. Huh, eighteen years younger than my mama but I rarely got beatings ’cause the girl loved drama. In single parenthood, there I stood. By the time she was 21, had another one. This one’s a girl, let’s name her Pam. Same father as the first, but you don’t give a damn. Irresponsible, plain not-thinking. Papa said chill but the brother keep winking. Still he won’t down you or tear out your hide, on your side while the baby maker slide. But mama got wise to the game, the youngest of five kids, hon here it is. After 10 years without no spouse, Momma’s gettin married in the house. Listen, positive over negative for the women and master, Mother Queen’s rising a chapter. Déjà vu, tell you what I’m gonna do, when they reminisce over the weekend.
I once worked for a client who would stop anyone who said ‘Just playing devil’s advocate…’
He would explain that he didn’t want anyone giving The Devil a place at the table.
This raises an interesting question: is it OK to point out what doesn’t work, or does that just make you a curmudgeonly Grinch who’s dragging the whole process down?
On one side, if something’s not working, surely it makes sense to course correct and improve it. If you’ve produced a piece of work it’s usually a good idea to ask someone what’s wrong with it so that you can fix it. Compliments tend to lead to complacency, after all, if something’s supposedly brilliant then there’s no need to put any more effort into it. But there’s always some detail you can make better, and sometimes a fresh perspective is what you need to find that wood that’s obscured by the trees.
A couple of years ago I was looped into a Facebook group that was crowdsourcing ideas to prevent gun crime in America. Lots of ideas poured forth, but few if any seemed to be driven by the need to actually change behaviour. Most were the kind of Cannes-winning bullshit that leaves the status quo exactly where it started. But when I pointed this out, correlating it with the group’s stated intention to make a real difference, I was shouted down for having a negative attitude.
And I sympathise. Having someone in the room who goes around strangling ideas to death isn’t helpful (although I didn’t shit on anything specific and instead just reminded the group of our supposed goal). I thought I was helpfully keeping things on track; some of the others just wanted to blast out thoughts and assess them later, otherwise known as the ‘there are no stupid ideas’ ethos. A safe space to regurgitate whatever you want is essential for people to bring up the kind of crap that can then spark a brilliant thought in someone else, and so on until gun crime is vanquished.
So which is right? Perhaps the best path is to be increasingly critical as the process continues, but even then you kind of need to start the Safe Place For Ostensibly Stupid Ideas at every new stage. If the director suggests using Cotton Eye Joe as the soundtrack for your deeply serious manifesto, you should all feel OK with the time it will take the sound engineer to sync it up.
Or should you? There’s only so much time in the studio and perhaps it should be spent as wisely as possible. Maybe you should laugh in his face and suggest Comfortably Numb instead.
A few years ago I replaced a Creative Director on a job. After a round of reviews had been completed the rest of the team were amazed that we’d only been going for three hours. They explained that the other CD had been taking the entire eight-hour day to assess the hell out of every single script in every single idea from every single team. I had quickly discarded what I thought was mediocre or limited in favour of the ideas that merited further attention. If you pursue everything to the nth degree you can’t give sufficient attention to the ideas most likely to succeed. I think it’s best to go wide and shallow to begin with, then drill deeper into the best stuff as the deadline approaches. Yes, that might result in some well-hidden greatness being discarded, but part of the job of being a CD is making decisions: they might be right; they might be wrong, but you can’t proceed without them.
If you’ve worked in advertising long enough, you’ll have witnessed plenty of occasions where people have made suggestions you thought were dreadful, only to see the room unanimously praise their excellence. Equally, you’ve probably seen ideas you thought were brilliant biting the dust for reasons that made no sense. Nobody’s ability to appraise work is perfect, so even if you get the best people taking the longest time to make the most complete judgement, there’s still no guarantee it’ll be better than flipping a coin.
And you could have the most welcoming and open environment for idea generation and people will still feel like they don’t want to speak for fear of looking stupid, or being unfairly assessed.
So it looks like we need a space to feel secure in making creative suggestions, however dumb they might appear, AND a simultaneous critical faculty that can assess the quality of such suggestions, killing them if required, but not in such a way that will make anyone feel inhibited about offering future ideas.
No one said this was going to be easy…
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, P&G or Guinness, 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 of 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.
Have you ever noticed how people simply assert and accept that advertising is awful? Other than in exceptional circumstances, no one seems to like it or trust it, and its practitioners are routinely ranked alongside used car salesmen and (the shame) lawyers. Whether it’s from asinine billboards that spoil your view, or bovine clichés that clutter up your Instagram feed, it’s generally agreed that corporate messaging adds nothing positive to our lives.
