We’re just not good enough

The advertising industry needs to admit a harsh truth: we’re not as good at this as we used to be.

Yes, there are lots of other reasons why the work has worsened, but the reduction in talent and ability is obvious. 

I know it’s hard to separate all the strands of why ads used to be better, but allow me to remove my rose-tinted glasses and take a good long look at what has happened over the last twenty years.

In the 1990s there was much more money knocking around. Production budgets were bigger, wages were higher and margins were healthier. Gradually, for complicated political reasons that we could trace back to the deregulation of the Reagan/Thatcher years, those pools of cash have dried up to puddles.

There is still a lot of money sloshing around, but it’s now finding its way into industries like tech and gaming. So if you want to have fun and work for big brands your mates have heard of, you might now skim past the list of ad agencies and look instead to Facebook, Google, Apple and the producers of Grand Theft Auto and Call Of Duty. Your work will be seen by hundreds of millions, the wages are good and the snacks are usually top notch.

Where does that leave advertising? Fighting over the crumbs left over when the best talent has chosen a more prestigious, more significant, more creative and more lucrative job elsewhere.

We used to be able to attract the best and the brightest; people who could enjoy their job, see their stuff on TV and get well paid, while still finding the time to spend afternoons in pubs and mornings in bed.

Now we offer smaller salaries, minuscule production budgets, briefs for the kind of ads that routinely ruin your day, and the opportunity to work evenings and weekends; not because you love your job and want to do it better, but because your boss can’t afford another copywriter, so needs to get double the work out of you.

Which path would you choose? Yes, there are still good ads out there, somewhere; and yes, the salaries are still much better than 90% of jobs, but this is all relative. Things ain’t what they used to be, and in terms of motivation, attraction and fuel, shit in equals shit out.

And it doesn’t just mean the ads are worse. crucially it means that clients no longer have confidence in us producing 10/10 work. The last decade has demonstrated beyond a shadow of a doubt that your agency is unlikely to produce anything like the work that made it so cocksure in the 1990s. Every substandard ad is another nail in the coffin of trust between agency and client, so they expect less of you, give you fewer chances to prove you can do something great, give you less money to make work that will probably be 7/10, and the vicious circle spins on.

Maybe it’s time for all of us to take a good look in the mirror and ask if we’re doing everything we can to be good at our jobs and, beyond that, do we care enough to do more?

Are you a real copywriter, or did you lose a coin toss between you and your art college partner? Do you tell people you’re a writer, or do you say things like ‘We both do a bit of both’? Do you take pride in your words, or do you try to mumble them out into the world, hoping no one will notice? Do you own a copy of D&AD’s The Copy Book? Do you read it out of choice, not as if it’s homework? Do you spend hours crafting a headline, or do you knock it out as quickly as possible because ‘it’ll do’?

Are you a real art director, or did you end up in advertising because it looked like an easier way to make money than the ‘real’ art you’d prefer to create? Do you understand that your job isn’t to make things look good, but to stop people and lead them through your communication with invisible skill? Do you know who Neil Godfrey is? Do you listen to Dave Dye’s podcasts? Do you have enough knowledge to be able to fight for your decisions with convincing authority? Do you contribute to the grade, or do you sit at the back of the suite, browsing Reddit, hoping that a nod to the colourist’s questions won’t leave you exposed as hopelessly out of your depth?

I could sum up the above questions in three words: do you care? And if you don’t, it’s OK. I understand. The job isn’t what it was, and you probably can coast through 90% of it and still pick up a decent pay packet. The client is frustrating, your ECD has ‘never done anything good’, most work is shit anyway, the pub is calling…

But that path leads to an unhappy you and a worse industry. Here’s an idea: if you don’t like the job, don’t respect it, and don’t see the point in putting in the effort, why not do something else? Your three score years and ten are ticking away far too quickly to waste them doing something that gets you down.

Then again, you could literally choose to make the best of it. You could work harder, read more, ask more questions, fight your corner, learn when to use a semi colon in a headline (pretty much never) and spend a night emailing Jean-Paul Goude references to your director.

In short, you could learn to love your job, become proud of it, become proud of yourself for doing it and go to work with a spring in your step. Then, when people wonder why the ads aren’t as good as they used to be, they’ll stop thinking it’s because of you.