‘A Hard Business’

It is rare for our mainstream media to pay any attention to the advertising industry. Ads – yes; why advertisers should boycott various news channels – sometimes; the business – no. This week ‘The Guardian’ did exactly that, featuring a story on how the industry is suffering from, and I quote, “burnout and inequality”.

The Media Leader picked up on the same issue, although Nick Manning’s piece there identified a different underlying cause. Money.

I think both have a point. But there’s more to it.

Although it is fashionable to blame burnout, stress, working late and the rest on the industry’s ills, it was ever thus. It always used to be a badge of honour to be noticed staying later and getting in earlier than anyone else, and whilst it was neither clever nor necessary it was a thing; it did happen.

I suspect (but can’t prove it) that if there was a way of measuring the time spent actually working, as opposed to travelling, socialising, generally fannying about, today’s admen work no harder, and no less hard than their predecessors.

What is true, thank goodness is that we are certainly more aware than we used to be of the impact long hours at work, or the stresses caused by the threat of losing an account has on overall wellbeing and mental health. But when all’s said and done, I’m not convinced that the ad world is all that different from other service industries.

As to money, the industry has never been able to compete with what it would consider its competitive set. Management consultancies as one example used to pay a starting salary in my day around double that paid by the agencies.

Agencies are not massively profitable enterprises for a host of reasons, but first, second and third amongst them is the sad fact that many, many client boards don’t see the value in the work that we do.

We’ve been complaining about access to the C-Suite for years and have not advanced our cause one jot. We now have the tools we need; we just don’t use them.

We need to change that, so much is clear, but underneath it all there are far too many agencies and far too little work. In a buyer’s market, especially when the thing being bought is a vaguely defined commodity, like impressions or views, as opposed to priceless creativity, prices will drop.

Management consultancies, of whom there are comparably few compared to even media agencies pay to attract the best. We don’t.

In the past we got by on the basis that advertising was a fun, creative way to earn a living.

Agencies used to spend time going around the universities, presenting at careers fairs, promoting the industry. I may very well be wrong but I’m not sure they do that so much these days.

I think the decline in the attractiveness of the industry starts with the word ‘creative’.

‘The Guardian’ piece at the start of this post quoted four campaigns. In chronological order they were: Levi’s Launderette (1985); Guinness Surfer (1998) and Cadbury’s Gorilla (2007). The fourth, John Lewis is current, although for how much longer given their change in creative direction is questionable.

John Lewis aside the latest in ‘The Guardian’s’ hall of fame is 16 years old.

The latest public musings from Levi’s had their CMO talking of the brand’s priority to be always on, in effect placing quantity (of audience) over quality (of message).

Graduates used to want to join the ad world because of the ads. Yes, the money was important but the focus within the industry on creativity and originality of thought over academic qualifications was appealing to many.

Today the focus is more (to quote Sir Martin Sorrell) on mathsmen over madmen.

We want creators of spreadsheets, social media obsessives, interpreters of acronyms, masters in understanding the numbers, over having and honing the skills to unlock the desires, wants and needs of real people.

In 1947 Bill Bernbach wrote a letter to his agency colleagues.

It started: ‘Our agency is getting big. That’s something to be happy about. But it’s something to be worried about too…’.

It ended: ‘The danger lies in the temptation to buy routinised men who have a formula for advertising.’

People are leaving, or not joining the ad industry because it’s no longer about magic.

The rest is noise.


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