Friday, January 31, 2020

More is less.


Many, many years ago I worked at an agency that actually had a party at Christmas time. Not only did they have a large event for their thousands of employees, they spent money on it. There was food. Financial rewards for great work. Alcohol.

There was even entertainment.

Live entertainment.

One year, Jerry Seinfeld showed up and made us laugh. This happened not in the phantom “good old days” of advertising of the 80s. But back when agencies and their holding company masters had enough business acumen and confidence in the effectiveness of what we make to actually charge clients money for it.

In other words, this happened back when agencies got paid for the work they did. And when craft, discernment and quality was integral to that work.

Remember? Nah.

In any event, Seinfeld.

He did a few minutes on how he always wanted to be in advertising. He said, advertising is cool because basically you only need to know two words to judge work.

Work either sucks.

Or it’s good.

Like most comedy, Seinfeld’s routine worked because it had truth in it. I think going back to the earliest forms of communication—whether or not they were selling something (and all communication is selling something) people essentially sort things into two those two categories. Sucks or Good. (If you’re indifferent about it, that means it sucks too, btw.)

I would imagine 2800 years ago when ancient Ithacans heard Homer recite the Iliad or the Odyssey, people would return from the agora and say to their friends, “That Homer, he’s good, dude.”

That’s how the human brain works. We classify and sort things. And we have for 200,000 years. And if we last for 200,000 more, or even 200 more, or even 2 more, we’ll go on sorting things.

Except today sucks is ok.

In fact, according to the Vayneristas and those who buy in to new age gibberish, people will accept sucks—embrace it, even--as long as it’s ubiquitous. As long as it shows up 47-times-a-day in their feeds. As long as they’re assaulted by it pretty much every time they breathe in or out.

It’s the exact opposite of that old Borscht Belt joke—“the food’s terrible and such small portions.”

Today the joke might be—“the work insults my intelligence. It’s shoddily produced. And it’s annoying. But at least there’s plenty of it.”

Or, “the content sucks but at least its always on.

It seems more and more agencies are buying this thesis. Produce a ton of stuff. Be up in your “target’s” grill. And that will drive loyalty and sales.

Oh, the other benefit of following this course is that you don’t get paid a lot. Why would you pay an agency a lot for work that doesn’t cost a lot and doesn’t have an impact on a lot of people?

I’ve thought and thought on this topic.

I’m a bit like the Ancient Mariner, in fact. I find myself stopping one in three and asking people if this makes sense.

No one’s convinced me it does.

I’m about 99 and 44/100 percent sure no one ever will.

Because work that sucks…sucks.

And more suck sucks more.

Thursday, January 30, 2020

The pleasures and sorrows of work. Mostly sorrows.

The more meetings I attend, the less faith I have in anything other than common-sense in making marketing decisions. I realize that in the advertising industry we no longer get paid for creating breakthrough communications (simply because there are very few breakthrough communications at all). We get paid for meetings. And meetings to schedule meetings. And meetings to schedule schedules. And meetings about meetings.

My guess is that, and I admit I have a low-tolerance for ass-deadening chairs, bad lighting and too much type on a powerpoint slide, agencies spend more billable hours organizing work, formalizing the details of what that work should do, talking about who should do the work, planning when the work will be done, than actually doing work.

We're creating less and blabbering more.

Maybe that's the agency version of the old carpenter's adage, "measure twice, cut once." But I think something more pernicious is at work.

I think most "service" businesses hire a lot of people and then find work for them to do that doesn't really demand doing.

About 18 months ago I read David Graeber's book, "Bullshit Jobs." Graeber is no slouch. He's an anthropologist at the London School of Economics.

Graeber defines a bullshit job this way, “a form of paid employment that is so completely pointless, unnecessary, or pernicious that even the employee cannot justify its existence even though, as part of the conditions of employment, the employee feels obliged to pretend that this is not the case.”