And this is not a new situation. At some point in season three of Mad Men one of the supporting characters jokes to Don Draper about the extent to which people loathe his industry. They both chuckle in rueful recognition.
We all know there is a massive, widespread antipathy towards advertising. Hundreds of millions of ad blockers have been downloaded, and if we’re going to be honest, quite a few of those have even been downloaded by us. And if we’d rather remove advertising from our lives, why should we expect anyone else to welcome it into theirs?
Isn’t this ironic? An entire industry devoted to making sure people like things is routinely hated by everyone, including itself.
Three big points:
- People hate advertising for many excellent reasons.
- None of them are necessary.
- If we don’t address them, advertising as we know it is fucked.
We’ll get to the solutions in a little while, but first we need to take a long, tepid bath in ‘Advertising sucks because…’.
The first reason for this negativity seems to be the built-in mendacity that we convey. There is often a gap between the advertised experience of a product or service, and the reality. Whether that’s by omission, exaggeration or misrepresentation, we do tend to fib to our intended audience. For a clear and basic example, compare the mouthwatering image of a Whopper behind the counter of your local Burger King with the underwhelming mess you find when you open the box. That, in a nutshell, is most people’s experience of advertising.
I understand that it’s supposed to be our job to present the very best version of our clients to their customers, but if we look at the consequences of that we might understand that such a practice can leave those customers disappointed and resentful. We now accept the untruth of advertising messages so unthinkingly that we screen out the first, say, 20% of each communication. “Yes,” we say to ourselves, “But it’s an ad. Of course it’s bullshit to some degree”. (By the way, I think there’s a place for ridiculous exaggeration; it’s the relation to reality that seems underhand.)
Imagine if you had a friend who was always exaggerating about their new house, car or job. You’d probably feel a bit sorry for them, find them a bit annoying, and, quite soon, screen out that 20% and lower your expectations of their reality. Are any of those reactions positive? Of course not. Advertising is usually your sad mate who is so insecure they have to beef up everything they say for fear that you will be unimpressed if they don’t. Perhaps you’d avoid this friend, preferring instead to spend time with honest people who don’t feel the need to treat you like some credulous idiot who will swallow lie after lie.
A constant red flag for our liberal attitude to the truth is the legal type you find on most commercials and print ads. They are the small print of our contacts with the people who experience what we do, and they are necessary because the information included in the ads can often be misleading. So here’s the extra important stuff people need to know before jumping into a purchase they might regret.
But we can’t even be honest about that. This is apparently essential information that is so important the ad and its claims cannot appear without it. So not only are we saying that our claims require a huge paragraph of qualifying backup, suggesting that said claims are a little dodgy, we’re also printing this information at a size and/or speed no reasonable person can take in. We hide it away with annoyed scorn, ensuring that our readers and viewers will not benefit from it. Then we wonder why people hate what we do.
Again, imagine if you had a friend that suggested loudly and enthusiastically that you buy their car, but as you looked around it they mumbled some important information so quietly as to be inaudible. Then you bought the car and discovered a problem that had been covered by the mumbling. “Ah,” your friend might say, “But I did explain that the exhaust was knackered, so there’s nothing you can do about it”. What would you think of that person? Yes, you would indeed think that they were an arsehole.
Next? The portrayal of supposedly realistic situations. Yes, I understand that ads, just like TV shows and movies, are not documentaries, but how many times have we seen commercials that portray women as braindead housewives, or men as amusing idiots who have to be saved from their own stupidity by tolerant spouses or kids? Or people lit and shot and styled in a such a way that they look unattainably gorgeous? If that’s supposed to bear some relation to reality, why are those lives so frustratingly perfect? Yes, it’s that portrayal of the client at its best again, but every one of these examples is provides an impression of life for millions of people. If they’re patronising or sexist or nasty that will provide a blueprint for the future opinions of the viewers.
I’ll stop personifying the industry as various heartless bastards and daft idiots, but I think we can agree that the vast majority of portrayals of people by the ad industry have not benefitted society. Unrealistic body images turning teenagers to anorexia; the smug satisfaction of ‘aspirational’ lifestyles leading to mental health issues; the vast numbers of people either not represented, or conveyed in a token manner contributing to racism and sexism.
Anything else? How about promoting pester power by advertising sugary food and drink and endless plastic toys to children? Being a parent is hard enough without the persuasive might of massive corporations insisting your child needs Coco Pops and Nerf Guns. And let’s not forget that some of us like to get ’em while they’re young to make lifelong customers out of them and keep that money rolling in for years to come.
