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we’re all a bit shit and that’s fine

Many of us do jobs which supposedly demand insight into every facet of human nature; into the wild and gloomy recesses of something so unutterably complex it has defied the comprehension of the most intelligent people ever to walk the earth.

Of course, we can understand to some degree, but to know, to really know what the hell motivates millions of discrete and mysterious entities? No fucking chance.

And yet we (planners more than the rest of us, but we all think we have something of a clue) tout ourselves as experts. We claim to know. We claim to be able to produce words and images that will alter the directions of minds so that they end up bent to the will of those that pay us.

Shysters, the lot of us.

You see, if we were truly able to do that which we claim, we’d be the richest and most powerful people on earth. And why? Because no one can do it.

Richard Branson, Rupert Murdoch, Martin Sorrell, Stevie Wonder, Barack Obama, David Cameron, Jack Nicholson, the XX, Martin Amis, Simon Cowell, Pharrell Williams, The Situation, Billy Joel, Harry Dean Stanton, Hare Krishna, David Hockney…

None of them knows. They can all have a good guess, and they might well succeed, but they will also surely fail.

And there’s no shame in that.

Just as long as you’re aware of your crashing, regular, inescapable, dismal propensity to do the wrong thing.

For the first step on the road to recovery is admitting you have a problem.

Adgrads Post lazily reproduced here

The following is a piece I wrote for my friend Will Humphrey’s blog, Adgrads (If you click on the link you can see quite a large picture of me, you lucky fucking bastards):

Ten things about advertising that you might not know:

  1. Planners are currently in the ascendancy. For various reasons, the creative product isn’t nearly as important as the work that goes on behind the scenes. Sometimes this work is specifically aimed at improving the creative product but more often than not it is arse-covering, unnecessary bullshit. But these days people are very fond of arse-covering unnecessary bullshit because…
  2. People make most decisions out of fear. People want to remain in their jobs so that they can feed their kids and pay their mortgages and that means they do not necessarily want to do things that might lose them their jobs. Unfortunately this means that decisions tend towards the middle ground where perceived safety is at its strongest. Marketing managers approve ads that won’t get them fired; account handlers sell ads that are less likely to require expensive, time-consuming persuasion; planners will create strategies with the scared marketing managers that will sound like every other strategy going around town; creatives might write exciting ads but they won’t argue that hard for them. Result: vanilla flavoured blancmange with a glass of skimmed milk on the side.
  3. Martin Sorrell is as good at predicting the future as Stephen Hawing is at the flying trapeze. However, when he speaks, most of the business world listens and the newspapers report what he says as if it’s a pronouncement of the truth. It’s laughable. And pathetic.
  4. You might well meet your other half in the industry. Advertising is full of bright, ambitious, somewhat appealing people, and people who like the company of bright, ambitious, somewhat appealing people. If this looks likely, go with it. Forget all that stuff about not shitting on your own doorstep or whatever the proverb is. Get in there.
  5. There’s a famous film saying from William Goldman (if you don’t know who he is, be ashamed and look him up): nobody knows anything. The same applies to advertising. When you join the industry people will talk as if they are very certain that their opinion is 100% correct. When you leave the industry you will do so stunned at the number of times those people (almost certainly yourself included) were wrong. There is nothing you can do about this except weep.
  6. It’s going to take a metaphorical earthquake for the British public to like the people who work in advertising. The perception of slick chancers corralling people into buying things they don’t need with money they don’t have is one that is here to stay. If you want to be loved, become a nurse.
  7. Advertising has very little absolute effect. By this I mean that it has been proven that advertising will not make you buy something you would never otherwise buy. Instead it makes you switch brands. This means your job will effectively be as cheerleader for the brand you are advertising. You should either try not to care about this or make sure you want the companies whose products you advertise to succeed.
  8. People in advertising take cocaine. People in all sorts of businesses take cocaine but the fear of point 2 can be tempered (some believe) by sniffing white powder up their noses. Unfortunately it’s just papering over the cracks in their empty lives (just kidding!).
  9. You might well travel the world, meet famous people, see things for which you are somewhat responsible on billboards and TVs (and computers – whoopee fucking doo!). This will give you a fizzy little thrill in your tummy and make mummy and daddy very proud. Whether or not they work out what the fuck it is you actually do all day is another matter (they never will).
  10. Do things for love before you do them for money. This is a truth about life that’s easy to forget. If you forget it you will end up having a miserable ten hours a day that you hate, then you think that the fun you have with the money you earn will make up for it. You will be wrong.

