Monday, October 30, 2023

Small Beats Big.

I made my first paycheck in advertising back in 1962. I was in two commercials for Nabisco cereals--thanks to my father who was a copywriter on the brand--and I made just about the equivalent of what two Volkswagen Beetles would cost. I suppose today that would mean about $75,000, so as a four-year-old, I was doing ok.

I've never really been the entrepreneurial-type. I was always fine working for other people and through the decades I worked for a dozen agencies or more. Today, however, more than half of the agencies I used to work for, though many of them were storied and venerable, are no more. Through financial machinations and corporate sleight-of-hand, literally hundreds of agencies have been schmutzed, squozen and otherwise schmised out of business. And tens of thousands of people similarly schmutzed, squozen and schmised out of their livelihoods.

Last week, GeorgeCo., LLC, a Delaware Company had a raft of client meetings. My Microsoft calendar was stretched like a pair of Sansabelt polyester slacks after Thanksgiving dinner. If my calendar had a button fastener, I would have been afraid that it would burst under the pressure and someone could lose an eye.

Don't laugh. It happens.

As I sat on the myriad Zoom calls, I got to thinking about the comedy of life.

Not the television-derived Ray Romano-type unfunny comedy, but the comedy that appears when you've worked for sixty years at something and then are forced into emotional arrears because someone who's never-ever come close to writing an ad decides that someone who's spent sixty years in the business and is making the agency a lot of money and helping to teach a lot of young people and guide a lot of clients, no longer has any value to the financial house-of-cards that we politely call in a Goebbels-like spurt of linguistic offal, a holding company.

It doesn't matter that most of what that holding company used to hold they've dropped. It doesn't matter that they've halved over the last decade how many people they employ, what matters is the eight-figure compensation packages for the anointed old boys who, again through some sort of financial sleight-of-hand, have somehow emerged on top. 

Proof you can lead a race to the bottom and finish on top.

As I sat on these Zoom calls and thought about how much my life had changed after a life in advertising, I got to thinking, also, how lucky I've been to have had that change visited upon me.

GeorgeCo., LLC, a Delaware Company is a two-person operation. And somehow, with the exception of one or two giant corporations who sought me out from my Ogilvy days, GeorgeCo gets to work not with a rogues' gallery of assistant associate junior senior management functionaries but with the people who run the various companies or founded the various companies I work for.

The stakes and pressures that come from that closeness and proximity are not to be underestimated. It can be, within the same 90-minute Zoom call both crushing and elevating. But the intimacy and importance of my role is to be envied--though it is sometimes somewhat torturous. 

While I've always written ads for a living, when you run your own place and are working for people who run their own place, you're doing more than writing ads. You're like, in fact, one of the old Greek Fates. You're charting the course for a company's future not just creating a banner ad that says $49.99/month when you bundle.

Some years ago, I got a phone call from Steve Hayden, writer on the most-famous commercial ever and former Vice Chairman of Ogilvy when I was there the first time. Steve is my mentor still and my friend. He had asked me to take over a piece of business he was working on that he no longer felt he was able to handle. 

Those were some big shoes to fill. Beyond doing the work for this client, I had to live up to Steve's expectations. 

He called one rainy Saturday as I was walking the dog and getting soaked. My dog had a better raincoat than I.

"How's it going with ___________?" he asked referring to the client he had passed on to me.

"It's going well, I think." When it comes to self-assessments, I don't like to over-commit. "It's going well, I think," I repeated. "I just got off the phone with _______. A friend of his died and he asked for my help writing his eulogy."

There was a long-pause from Steve's side of the blower.

"I'd say that's going well."

And I think that's the point today and what's been lost during the Holding Company Era/Error of modern advertising. Think about it geographically if that makes things easier. 

Advertising used to be called Madison Avenue. Agencies were located there, and on Fifth, Park, Lex, Third and Second in mid-town. Agencies were close to the center of American business because we were important to the center of American business. They wanted us nearby, so we could be in the offices and at the tables where important business ideas were derived and shared.

Today, agencies are far from their clients.

Both physically and emotionally. We're no longer intimates. We're imitates.

Concomitantly work done by agencies feels tin-eared and dopey. As integral as duck feet would be to a grizzly bear. As an industry, we're as important to our clients as sincerity is to a politician.

Big agencies, holding company agencies, the companies that control 98-percent of every advertising dollar spent will never be as big as little GeorgeCo., LLC, a Delaware Company. They can trot out all sorts of experts, all manner of proprietary systems and a host of awards as numerous as those ancient Chinese terracotta soldiers.

As Alben Barkley might have said about the vice presidency, none of that is worth a bucket of warm spit.

What matters in advertising and life is much more fundamental. And sometimes, even, more fun. 

It ain't about size. Or having 30,000 people in 64 countries. Or borderless creativity, when in truth, the joint is so noisy and chaotic, most people never talk to the person down the hall much less in Timbuktu or Montevideo. The point is something about work. And loving what you do. And helping actual people, not just awards juries you pay to play.

Not enough people understand that.

No comments: