Thursday, August 27, 2009

A bit of a retraction.

Earlier today I wrote about how holding companies and marketing departments have destroyed ambition. Actually, they've created its opposite. Antibition. But that's not totally true.

Cabbing home tonight I realized holding companies are extremely ambitious. In the way that banks are. If banks have a branch every eleven blocks, their ambition is to have a branch every nine blocks, then every six blocks. Their ultimate ambition of course is to have all the money in the world, to have a harem of Heidi Klum look-alikes, to live inside a dormant volcano and rule the world while never getting old.

I suppose the same can be said for advertising holding companies. They won't be happy until they own everything. Until they can control those "assets" who leave the building every day and can exercise influence over media channels so that every square inch of every bit of matter on the planet is given over to the buying and selling of crap. "This State of the Union Address is brought to you by beechwood-aged Budweiser with the cool, crisp taste that takes the edge off a failing economic system."

Ya, things are bad alright.

But let me switch gears for a second. Preston Sturges, one of America's greatest movie makers (I've written a few posts on him if you'd like to learn more) had a keen insight into the struggles of ordinary men and women who yearn to be great, who yearn to make a difference. If you can find his 1940 movie "Christmas in July," you'll see what I mean.

I thought about a passage from that flick tonight. In the scene Jimmy MacDonald (Dick Powell) is a young clerk who enters slogan contests in an effort to get ahead. Daydreaming about winning led him to add up some numbers incorrectly and he is being upbraided by his boss, E.L. Waterbury (Harry Hayden.)

Here's the bit:

Jimmy MacDonald:
Well I... I guess it's the contest, Mr. Waterbury - the Maxford House contest. I had no idea it was hurting my work.
Mr. E.L. Waterbury: How much is the prize?
Jimmy MacDonald: The *first* prize is $25,000.
Mr. E.L. Waterbury: Unnh
[smiles ironically]
Mr. E.L. Waterbury: I used to think about $25,000 too, and what I'd do with it. That I'd be a failure, if I didn't get a hold of it. And then one day I realized that I was *never* gonna have $25,000, Mr. MacDonald.
Mr. E.L. Waterbury: And then another day... uhh... a little bit later - *considerably* later - I realized something else - something I'm imparting to you now, Mr. MacDonald. I'm not a failure. I'm a success. You see, ambition is all right if it works. But no system could be right where only half of 1% were successes and all the rest were failures - that wouldn't be right. I'm not a failure. I'm a success. And so are you, if you earn your own living and pay your bills and look the world in the eye. I hope you win your $25,000, Mr. MacDonald. But if you shouldn't happen to, don't worry about it. Now get the heck back to your desk and try to improve your arithmetic.

I think my point here is pretty simple. Life and the business kind of sucks. Or, maybe, it sucks a whole helluva lot. But stick to your guns, do the best you can do under the circumstances, keep trying, keep pushing. In crappy times that's ambition. It may not be what you want, but it beats the alternative.

PS. Included here is a five minute clip from "Christmas in July." Not the one I quoted above, but good nonetheless.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Wherever there are giant holding companies, there is room for ambition, just not within them.

When the world is comprised of WPP's, the small agency is the place to be. You can zig, while they zag, you can be fast, you can be nimble, you can be creative, you can be challenging. You can offer precisely what the megagiants cannot.

In fact you can offer precisely what the megagiants started out offering.

David Ogilvy was entrepreneurial. So were the Saatchis, so was Bill Bernbach.

Just as David Droga is today. He wouldn't recognize much truth in your assertion. Neither do I.

To feel the seat-of-the-pants excitement of advertising once again, get out of the big companies. To know what it's like to really make a difference to your clients' business, get out of the big companies. To know whether your creativity really is as groundbreaking as you think it is, get out of the big companies.

If you're not entrepreneurial, you're not really going to have the nous to be a great adman.

Ambition exists within the ambitious.