What I Learned From Enron

Last Saturday I went to see the play Enron, which, surprisingly enough, was about the Enron scandal.

It was good, but some parts were great.

The section that impressed me most was at the end where the disgraced Enron CEO, who got 24 years in jail for being a giant shitwhistle, tried to justify his actions.

He showed a graph that demonstrated how the bubbles, ie, the foolish overreachings of the human race had ultimately paved the way for its greatest successes. One example was the first dotcom boom, where we all rushed headlong into an explosion of interest and investment that couldn’t possibly be sustained. After the inevitable crash we got web 2.0, a much safer and more sensible development of t’internet which Enron’s author argues would not have been possible without the first, overly aggressive kick up the jacksie.

Of course, this is just another iteration of the concept of groundbreakers; men and women who show us the way by pushing the envelope too far. They didn’t know how far to push it because the parameters had yet to be set, but without the pioneers there can be no progress.

Which brings me, with a weary sense of inevitability, to advertising.

To progress in any way, the industry must be prepared for failure. It must be ready for things to go wrong so that we might learn by them and move forward with the knowledge we have gained.

But in more straitened times no fucker wants to do that. For the sake of the fee everyone wants to stay tucked very nicely within the envelope thank you very much. The aversion to risk, which leads to the truncation of progress, is currently all-pervasive, and it would be interesting to see where the next boom of anything will occur.

I find it interesting that this fallow period has followed directly the all-conquering Gorilla.

Correct me if I’m wrong, but I get the impression that all over the world clients are currently asking for their own Gorilla, yet would never approve one in a million years (legend has it that a client didn’t really approve Gorilla. They had to wait for Fallon to make it off their own backs and get a positive response from YouTube to be convinced that it would work).

And there’s the problem: we all need to be complicit in moving things forward or the best intentions of one part of the process will be met with a brick wall from another.

Will we see another ‘boom’ that forces progress anytime soon? Well, since Martin Sorrell is so fond of making absolutely fucking cock-eyed predictions that never come within a barge pole of reality, I might as well do the same: the next truly great ad will happen in 2012, and it will be for Brain’s Faggots.

Mark my words.

Why I Don’t Read The Newspapers For The News

I read The Sun and The Guardian. The first one I read backwards because I’m only really interested in the sport, the second I don’t even read, at least not the main paper – I just read the sport (again) and the features section, G2.

To be honest, I don’t see the point in finding out what’s going on in the world via the daily press. It’s just one long round of scaremongering after another. To be interesting, news has to have some drama, and drama only comes from negative situations, so that side of every story is scaled up and made out to be much more significant than it really is.

Papers will also print a tonne of pointless conjecture about these stories. As The Black Swan explained, not only are most important occurrences literally unpredictable, the many attempts at prediction are wrong. As a basic example, check out Martin Sorrell’s constant predictions about the recession: L-shaped, bath-shaped, W-shaped, V-shaped, LUV-shaped. He’s pretty much covered all the bases there. My cat might as well have predicted that, and yet Martin’s word is taken as significant wisdom by most of the papers (and their less skeptical readers). But newspapers have space to fill, so they need supposed experts to blather on about which direction the house prices are heading in, whether global warming is real or not and who’s going to win the league.

Talking of winning the league, have you noticed the language they use when it comes to reporting about football? Steven Gerrard will give a ‘war-cry’, Alex Ferguson will ‘taunt’ Rafa Benitez and Cesc Fabregas will ‘vow’ to take revenge on Man City. Then you read the stories and find out that Gerrard said ‘I think we’ve got a good chance against Croatia if we all do our best’; Alex says that he thinks Liverpool might not be as strong without Torres and Cesc will talk about how he hopes to get a better result against Man City than in the corresponding fixture last season. In other words, the papers are trying to make everything seem much more significant than it really is (do you see a pattern forming here? Up the drama, sell the papers. Never mind how much bullshit it all is).

So if the papers are basically presenting everything through a filter of crap, why read them? Well, there’s always that nagging doubt that something is happening in the world that might be making a difference to your own life. But how often does that happen? How has the war in Afghanistan impacted on your everyday existence (assuming you’re not related to a soldier who’s out there, and in that case you’ll hardly need a paper telling you what’s going on)? What about every single aspect of global warming? Barack Obama’s attempts to push universal healthcare through the US government? And let’s not even start with Jordan/Amy/Lily etc. Last week there was a huge story because Kate Moss said ‘nothing tastes as good as skinny feels’. She was vilified for the bad influence that might have on teenage girls, but the phrase originated at Weightwatchers, and no one took them to task for it. More paper-selling crapola.

Anything else? How about hypocrisy? People tend not to say this aloud, but if you’re a kid that goes missing, you’d better hope you’re a pretty white girl. The sad fact is that pictures of Madeleine McCann, Holly, Jessica and Sarah Payne sold papers. Is that because their stories were more tragic than anyone else’s? Have no boys gone missing in the same period? No children from ethnic minorities? I think that might be a bit too much of a coincidence. The sad truth is that these stories made the front pages for days on end because the kids involved were pretty and white (what this says about us as a nation is equally disquieting). But then the very same papers happily published pictures of the girl who played Hermione in Harry Potter as being pretty/attractive from a time when she was about thirteen. ‘Yay!’ they are tacitly saying, ‘We all like underage girls, don’t we?’ When you think about that for more than a second it makes you feel pretty queasy.

So I like to read the sport if I can filter out the hyperbole and I like the features because they’re not about some hysterical angle on some insignificant event (well, some of them are, but you learn to pick and choose). If you take the papers as entertainment, they can work quite well as a way to pass the time, but the extent to which they are taken seriously is really quite disturbing. Let’s not forget that most of them have an agenda that sees them promoting what’s most helpful to Rupert Murdoch, or whichever political party they support.

Despite all this, I don’t feel uninformed or unconnected with the ebb and flow of modern life. This may be because I read Private Eye and watch The Daily Show. Their presentation of the news filtered through the skepticism of comedy seems to me to be far more honest and truthful than that of the other outlets.

Something not quite right there…

How To Give Creativity Primacy Again

OK, I’m really on holiday now. No wi-fi and a lack of enthusiasm about posting with the iPhone keyboard.

So I wondered if I could find an answer to that post I wrote a couple of weeks ago where I outlined the inexorable demise of advertising creativity.

Oddly enough, since then, two copywriters I have a great deal of respect for have suggested to me that they might be leaning in the direction of alternative careers. They would both be a great loss to the industry but their cases serve to illustrate my point to a tee.

So, can advertising do anything to keep them? Does it care? Does any of this matter?

Here are a few possible solutions that range from stupid to a bit less stupid:

1. CDs/ECDs on the same level as MDs. Most CDs/ECDs get hired/promoted by a suit. This immediately puts them in the submissive position where their voice will never count to the same extent as that of the suits. If the MD hired them then, in the back of their mind, the ECD knows he can fire them. I think Nick Bell at JWT was a good case in point. Brilliant creativity and a department who thought he was the absolute shit (that’s what the kids say when they mean something is good), but this clashed with the business side, so what gave? That’s right: the creativity. MDs need to hire CDs and say ‘Right. This is ground zero. We are all together. One man, one vote. All equal. Let’s make some fucking good ads.’

2. Stop pandering to arsehole clients and their need for quantity over quality. We all like to think we’re getting value for money, but fifteen ‘routes’ on a brief is mindless fuckwittery. If any department in London was capable of producing even five equally good, world-class answers to any brief, I would eat my arms. What happened to the kind of courage of convictions that led to the presentation of one route that the agency fully believed in and fully stood behind? Now it’s all about aiming at the target with a shotgun and hoping you don’t get fired. So you end up with agencies that make money but no good ads; nothing to be proud of; nothing to make the staff skip to work with a spring in its step; nothing to improve what’s on TV channels and poster sites; nothing to stop non-advertising people hating this industry and the cunts they think work in it. Sack up everyone! Risk the loss of a client. What’s the worst that can happen? Would you rather be small and good or big and shit? (That’s oversimplifying to make a point, by the way.)

3. Think twice about open plan. I have a theory that OP is a form of revenge on creatives. Why should we have offices (even the juniors FFS!) when all we use them for is to find a slightly quieter place to read The Sun with our feet up? And if Mother and W&K are open plan then there’s no possible argument against it as far as a possible lack of creativity is concerned. I think Mother and W&K are special cases where they are creatively-led agencies which work differently on all sorts of levels. The OP agencies don’t continue the emulation of Mother by getting rid off account men, and they don’t copy W&K’s half-agency/half-art gallery model. Nah, the whole thing is the taking down of creatives by the exact distance of a peg or two. Almost all the best ads in history were created in an office. Keep them.

4. Presenteeism. “Going already?” “Yes I fucking am. I have a family who are more important to me than a 25×4 ad for 16% off asparagus this weekend. Besides, if I don’t live a life, what do I put into my work? And when did this turn into being a lawyer? They earn ten times what ad people do, and that pay is compensation for the hours worked. AND I still think about the briefs I’m working on when I’m on the tube, in the shower and watching the football. Just because I’m not at my desk, doesn’t mean that I’m knee deep in class As and professional minge. So yes, I am going already. It’ll mean you get more out of me, but you just can’t see beyond that fact that someone’s having half an hour more time outside this building that you are, you sad fucking wanker.” “Oh. OK. Er…see you tomorrow then. You lazy bastard.”

5. Pay. Sorry, I know this probably applies to all departments, but the relative pay of a creative has plummeted in the last fifteen years. In the late eighties, it wasn’t that odd for a senior creative to be on £100,000 (a Seymour, as it was called). In 2009, it’s still not that odd. And I’m not saying anyone should be ungrateful about that, but in 1989 that could buy you two flats in London; now it’ll get you about two fifths of a fairly so-so one. The money is leaving and it doesn’t take Martin Sorrell to realise that that means the appeal is dwindling, and will continue to do so. If the job is becoming shit and the pay is too, why would anyone with a lot of talent and dozen alternative careers choose this one? THEY WOULDN’T. THEY FUCKING WOULD NOT. THEY WILL NOT. THEY WILL GO ELSEWHERE. THIS IS OBVIOUS. McFLYYYYY! McFLYYYYYYYY!

6. Globalisation. Shmobalisation. The Ad Contrarian has written a great post explaining how the only market in the developed world where Pepsi beats Coke is the one where they produce specific local advertising and not repackaged, globalised shit. Coincidence? Of course not. As TAC says, the more specific an ad is, the better and more effective it will be.

7. Give a shit. If you read this and you work in advertising, ask yourself if you really care whether the ads are good or not. If you’re not sure, try this simple test: who is John Webster? If you can’t answer that question, and then beyond that realise why I’ve asked it, give up now. Choose another job, another career and another way of spending 9 hours of 200 days a year that you actually care about. Otherwise, you’re going to look back at the empty hours that hollowed you out and cry about what you could have done instead.

I never said it was going to be easy. My money is still on the longish, slowish death of whatever parts of this industry we think are worth caring for. But it doesn’t have to be that way.

Gandhi said ‘be the change you want to see in the world’.

I’m not sure, but I have a hunch he was referring specifically to the UK ad industry circa 2009.