A veteran who has been in the industry for more than 15 years and a marketing strategist turned adman reminiscing about the past and current state of the ad industry to offer a recommendation on way to get it back to its golden era by Ahmad Abu Zannad, regional strategy director, Leo Burnett GCC & George Maktabi, regional managing director, Leo Burnett KSA
What would Don Draper see in our industry today? Once upon a time, an infamous mad man, who inspired generations of ad men that aspired to be just like him: ‘mad men’. Today, he will definitely see in front of him a bunch of sad men, a bunch of sad men longing for a past long gone. Miserable people, deceived by Don Draper wannabes that not only lost their way, but also the sway that once prevailed over the ad industry.
Mad Men, as described in the opening shot for the pilot of the show, is “a term coined in the late nineteen-fifties to describe the advertising executives of Madison Avenue… They coined it”. Well, there were several reasons why this industry belonged to the mad among us, and why each of the people working in it, passionately loved it. This passionate love was unconditional regardless of the madness that prevails in this industry. A madness that is manifested in the long working hours, the never-ending internal disputes, the frustration caused by the unfair murder of great ideas by clients, the agony caused by the contamination of campaigns through ludicrous feedback or the ongoing suspense that a certain client might be dissatisfied. This madness is what makes our industry what it is, and for the mad among us, the passionate love for the industry would have only grown stronger.
However, the reasons behind this love have changed, and such changes are not only killing this so-called unconditional passionate love, but they are causing the mad to become sad. In this article, we will be identifying fice of the reasons behind the passionate love and the five changes that are causing the “Mad Men” to become “Sad Men”.
While in other industries business executives had to abide by bureaucratic business processes and centralized decision making, agencies worked within decentralized business modules where executives got to make their own decisions. And such an environment has not only helped creative talent flourish and be free but also made the entire industry the envy of anyone in business aspiring to be the master of his/her own domain. Whether you owned your agency or not, everyone felt like they owned the place, this sense of ownership empowered the people and definitely fed into their passionate love for their work.
An old timer from the industry once told us the story of how his clients would wait for the agency people to visit their offices just to check on what latest trendy fashion the “mad men” are wearing, what kind of show they will pull-off and to hear from them about their latest “mad” adventures. Yes, believe it or not, there was a time where the client had an admiration that could reach to the level of fascination by the agency and the individuals who worked on it. This went beyond the love for the work the agency did for the client, because such love would have its ups and downs, it was a consistently fruitful partnership that from the client’s end was based on admiration and from the agency’s end was based on the passion to create ideas that will drive the clients’ business.
There was a time where a talent such as the great Malcolm Gladwell could not get into the industry. Yes, early in his career, Gladwell applied for almost every single agency in Canada and could not get a job. Now we are unsure if this shall give credit to the talent selection criteria for agencies in Canada, however, it definitely acts as a sign for how difficult it was for someone to join the troops of the “Mad Men”. The same applied for the award winning author, Salman Rushdie, who failed a copy test at JWT back in 1963.
The ad industry has long acted as a launching pad for creative talent, therefore, before such talent has gone on to write the most memorable novels, create iconic characters, make classic films, crack timeless jokes, establish solid businesses and/or write influential music, they initially tested their creative juices in the ad industry. So, Salman Rushdie did end up doing freelance copywriting for almost 10 years at Charles Barker and Ogilvy & Mather and he wrote some memorable taglines such as “That’ll do nicely” for American Express and “Irresistibubble” for Aero bars. James Patterson, worked at J. Walter Thompson and rose from copywriter to become the agency’s youngest creative director. From 1927 to the 1940’s Dr. Seuss worked as an ad man. And the list of writers who launched their career in the industry could go on and on, just to name a few more, there’s the author of Catch-22, Joseph Heller, the bestselling author, Mary Higgins Clark and F. Scott Fitzgerald, who is regarded as one of the greatest American writers of the 20th century.
Yet the list is not limited to writers; it includes film makers and creators of TV shows such as John Hughes, director of Brat Pack and Home Alone, and Jim Henson, the man behind Sesame Street and The Muppet Show; s comedians such as Jim Gaffigan, Tim Allen, Bob Newhart and Rick Moranis; businessmen such as Hugh Hefner and Herb Peterson, owner of six McDonald’s franchises in California, and the inventor of the famous Egg McMuffin; musicians such as Frank Zappa; and immortal artists such as Andy Warhol.
To lure John Scully into joining him at Apple, Steve Jobs made his now famous statement, “Do you want to sell sugared water for the rest of your life? Or do you want to come with me and change the world?” From the ad industry’s perspective, almost everyone in the industry felt that they are changing the world with every brief and with every campaign. An example would come from the real mad man himself, George Lois, and his story with Xerox. Back in 1960, Lois received a small brief, from what was then called Haloid Xerox, to create a small ad targeting only the 5,000 purchasing managers of big companies. He saw in this small brief an opportunity to change their entire business model. Accordingly, he initially almost forced Haloid Xerox to change the name to Xerox, and when he saw how copies can be made so easily, he was convinced that the brand can appeal to everyone, hence, he went to them with the idea for a TV commercial. At first, the client thought he was crazy. In his own words, Lois said: “No, no, no, I can make you famous in two days.” They almost fired him, but the next day the head of Xerox said, “Okay, Lois, do the goddamned commercial.” The ad ran on a Thursday and by Monday Xerox had gone from a $250,000 account to a $9 million account and accomplished its ten-year business plan in six months.