How many times have we pulled the wool over people’s eyes by describing a candy bar as a health bar? Thanks to the advertising industry, words such as ‘natural’, ‘fresh’ and even ‘organic’ have ceased to mean anything. We take words and kill them for the sake of fooling people into buying products that don’t deserve such compliments.
And talking of not deserving such compliments, it’s worth mentioning the extent to which advertising whitewashes, greenwashes and wokewashes all sorts of badly behaved corporations. Ad agencies can certainly take credit for building stellar brands by distracting customers from sweat shops, human rights abuses and mass exploitation. What about companies that employ armies of lawyers and accountants to avoid their tax obligations while underpaying their workers to the extent that they need government welfare to survive? These days no brand is complete without a ‘for good’ initiative that gives them some kind of flimsy soap box upon which to lecture the rest of us about equality, diversity or the environment, issues that meant nothing to them a few years ago (and in some hypocritical cases continue to mean nothing).
Yes, advertising has often been the best friend of bullies, thieves and cheats, accepting untold millions to present their best sides to the world in order to maximise profits and keep the status quo rolling along unquestioned.
Those are just some of ways in which the content we create harms people, leading to an understandable hatred of what we do, but what about how little advertising has a positive effect on our daily lives?
For over a hundred years the vast majority of what we’ve produced has been boring, annoying, stupid or all of the above. We like to point to the 1% of the 1% of the 1% that gets awarded at Cannes, conveniently ignoring just how much of that has been created for the purpose of winning prizes (the two-minute version that ran at midnight on the Golfing Channel; the case studies that talk about a 300% increase because eight products were sold instead of two; creating ads for accounts you don’t even have to get a greater chance of juror votes…). But when it comes to the real stuff, how many ads have you seen in the last five years that added something to your day? How many were interesting or inspiring or intelligent or thought provoking? How many did you even notice, let alone remember?
We used to be annoyed at posters ruining the landscape, commercials interrupting our favourite TV programmes and radio ads so incessant we’re were forced to switch to another channel for the sake of our sanity. But now we have the delight of digital. Again, it interrupts what you’re trying to read or watch, but now it also funds crime, corrupts democracy and promotes hatred and division.
The money is flowing out of the traditional ad industry to Google and Facebook because their cheap, basic ads are no worse than the crap we’d been producing for years. We can’t complain that poorly-written messages featuring starbursts and stock shots are eating our lunch when that’s most of what we fed people for years. And now those chickens have come home to roost, fueled by targeting data, and a degree of accountability we never provided.
And here’s the real kicker: we knew very well that people hated most of what we did because we were some of those people. Advertising’s lack of self-awareness is stunning. When most people in the industry decry the state of the industry you’d think they were talking about something in which they had no involvement. But it’s like corrupt politicians complaining about the backhanders in government, or lazy footballers who can’t understand why their team didn’t win. This is our problem, and the fact that we don’t do anything about it is another reason for the hatred.
Advertising people have become shorthand for the superficial, slick, self-obsessed, cynical and crass. If you want to know how society at large sees your job, check out how it’s portrayed in the movies. ‘Ad industry person’ has long been unsubtle code for ‘arsehole’. We’re never the good guys improving society. Instead we’re the glib boyfriends and girlfriends the main character needs to dump so he or she can learn a lesson and find someone better.
And what does all this hatred mean? If we all take ads with a pinch of salt then we automatically screen out the messages, reducing their impact, and that’s if we notice them at all. Almost all advertising is wallpaper at best and loathed at worst. That’s literally billions of pounds, dollars and euros that could be put to better use.
Unsurprisingly, clients have noticed this situation and have responded in a number of ways, none of which the industry is at all keen on. First, we get much less respect, so we have to battle harder for less time and less money to produce our work. Deadlines that used to give us a week now give us a few days, or even hours. Budgets have been cut to the bone, especially for ads that will only appear in digital media (sorry, but that’s now most of them). And they’ve also gone running into the arms of Google and Facebook, where so-so advertising can now be produced for much less money.
So you can see why they don’t really want or need us anymore. Our previous USP, transformative ideas brilliantly executed, happens so rarely that a client would have to be naively optimistic or ridiculously credulous to spend much more money in the pursuit of such elusive riches. And so the vicious circle spins, leaving us with even less cash to find even worse talent, to produce increasingly ineffective ads.
OK, that’s over 2000 words. There’s no way you’re going to read another 2000 on the solution, so I’ll post that next week.