Monday, January 9, 2012

Agency leaders.

The genesis of this blog was my constant rumination over the ossification of the American advertising industry. Having worked in traditional advertising, in direct and in digital, I thought, perhaps somewhat arrogantly, that I had a unique perspective on the failings, the group think, the myopia of Madison Avenue. The industry as a whole seemed to be an industry as a hole.

As this blog enters its fifth year, I still think about the parallels between Madison Avenue and the decrepitude of Detroit. But today I'll spend a few moments thinking about how, as an industry, we pick our leaders. For that, I think, we can learn something by looking at the Republican presidential candidates and their endless debating and posturing and mud-slinging as Republicans throughout America select a "winner" to face Obama.

There are some agency leaders we pick because they're like Michele Bachmann or Rick Perry. They look good on paper and we overlook their obvious shortcomings and wallow in with rose-colored infatuation and say "he's the one. He did such and such campaign for Pigeon Rights that won Gold at Cannes. He can help resurrect us from our current malaise."

Infatuation leaders
usually last one to two years and then leave to pursue other opportunities or to spend more time with their families.

Then there are the agency leaders we pick because they're like Newt Gingrich. They sound smart. They are supremely sure of themselves and speak as if they have all the answers. They understand new media modalities and shifting paradigms. When we pick them we say, "He must be very smart because I don't understand a thing he says."

Blather leaders usually prosper. They're considered too smart to fire. They're too lofty to do any work. Blame, therefore, never attaches to them. So they usually hang on like a barnacle until they get a higher holding company job and sow confusion globally.

Third, there are the candidates who are like Santorum. They appeal to a small group of core agency leadership and reinforce that core's eccentric world view. They are hired because they have a transformational system that will roll back the clock to a time when agencies were profitable and could actually afford the rent on Madison Avenue offices. These candidates will "bring us back" to a time when agencies mattered.

I call these leaders "Cleaverites." After the Cleaver family in "Leave it to Beaver." They promise a technicolor black and white future. When they don't deliver, they rise. Because we like their vision so much.

Then there are agency leaders who are like Ron Paul. They are close to Cleaverites in that they've constructed an alternate reality for the world, but whereas Cleaverites are pinned to the past, these leaders appeal to the zany. Their world-system has no sense of history, its apocalyptic and evangelical. Agencies buy this sort of leader when they are so desperate they need to believe in an unhinged reality.

These are the Zanies. They usually last about a year then go to work for small media companies. They then declare that all that went before is dead and then they promote a new sort of channel that "will change everything." Not only do these people have no sense of history, they have little sense of reality.

Finally, for today, there are candidates like Mitt Romney. They are Zelig-like. Saying exactly what needs to be said at exactly the right moment. There is a subject-object split between their words and their deeds. But their malleability is their most persuasive selling-point. They are easy to buy.

I call these leaders the Blands. They are most successful agency heads. They take credit for the success of others and excoriate failures as not their fault.

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