Yes, this is the kind of impact and thrill that almost each individual in the industry felt with every single brief regardless of how small it was or how dull the client’s category seemed.
We are talking about an industry that was built by the hands of a bunch of highly passionate people doing work they love and believe in. Sadly, it is now forced to conform and abide by the practices of a typical publicly traded holding company. Academics along with industry veterans have voiced how this fact has been negatively impacting the industry; Jerry (Yoram) Wind (founding director of the Wharton Future of Advertising Program) has criticized the current business model of the advertising holding companies, comparing them to a Wall Street player, where each of them is acting as a profit centre competing with each other. He does not forecast a good future for the industry unless this model changes. George Lois, too, stated that due to the fact that almost all creative agencies were bought by big groups most advertising today is “group grope”.
As we were once pitching for a major client, we thought we can charm them with a simple gimmick where part of our submission is delivered through a customized interactive app on a tablet. As we were leaving, their procurement head made sure we take all the tablets back with us since such a “gift” will give us an unfair advantage, and it could possibly cross the line between a submission and a bribe. So if we go back to the story of the old timer and the admiration his clients had for their agency staff, we will notice that they have only dealt with marketing people who truly appreciated the talent and the work of an agency; however, when procurement took over the process of assessing, selecting and negotiating for agencies, we became just another supplier.
Marketing procurement started around the mid 90’s when Procter & Gamble Co. began its first marketing procurement effort with about a dozen people in 1996 and now there are around 300 globally in the discipline. The issue became more severe post the economic crisis, where all clients had efficiency as their top priority, therefore, they sought marketing procurement to achieve marketing efficiencies. However, this demand for the profession was not met with competent supply of it. For example, an Advertising Age review of LinkedIn profiles of marketing procurement professionals found that out of the hundreds of reviewed profiles less than 10% have listed any previous experience in marketing, advertising or even any form of academic background in marketing. Miriam Frawley, who at one point in her career was chosen to lead the marketing procurement effort at AmEx has observed the issue and voiced out her opinion stating that, “The people doing a lot of the procuring today don’t really have experience in the business, what’s happening now is that it’s all data-based.”
In brief, we are being assessed and selected by individuals who have neither any admiration nor much interest in what we do. To them, we are just another supplier, and accordingly, they are definitely neither looking forward to us visiting them, taking them through our ideas nor in us telling them about our latest crazy adventures.
All the creative talent we have previously discussed who used advertising as their launching pad got into the business for either the money early in their career or the need for a creative outlet. Today, that is no longer the case, for the aspiring novelist is probably already a blogger (not a copywriter), the aspiring film maker is already making videos on her own digital camera and the aspiring comedian already has his/her YouTube show. Technology, connectivity and social media have given talent the tools and platforms to nurture, unleash and broadcast their creativity. Accordingly, the industry is no longer needed neither for the money early in their careers nor as a creative outlet.
According to the Wall Street Journal, the advertising industry loses more jobs than any other industry having shed 65 percent of all jobs over the past decade. It is no longer cool for someone to work in advertising. In fact, being an advertising executive has become the 6th most hated profession (source: Axis of Influence: How Credibility and Likeability Intersect to Drive Success. By Michael Lovas, Pam Holloway) , and we are having influential intellectuals like Noam Chomsky making harsh accusations of the industry such as the statement: “The advertising industry’s prime task is to ensure that uninformed consumers make irrational choices”. Consequently, younger generations who follow and completely believe that this is probably the prime task of the industry either want to leave it or they never want to enter it from the first place.
Newer industries, mainly tech startups, have taken away the attention and the charm we once enjoyed. Today, clients are more excited about a presentation from Google, Facebook, Snapchat etc… than a presentation from an ad agency and young talent are more eager to join such organizations than they are about joining an ad agency.
While it may seem hopeless for the industry to go back to its golden age, the responsibility of achieving this falls on each individual currently working in the industry.
Firstly, it is crucial for regional and/or local offices to gain autonomy. Contrary to what might the impression be, this will not result in less organization, more chaos, less efficiency, less productivity, lower quality output and, more importantly, lower bottom lines. Actually, more autonomy will boost confidence and reignite the sense of entrepreneurship, which would eventually lead to better outcomes.
Secondly, we need to transform ourselves in a way that positions us as consultants trying to bridge the gap between marketing, marketing communication and marketing procurement. This will allow us to better connect with procurement, even help marketing and procurement at the client’s end better understand each other and what each function is aiming to achieve. More so, it falls on our shoulders to educate marketing procurement on the financial value of an effectively creative idea; all this will help us win that admiration from the clients back.
Thirdly, we need to be young again. This entails figuring out a way where we can work with the new younger generation of creative talent. For example, if they are not interested in a 9-to-6 office job, then let us create job opportunities where they do not need to be stuck in the office for 9 hours. If they are more interested in their own creations, then let us build a reciprocal relationship with them where we sponsor their creative work while they offer us their creativity in return. Let us face the fact that in this day and age we may not be able to confine creative talent within the boundaries of only responding to clients’ briefs.
Finally, all of us, as an industry, need to partner up to gain the industry’s charm back, for as Pink Floyd once preached: “Together we stand, divided we fall”.