Thursday, May 4, 2023

The Insane Brain Drain.

Many many years ago, or even decades ago, I worked at a serious advertising agency. 

How's that for an oxymoron.

Executive management, and even certain creative people, cared about the quality of the work. But they cared even more about how the work helped the client. The client understood that. And didn't regard the agency--as so many clients do nowadays--as the toy department of the marketing world--but instead as drivers of success.

Consequently the agency sat next to their clients' c-suite. And influenced the direction of their clients' business.

It was a rare, serious agency.

Not long after that, the same agency jettisoned virtually all the people who made them great. Maybe they got old. Maybe their salaries got too large. Maybe they got too powerful, threatening and big for their britches. Whatever the case, they were all gone.

Almost overnight, the agency went from worrying about their clients' business to worrying about what phony ads they could produce to win awards that they paid millions of dollars to win. 

One client, their largest, suffered 22-quarters-in-a-row of declining revenue and roughly 50-percent of internal meetings about creative work were about directors' techniques or editorial styles. Neither the client nor the agency were telling the world what the client did or why it mattered. It was more important to say nothing well and in a fresh way.

All that is a prelude to my topic today. My myopic topic. The lack of seeing and seriousness among advertising people.

We talk about awards, stunts, more awards, more stunts. We rarely talk about ideas that could and should guide us to being more important marketing partners to our clients present and future. 

Apocryphally, Eleanor Roosevelt once said, "Small minds discuss people; average minds discuss events; great minds discuss ideas." The same distinction could be made in the agency world today. There are very few real ideas (not just ad ideas) being discussed.

I just recently read an op-ed in "The New York Times," by Peter Coy, a guy who's been covering business for over 40 years. The piece is subscriber-only--but that doesn't give our industry an excuse for missing it. If you're serious about business, you read serious ideas from serious thinkers about business. Honestly, did anyone out there read this? 

You have to wonder how an industry expects to be taken seriously if it doesn't read and think seriously.

In the op-ed I'm speaking about, Coy writes about Sheena Iyengar, a Ph.D. and former professor in the business schools of MIT and Columbia. Iyengar, who is known as "the Jam Lady," is considered an "expert on choice."

[For her Doctoral dissertation at Stanford, she set up two tables inside the entrance of a supermarket in Menlo Park, Calif.: one with six kinds of jam and one with 24 kinds. 

Thirty percent of shoppers who stopped at the table with six kinds of jam bought something, but only 3 percent of shoppers who stopped at the table with 24 kinds bought something. They were overwhelmed by too many choices.]

Harvard Business Review wrote of Iyengar's study, "These results challenge what we think we know about human nature and the determinants of well-being. Both psychology and business have operated on the assumption that the relationship between choice and well-being is straightforward: The more choices people have, the better off they are....Choice is good for us, but its relationship to satisfaction appears to be more complicated than we had assumed. There is diminishing marginal utility in having alternatives; each new option subtracts a little from the feeling of well-being, until the marginal benefits of added choice level off. What’s more, [more choice demands] increased time and effort and can lead to anxiety, regret, excessively high expectations, and self-blame if the choices don’t work out."

Coy's article on Iyengar is about her work on the nature of discovery and innovation--two things that should be important to the ad industry. Iyengar's “New model of the brain is called Learning+Memory.” Eric Kandel of Columbia shared the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 2000 for his work on the model. 

"As Iyengar describes the concept of Learning+Memory:
'Neuroscience shows that all thinking is an act of memory in some form. That includes imagination, creativity, innovation and other variations of ‘new’ thoughts. That means the components of the thought are not new. Only the combination is new.'”

You can and should read Coy's entire article here. And for the price of two Gigantrenteoblivattas at Starbucks, you can get Iyengar's new and important book "Think Bigger: How to Innovate."

My point, however, goes beyond any particular book, thinker, or article. It is about our need to think--to study--to not just chase technique and trends and the spurious notion of 'influencing culture,' but to get beyond the day-to-day and into ideas that really matter.

There's no question in my mind ad agencies have geographically relocated far away from the central business centers of cities. There's no question why they no longer command the fees they used to.

We don't have the brains we used to.

We don't even miss them.

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