Fear and bullshit in adland

I was reading Campaign last week when I came across an article headlined ‘Fear and loathing in adland’ (interesting note: when I tried to Google said article so that I could copy and paste bits for this post it turned out many such pieces had been written already. Lazy headline writing, or huge amounts of fear and loathing?).

It suggests that ‘years of conditioning have made us all scared. To allow brave, bold work to happen, we must change the old world order’. Apparently we’re all a bit frightened because of the recent recession, but we shouldn’t be because things are much better now (financially). But the problem is more endemic because we’re all conditioned into hierarchies and the fear that goes with them from our schooldays. We then enter the same hierarchies in the workplace where we’re ‘structured like the army’ (oh dear. Where do you work, sir? The answer, surprisingly, is Karmarama. Yes, folks, you read it here, or in Campaign first: Karmarama is structured like the army. Poor sods) with ‘hierarchies and job titles’ (yes, they’re quite unique to the army, aren’t they? Greggs must also be ‘like the army’ with its job titles (assistant/manager) and hierarchies).

It continues: ‘One person’s opinion matters more because they’ve done it for longer and have a bigger job title. They then apply their strength to dominate and put down other in the group’ (oh dear again: Karmarama sounds like a surprisingly unpleasant place to work). ‘In advertising it all goes back to the domination of the celebrity talent. The opinion of the few mattered more than the others and they were to be obeyed at all costs. This cultivates a seam of fear throughout an organisation. People are scared to talk in meetings; they worry about looking stupid and being shot down by their more experienced bosses…’ Well, I don’t know about you, but I grew and learned under more experienced people. I don’t recall them seeking to dominate so much as doing their job unbelievably well (I’m taking about you, Andrew Robertson, or you, Paul Belford/John Gorse/Dave Dye/Nick Worthington/Paul Brazier/Malcolm Duffy/Tom Carty/Peter Souter etc.) and inspiring me to try to do the same. They were almost all very nice guys, and if occasionally I was worried about showing them an ad then that fear was what drove me to make sure it was good enough to come up their standards. That way, amazingly, the work improved. Yes, James Denton-Clark, managing director at Karmarama and author of the article: fear can breed better work, as can ‘celebrity talent’. Think back to the days when the people I mentioned dominated the industry, or go back further to the days of such ‘celebrity talent’ as John Webster and Dave Trott, Neil Godfrey and Tony Brignull, David Abbott, John Hegarty, DAVE BONAGUIDI and NARESH RAMCHANDANI FFS!!! (the blokes who started Karmarama)… all big industry celebrities, and during their prime the best advertising this country has ever produced appeared on a regular basis.

James continues: ‘To display competence is now to deliver ideas that can thrive in this connected community’. OK, point number 1: that’s always been what ‘competence’ in advertising has meant. And point number 2: who wants competence when excellence is available? James says that ‘it’s the ability to nurture and see them through to completion that matters and is what brands now require of us’. Again, when was that not what brands required of us? All those half-finished ads littering the TV screens in the 90s were quite the bugger, weren’t they?

Apparently ‘the people increasingly qualified to have an opinion on this are not necessarily the most experienced’. But they might be. I’m sure there are some people out there who became worse at their job as they went along, but it can’t be that common, surely? ‘Competence is therefore shifting away from the established towards the native’. Again, that word ‘competence’. Here James could be right: listening to people with no experience and dismissing those who have a few years under their belt will probably result in competence rather than excellence. Look at the work these days and compare it to what was done up to 2007. The standards have fallen for many reasons, but I think that the lack of celebrity talent and the prizing of the views of any old Tom, Dick or Harriet over people who might possibly know more than them could certainly be two such reasons.

James then says we ‘must not be scared of breaking down the old order of things’. Well, here’s some good news for him: it’s already happened. The old order is gone, replaced predominately by bland people and equally bland work. James, you’ve already got your wish and it’s turned out really badly.

He also says that ‘more importantly, as individuals, leaders and skilled discipline experts we need to take a close look at how we behave’. Hang on… ‘leaders’? People who lead? That sounds quite hierarchical to me. And what about these ‘skilled discipline experts’? Why do we need them when we’ve got the placement creative to tell us how to kern the typography or prepare the pitch deck? We then have a quote from Jim Collins, who says that ‘companies that succeed are led by people with a paradoxical blend of humility and professional will.’ Yes, that describes Steve Jobs to a T. Ever so ‘umble he was…

I dunno… Overall this reads like the attempted revenge of someone who worked for a few (celebrity) bastards in the past and now wants us to know that the meek are having their day. Unfortunately, that day is producing shit advertising.

You can complain about unpleasant people all you want, but the truth is, many of the most talented people in this business were not arseholes, and in my experience were happy to listen to the carefully considered opinions of those supposedly beneath them. We’ve lost the cachet, the glamour, the opportunities and the rewards that used to make this industry attractive to the very best creative thinkers in the country. Is fear the issue? Yes, but unfortunately it’s the current mealy-mouthed worrying that’s the problem, not the legacy of dominance of the brilliant talent of the past.