I had a striking revelation the other day that will surprise a lot of people who see all the glitz and glamour associated with the rock-and-roll of the business world. That realization is this: A lot of people hate advertising. No, I’m not talking about consumers. I understand why they may hate advertising, and too often rightfully so. I’m talking about ad people. A lot of them either hate their agency, hate the work they help create, hate their clients, or simply hate the industry entirely.
Let me elaborate with three recent examples.
1. Sunshine shines a light on the industry.
A few weeks ago, a video featuring a McDonald’s commercial production in China went viral. The film, Sunshine, followed a producer named John Benet while on a shoot in Shanghai for agency, TBWA and was directed by Doug Nichol (of Partizan) who just happened to be the director of the two McDonald’s spots. Behind-the-scenes and out-take videos are quite common but this video was a little bit different. This video featured Benet speaking to his personally disappointing career and frustrations with the industry and himself for squandering his talents on such commercial projects.
Making matters worse for both the producer and director (who will be lucky to ever work again), is that neither TBWA or McDonald’s gave them permission to shoot or release the film and both were none too pleased given the brush with which both parties were painted. Quoted on AdAge, Benet is quoted as saying, “I have to admit, if I’d known Sunshine was going to become what it has I would have been more careful about the things I said, but I guess since I never expected so much to come of it — certainly not that I’d be defending it in a magazine article; I just said what was on my mind, which maybe isn’t always the best idea, especially in terms of my job security.” No kidding. For someone who isn’t sure he wanted to work in advertising, he (and the producer) may have just gotten their wish.
Much to the chagrin of its two stars, Sunshine will also be making the rounds in the film festival circuit. The film is a bit long at 15 minutes, but it’s worth watching. There are some truly funny moments (often at the expense of the companies who were paying the tab), but you realize quickly that the ad guy featured is not so Sunshine to borrow a theme.
2. The Gawker point, counterpoint, Counter-counter point.
Coincidentally, it wasn’t a week prior that a series of articles on Gawker caught the attention of ad folks everywhere, and hit on a similar tune. Hamilton Nolan first wrote an article titled simply, “Do Not Go Into Advertising.” Nolan starts out by generalizing that most ad creatives are forced into the industry due to economic forces beyond their control and somehow rationalize that decision to themselves, and in turn justify it as a legitimate career choice to other creatives. While I would argue against the purpose of his article, I would agree that there are (unfortunately) a lot of creative folks who fit his description. Working in advertising because, “I just kind of fell into it” or “to help pay for my real artistic passion” or “because my parents wouldn’t pay for art school.” These are things I’ve heard with my own ears. There seem to be a lot of sad souls working in a business they don’t enjoy.
There was a response on Gawker by Drew Magary, posted a mere three and a half hours later called, “Counterpoint: What the Fuck Makes You Too Good for Advertising?” In it, Magary starts out by listing a few talented artists who have worked in the industry which included James Joyce, David Fincher, and Salman Rushdie among others. I would have added a fellow by the name of Theodor Seuss Geisel for more emphasis, since his advertising career was almost as impressive as his books. But that’s just me. Regardless, the point that many talented folks have worked in advertising is an easy case to make.
Magary then lists a few reasons why these people flourished after working in advertising. Summing them up:
- Advertising forces you to get to the point, and reduces self-indulgent tendencies.
- Advertising gives you the variety which helps you improve as an artist.
- Advertising teaches you persistence and the ability to generate more and more ideas, often better than the first one you thought was so perfect.
- Advertising teaches you that your creativity isn’t so precious, and that everything doesn’t have to be about you.
- Advertising teaches you to be a creative professional. Within a budget, within rules, and on schedule.
The gist of his piece is that advertising can teach creatives how to be successful both artistically and commercially. It’s important to note that I agree with Magary on all of these points and would say that advertising can build your creative muscles by making you faster, more resilient, and better creatively. It’s definitely a tough fitness regimen for your artistic skills. No question. The problem here is that all of these points are made to suggest that advertising makes you a better artist, but not that advertising in itself is a legitimate way to ply that creativity. Is advertising not something worthy of creative pursuit? Is it only worthy as a mere stepping stone to something better?
Magary ends the article this way: “I worked in advertising for ten years. It’s not the greatest job in the universe, and it’s an industry as prone to nauseating self-congratulation as any other. The clients are dicks. The creative directors are dicks. The account people are morons (I know because I was one). It’s a terribly frustrating job for anyone trying to be an “artist” or whatever the fuck. But that’s precisely the point. You’re not an artist. You’re just a shithead, and it would serve you well to learn how to work within limits, and with other people’s creative input. Who says you have nothing left to learn about how to be a writer or a director or a designer? Who says working in an actual job can’t help you become better at what you do?”
What if what I really want to do IS advertising? And what if I don’t think clients are dicks, but actually people trying their best to do their jobs like anyone else? It is a service industry, right? So, while I want to like this piece, it turns out that Magary is just another ad person who didn’t really want to be an ad person at all. It’s also important to note that Nolan rightfully counter-counter-pointed (barely one hour later) Magary with this article titled, “Says the Guy Who Got the Fuck Out of the Advertising Industry.” In it he responds, “I encourage you all to go to prison,” you tell them. “If you should be fortunate enough to escape one day, you’ll have great survival skills that can be put to use in something worthwhile!”
Let all this soak in for a second—advertising is prison!—while I give you one final example of more ad people hating advertising.
3. The Bogusky Effect.
On July 1, 2010, Alex Bogusky announced to the world via press release that he was resigning from MDC Partners, the parent company of perhaps the most famous advertising agency of the last 15 years or so, Crispin, Porter + Bogusky. When interviewed by Fast Company later that day, Bogusky declared that not only had he quit MDC and the agency that he helped start, but that he was also quitting the ad business entirely. When interviewed by the New York Times on the same day, he had this to say,
“You start to search for the more genuine version of yourself” at a point in your life, “and I’m doing that.” “I’m exploring and figuring out what is that genuine version,” he added, “and it’s not really consistent with corporate life” because in that realm “you’re kind of in the ‘get yours’ mode.” “I don’t think I’ll do much advertising” moving forward, Mr. Bogusky said, because “I’ve done plenty of it; I’m not able to find challenges in it.” “Mostly, what I want to do is participate in this cultural revolution that’s happening,” he added, “happening mostly outside of advertising.”
So, even the King of Advertising (sic) doesn’t find advertising to be fulfilling or worthy of his talents? What the heck is going on here? Why are there so many miserable people working in advertising? Why is someone like Bogusky suddenly above working in the industry, or better put, why is advertising below him?
Two years later, Alex Bogusky is still working in advertising even if he calls it something else. His Fearless Movement and social innovation group, COMMON, are both thinly veiled versions of a traditional advertising agency. Check out their services, sound familiar? He can afford to soft-sell his skills because he’s wealthy beyond most of our imaginations. He sold his agency and was paid handsomely for it. He reaped the benefits of that sale and the advertising business for many many years. He can do what he wants, but this declaration that advertising is somehow illegitimate is troubling at best and hypocritical at worst. All due respect Mr. Bogusky, you didn’t leave advertising. You just started your own agency. No need to be ashamed.
As an aside, you can see this shame expressed industry-wide over the last few years in the form of advertising agencies and schools and people refusing to call advertising advertising. They’ll call it anything but, under the guise that we’re all post-advertising somehow. Or somehow above advertising. My own alma mater and a place that I hold dear, the VCU AdCenter, is now called the VCU Brandcenter for crying out loud. Rest assured, they are still teaching wonderfully talented people the craft of advertising and doing it better than anyone else. Sure, there are many more tools we utilize these days but it’s still selling. Why is that somehow a less prestigious part of a product or service getting to market? Call it branding, communications, insurgency, or whatever else you want, but there is no shame working in advertising unless you bring it. But that’s a different article for another time.
I have done a lot thinking on why it is that so many people in advertising are unhappy working in advertising and here’s a short list pulled from my experiences in this wacky business.
6 reasons why so many advertising people hate advertising.
- The Unhappy might work on huge multinational clients and are disillusioned with the effect they feel they are having in the world and feel somewhat guilty from profiting from it. (Our poor Sunshine star seems to fit the bill, here.) They feel like sellouts because in some way they are. They are producing not just advertising that is visible to the world, but more importantly advertising that is usually bad. Any artist would be miserable creating bad art or art they don’t believe in. (Few are the folks working on large global brands that are producing quality creative on a consistent basis. Few but not zero.)
- The Unhappy believe they can convince people (as if they were sheep) to consume more and more like some sort of pathetic zombies. Perhaps they’ve read a lot of Ad Busters or something. They don’t see their consumers as smart beings capable of discerning their own wants and needs, but as victims of the Unhappy’s crimes. Personally, I think within reason, people can make their own decisions and discern advertising messages for what they are.
