The rules of attraction

I was reading the sublime Ad Contrarian last week, when I came upon this quote:

First, I don’t hate online advertising. I think as it exists today it is annoying, ineffectual, and wasteful. But I think there is a future for it. All that needs to happen is for adtech to go away, and for agencies to start hiring some talented people to do it. I think we’d be surprised that it might light a spark under the moribund agency business.

Agreed, but what really caught my eye was this part:

and for agencies to start hiring some talented people to do it.

That is absolutely essential to the improvement of advertising. Clearly, the more talented people there are to attempt something, the more the quality of that attempt will increase (if those people are properly harnessed; but that’s a separate chat for another day). When creative departments were manned by Salman Rushdie and Alan Parker much of the work was ridiculously good, and even when they slipped off to other creative fields the ad industry was still populated by some shit-hot minds, all pointing in the direction of the country’s brands.

But what attracted them to the idea of spending their working days writing copy and directing art? And, more importantly, do such attractive aspects still exist today?

To answer this question I thought I’d ask a few of the younger people in my agency why they chose to work in advertising. After chatting it over a few times I came to a revelation that I had yet to consider: attraction comes in many forms. You see, I’ve tended to think of people’s decision to work in advertising as quite deliberate; as part of some larger, well thought out plan. But of course that’s often not the case, so what are some of the other reasons people work in the land called ‘ad’?

  1. Convenience. A few of my interviewees mentioned the idea of just ‘falling’ into advertising when it proved to be the easiest alternative when there were no longer any places in the course they had really coveted, or they had no idea what to do but their mate seemed to enjoy his job writing ads, so they thought they’d give it a go. So it’s quite attractive when you have no burning career desire but you’d like some cash. Creative advertising needs no formal qualifications, so you can just ‘fall’ into it, at any time, no matter how much you drink or how well you can articulate your hopes and dreams.
  2. Salary. Advertising might have to compete against many other creative jobs, but those that might be more attractive as actual jobs can often be maddeningly out of reach, particularly when it comes to getting paid. If you’re willing to put up with placement wages and a lowish starting salary you should be able to cover enough bills to be able to live (just about). But if you want to be an author or work on an epic video game of your own design then you have to wait until someone gives a shit about it before you get paid, and how long can you live on nothing? Of course, when you end up earning a better salary you might feel less inclined to strike out for your ‘dream’ job, but that’s a not exactly the worst problem to have.
  3. Flexible hours. Yes, ad agencies are quite keen to squeeze as much labour out of their creatives as possible, which is why they get nicknames like Weekend and Kennedy and GBH. But during those hours you are somewhat left to your own devices, provided you come up with the goods. So if you can crack a brief quickly and keep it to yourself until the deadline then you can do what Salman or Fay Weldon did: write your novel (or these days design your app or whatever). Also, I tended to write best at home, where there were fewer distractions, so if your agency is OK with that you can really just arrange your day in a way that suits you. Some will be easier with that than others, but I feel there is more wiggle room built into the schedule of a copywriter than that of a chartered surveyor.
  4. It is a well-worn stepping stone to certain other professions. If you want to be a film director or run a movie studio there are worse places to start than an ad agency. How did Ridley Scott, Andrew Niccol and David Fincher get their starts? They worked in advertising. What about Hugh Grant and Alec Guinness? Or David Puttnam? Yes, they worked in different parts of the industry, but they worked in a job that allowed them to meet many other creative people, many of whom are restlessly seeking the next opportunity.

So the actual job itself may not be exactly what people want to do (although it often is), but the fringe benefits can be very attractive. And even though other, potentially more interesting jobs have been created in the last fifteen years, draining some of the talent away from advertising, they may not have the overall balance of good things that advertising has.

Having said that, with real pay levels falling, the ads getting worse and the hours getting longer, it’s no longer the tempting number it used to be. But then lots of the other jobs have become equally less appealing (just ask any journalist, author, filmmaker or screenwriter). There are now more people searching for an ever-decreasing amount of job satisfaction, and the bosses know that, so they exploit accordingly. Then it just comes down to relativity: so long as advertising can remain more appealing than the competition it will still attract talent. After all, it dragged you in, didn’t it*?


*If you don’t work in advertising feel free to ignore this question.