Monday, February 7, 2022

The case for optimism. Part One.

I recorded a podcast Friday night--I'll tell you when it's meant to air when I know. Toward the end of our time, the interviewers asked me a question about the advertising industry. 

As readers of Ad Aged know, I've been in the ad industry virtually my entire life. Not only have I made a living at it since 1980, but my father was also in the business, as was my Uncle Sid, who was half a generation older than my father. I can honestly say, I grew up and have spent my entire life hearing about the business, looking at ads, thinking about what makes an ad compelling and what might motivate people to pay attention.

The guys hosting the podcast asked me what I'm optimistic about when it comes to the ad industry.

I'll be honest. It stumped me. 

Asking me about optimism is like asking donald trump about ethics. Or his cranial merkin. Or asking my opinion about this year's super bowl. Optimism is something I know very little about.

It doesn't come naturally to me.

As JJ Hunsecker said to Sidney Falco in "The Sweet Smell of Success,"  "I wouldn't like to take a bite out of you; you're a cookie full of arsenic." 

I have been, maybe I'm a snowflake, somewhat tortured by life. The ancient Greeks described people like me as having heads full of scorpions. Not a pretty picture, believe me.

There are lots of reasons behind my tormented soul--they're best discussed every Thursday at eight with my therapist. But to steal another quip or to make one up (I'm not sure which): "I don't have many enemies, but all my friends hate me."

Like many people my age who have made their living writing ads, I have the gift of quip. My glibness and bon-mot-machine- gun semantic style often allow me to sidestep tension and throw out a joke instead of an answer. As Groucho might have proclaimed, I am deeply shallow.

But what am I optimistic about? That is the question. 

I could have said that I'm almost done. That makes me happy. I'm hoping to make it eight more years, to 2030.  I want to surpass my baseball hero Minnie Minoso, who played in five decades. I want to work in the ad business for six decades. At this point, I somewhat feel I can make it that long on fumes alone. After a moment's pause, however, I took the question seriously.

I'm lucky, I said.

I have an eidetic memory (that's a fancy-schmancy way of saying photographic) and I have been around and worked with dozens, if not scores, of many of the most notable people and brands the industry has ever produced.

What am I optimistic about?

I'll start with what I believe in. I side with what Shelly Lazurus, the CEO Emeritus of Ogilvy used to say when the agency was successful and she was leading it. I believe that her stated goal, "To be most valued by those who most value brands," is about as good a mission statement for me, or the business as we're likely to find. I believe if we could take a step backward and re-embrace that thinking rather than something pompous and vain like, "to make the world a better place," there would be cause for industry optimism. We can do this. 

I believe there's cause for optimism if we focus on the meat of our purpose--to create brand value--not the unproven bullshit all around us, like our ongoing meta-zuckurbation, we can actually make a difference.

Second, I'll switch to something I learned from Hall-of-Fame art director, Mike Tesch. Tesch and his partner Patrick Kelley practically put Federal Express on the map, with literally hundreds of commercials that still do a lot to define that brand (and good advertising today.) Tesch believed, rightfully I think, that there were few marketing problems that couldn't be solved by a great commercial. Clarity, wit, humor, human understanding matter. If we re-embrace that, I am optimistic.

I know that sentiment today is about as retrograde as a statement gets. But I believe that about 99-percent of all brands are without definition and stand for virtually nothing. 

However, and we've all seen it, felt it and maybe participated in it, we can create brand-likeability. We can make friends for brands. We can get brands noticed.

That's a lot.

If, in the words of TBWA\C\D NY CEO Rob Schwartz, you can own a piece of the consumers' brain, you've got cause for optimism. But that ownership takes years of great and consistent work. It isn't like making instant mashed potatoes--boil water, stir and presto. 

It takes work work and more work. Nike's done it. Apple's done it. And a few others. It's the world's most valuable real estate, a place in someone's brain, and we can own that--the metaverse be damned. 

Two or three more reasons. One, I learned from Steve Hayden. And barely a day goes by where I don't think of something wise he's said that I marked down in my memory. The power of simple, jargon-free language. The effort to always come back with a better ad. The fight to never give up. The act of being nice. All those things, give me hope. 

As do things I learned from Chris Wall. I remember him, all 6' 10" of him, standing up in front of a collection, or a gaggle of creatives, holding a New York Times in one mitt and The Wall Street Journal in his other giant paw. Chris reasoned if journalistic-creatives could fill those papers every day with quality, there's no reason we should ever complain about compressed schedules. 

Further, I find optimism because there's a need. Because in today's world there's so much that needs explaining and who's better at it than we are?

I'm optimistic about advertising because I think the business world needs advertising. I believe, and maybe this is naive, not optimistic, that when you make a good product, telling the world about it in an honest and compelling way can lead to riches--and can lead to growth and economic success. I'm optimistic because I believe if we take advertising seriously--as a tool and lever of growth and improvement--we can grow and improve. 

We have the power to do that.

The question is--will we take our jobs and our industry seriously? Will we fight our way back from what Sir John Hegarty called "the fringes." Small ads. Small ideas. Stunts. Datamania and technoblabber. And all the latest trends.

Will we continue to make fake ads and trumpet our own solipsistic success? Will care more about awards than helping clients? 

In brief, will we do our real jobs? Or will we continue our industry-wise dilettanteism?

If we do our work--and we break the modus operandi of the holding companies who act as if they're running an extractive-industry (and clients and agency people are the slag heaps) and start supporting what it is we can actually do beyond fattening the bank accounts of the few moguls at the top, then I'm optimistic.

But only just barely.

[More optimism tomorrow.]

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