- The Unhappy work in agencies owned by global holding companies (which are really just banks) and are miserable because those holding companies treat them like numbers. They are relegated to mere billable hours not strategically creative individuals with something unique to offer the world. (For a few shorts years, I was one of these poor souls.) To be fair, they may simply be good people in the wrong situation who would otherwise be happy. Perhaps. But they are miserable nonetheless. I have a few friends that would fit this description, and I look forward to their exodus. They know who they are.
- The Unhappy are people like Nolan who simply feel like advertising is not a worthwhile or legitimate way to spend their time, effort and talent. These people should just quit. They aren’t doing themselves or their agencies or most importantly their clients any favors. Why they don’t simply go back to school or pick up another trade that IS worthwhile is beyond me.
- The Unhappy might be people who were drawn to the industry expecting all the glory and fun that can come with it, without fully grasping all the hard work. What you don’t see in ‘The Brochure’ is the super long hours, weekends at work, stress, service-industry role, the ever-evolving skills one must learn to adopt or die, and the vast number of times you’ll start over. It’s a tough job. The fun stuff is part of the reward, sure, but for the right people (and agency) the process is the real joy. It’s actually more of a blue-collar job than most people realize. When done correctly, anyway.
- Finally, The Unhappy could simply be unhappy people in general. Nothing we can do about that. They just need a few sessions on a black couch somewhere.
Would you hire a plumber that hates plumbing?
You might at this point be asking yourself, why does it matter that so many people in advertising seem to hate advertising? Why should a client care if they employ such a place full of such people? Well to use another blue-collar example, I would rather go to a plumber who is wholeheartedly enthusiastic about his craft versus a plumber who always dreamed of being a pilot. Wouldn’t you? I would rather not pay a plumber who is only doing it because of the money. Or a plumber who feels like being a plumber is somehow beneath him or her. Or even a plumber who is part of a large, uncaring network of licensed plumbers. Why? Because I believe that a happy plumber would be excited to work on my project. And because of that happiness, he or she would be willing to invest all of their energy into being the very best plumber they can possibly be and my project the best that it can be for the money they are paid. I also believe that happiness would go freely into their work and they’d be more detail-oriented and way more likely to take pride in their craft. They’d probably spend their spare time thinking about how to be an even better plumber. To put it simply, I’d trust a happy plumber about 1,000 times more than an unhappy one. I have no research to back this up, but I don’t think anyone would argue with this.
Finding an advertising agency that actually loves advertising.
The same is true when hiring an ad agency. The next time your company is looking for an advertising agency, do yourself a favor and find one full of people who are thrilled to be working in advertising. (If you look closely you’ll be able to tell. Happiness can be a tricky thing to fully fake.) Find an agency that is not just excited to take your money but one that is thrilled to be solving your problems, one that you’d suspect would solve your problems for free, if they didn’t respect their industry or themselves enough to make you pay for it. Look for an agency whose building has a few lights on way past closing time. (To generalize, too many lights on means people are forced to stay. Hate. Just a few means people are there mainly out of choice and because of passion. Love.) Try to find an agency that when pitching solutions to you, they don’t transform into smarmy car salesmen, but remain the same people you met in the honeymoon phase.
Try to find an agency that not only loves advertising, but one that studies it, stays current, and one that lives and breathes it day in and day out for your benefit. But also for the fun of it. Find an agency that is fulfilled by the work they do, not just at the top of the org chart but at the bottom. Do yourself a favor and find an agency that considers advertising every bit a part of the manufacturing process and every bit as valid as turning a wrench, producing a shoe, or shipping a box. The people that respect the industry like that tend to produce the best work and sleep better at night. And we all know how a good night’s sleep can make you a happier person.
In order to find such an agency you may need to look past Madison Avenue, or high-profile industry celebs, or even the shops featured in The Pitch. It might even take a bit more time and wit to sort the happy from The Unhappy. It may require a slightly less-traditional pitch process or selection criteria, as well. But whatever you do, don’t pay an agency that actually hates advertising. Do this and you’ll eventually end up hating the advertising they produce for you. (Chances are, they hate it too. That’s another dirty industry secret.) Like a happy plumber, you’ll trust a happy agency a lot more.
If you need help finding one, I can point you in the right direction.