Monday, April 5, 2021

Rules. Versus standards.

I read something the other day, an innocuous statement from an Advertising Hall-of-Famer not known for his innocuous statements.

Somehow four months or so ago, the fearsome Ed McCabe and I became friends on Facebook. The word "friend" today has about as much value as a corset at a nudist colony. We're not really friends--we're connected and I get to see what Ed's having for dinner most nights or the color of what he's drinking or one of the spectacular cars he's driving.

Scali, McCabe, Sloves was the pinnacle of New York advertising for the 1970s, 1980s and into the 1990s. I never got the chance to work there. I presumed I wasn't good enough. But I poured over their work like as a young student I poured over the Canterbury Tales. In both cases, I read and read and read, and learned and learned and learned in the hopes of committing to memory everything I could.

Scali, McCabe, Sloves had a punch-in-the-face intelligence that stopped the reader in her tracks. If, as Carl Ally said (McCabe had worked there) "Advertising should comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable," McCabe's work was surely in the afflict the comfortable camp. 

Anyway, I read something from Ed's feed some time ago. It's something I haven't stopped thinking about. And something more people and more agencies would do well to consider

"We didn't have rules," Ed said. "We had standards."

What follows will be inflammatory and will likely earn be a good level of rebuke. Today, we seem to hold a lot of different agenda in greater esteem than we hold our standards. 

Of course equality, equity and fairness are vital. And as an industry we should be doing everything we can to achieve those crucial objectives. But fairness cannot--we cannot let it--supersede our standards or cause us to forget what we are in business to do.

What I've seen from all precincts of our industry is a complete deterioration of standards. Worse, I've seen an industry that seems to have forgotten what good is.

Good is a relative term. It might mean something different to you than it does to me. But as humans, we've always had some fairly universal, agreed-upon values. 

For instance, if I were hoping to play in a pick-up basketball game, I'm 100% sure LeBron James would get chosen by one of the team captains before I would. No one would say, "I'm picking George because we need an old, fat, slow Jew on our team--it's only fair. Besides, he has stone-hands and can't shoot."

It's not unusual today to see "help wanted ads" that are both jaw-dropping and blatant. They will flat-out say they're seeking a certain demographic. This is not only illegal, it is the triumph of rules over standards. Of agenda over quality.

What strikes me is that advertising has fallen for one of the most pernicious rules of our era. That rule silently states that every accomplishment, because it's been accomplished, is worthy of note.

That is the triumph of doing over the triumph of doing well. That is the finisher's trophy, the participation ribbon, the "you-go-____-ization" of accomplishment. That predilection for reward might be fine for third-graders, or I-just-need-to-finish-marathoners, but it's not fine if your business is to move-forward someone else's business with communications that are supposed to cut through, communicate and motivate.

Going back to the LeBron example above, ours is not a friendly-neighborhood game where everyone plays and we all have a beer afterward and kibbitz around. Back two decades ago, I worked for a client that sold billions of dollars of servers. I was called to a meeting led by one of the senior clients--a sales-person--not a marketing person.

"This is _______'s share of the UNIX market," the sales-person said. "I want to take that share and kill them."

I know that's horrid--but if I'm Nissan, I want to kill Mazda. If I'm Dannon, I want to kill Chobani. If I'm Agency X, I want to kill agency Y. We do this not via cheating, skullduggery and shivs, we do it by doing better work smarter and faster.

We also do it by not applauding every drip from every agency sphincter. It's not just that the commercial below sucks. Most commercials do. It's that the agency that created it is lauding it as a "slam dunk."

Obviously, taste is subjective. And Leo Burnett could tell me 29 focus groups of "Buick potentials," saw this and loved it and sales in B and C counties where Buick makes most of its hay are up 11%. They could tell me that I'm narrow and elitist and don't get the female skew and insights contained herein.

To that I say, fine.

But it's boring. It's trite. The acting is horrible. The script is not in English and the whole thing is a cliched mess.

Back when I was young in the business and people were treated respectfully, and even young creatives had their own space so they could think, about half the creative department had a Nerf basket over their garbage pail.

A lot of times, someone would crumple up a bad comp and throw it in the basket--never to be seen again outside of a landfill in Staten Island.

A lot of those "shots," were slam dunks. 

But they were made on a three-foot basket.

You need standards. Not just rules.

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