Graeber goes on and says, "Bullshit, like paper waste, accumulates in offices with the inevitability of February snow. Justification reports: What are these? Nobody knows. And yet they pile up around you, Xerox-warmed, to be not-read. Best-practices documents? Anybody’s guess, really, including their authors’. Some people thought that digitization would banish this nonsense. Those people were wrong. Now, all day, you get e-mails about “consumer intimacy” (oh, boy); “all hands” (whose hands?); and the new expense-reporting software, which requires that all receipts be mounted on paper, scanned, and uploaded to a server that rejects them, since you failed to pre-file the crucial post-travel form. If you’re lucky, bullshit of this genre consumes only a few hours of your normal workweek. If you’re among the millions of less fortunate Americans, it is the basis of your entire career."

Because he's an academic, Graeber can break workers down into five types, or if you want to get all deep-dish about it, phyla. Nathan Heller who reviewed Graeber's book in the "New Yorker," describes those five types this way:

1. “Flunkies." Those paid to hang around and make their superiors feel important: doormen, useless assistants, receptionists with silent phones, and so on. 

2. “Goons.” Gratuitous or arms-race muscle; Graeber points to Oxford University’s P.R. staff, whose task appears to be to convince the public that Oxford is a good school. 

3. “Duct tapers.” Are hired to patch or bridge major flaws that their bosses are too lazy or inept to fix systemically. (This is the woman at the airline desk whose duty is to assuage angry passengers when bags don’t arrive.) 

4. “Box tickers.” Go through various motions, often using paperwork or serious-looking reports, to suggest that things are happening when things aren’t.  

5. “Taskmasters.” They're divided into two subtypes: unnecessary superiors, who manage people who don’t need management, and bullshit generators, whose job is to create and assign more bullshit for others.

If you've read this far (presumably reading while you're at work with little important to do) you probably recognized your life and your management in the archetypes above.

The question is why--why do we abide this boredom and inefficiency?" Heller sums up Graeber this way, "bullshit employment has come to serve ... as a disguised, half-baked version of the dole—one attuned specially to a large, credentialled middle class. Under a different social model, [people] might have collected a government check. Now, instead, [they] can acquire a bullshit job [and] spend half of every morning compiling useless reports, and use the rest of their desk time to play computer solitaire.... It’s not, perhaps, a life well-lived. But it’s not the terror of penury, either."

Given that it seems that some of the best people in the advertising industry are no longer employed by agencies, I wonder how long this will continue.

Sixty years ago, Robert Townsend, CEO of Avis said this to Bill Bernbach. My largest competitor has five times the money I have. Five times the number of cars. Five times the counters. How do I get advertising that's five times as effective?

Bernbach responded with this list:

Avis Rent A Car Advertising Philosophy
1. Avis will never know as much about advertising as DDB, and DDB will never know as much about the rent a car business as Avis.
2. The purpose of the advertising is to persuade the frequent business renter (whether on a business trip, or renting an extra car at home) to try Avis.
3. A serious attempt will be made to create advertising with five times the effectiveness (see #2 above) of the competition’s advertising.
4. To the end, Avis will approve or disapprove, not try to improve, ads which are submitted. Any changes suggested by Avis must be grounded on a material operating defect (a wrong uniform for example).
5. To this end, DDB will only submit for approval those ads which they as an agency recommend. They will not “see what Avis thinks of that one.”
6. Media selection should be the primary responsibility of DDB. However, DDB is expected to take the initiative to get guidance from Avis in weighing of markets or special situations, particularly in those areas where cold numbers do not indicate the real picture. M
edia judgments are open to discussion. The conviction should prevail. Compromises should be avoided.

Following those precepts today--60 years after the fact--would get you more-effective work, cheaper and faster.

But who would want that?

Wednesday, January 29, 2020

Advertising made easy. And insipid.

For as long as I’ve been in this benighted business, I’ve operated on a somewhat cynical assumption. Most clients don’t know the ins-and-outs of their offerings well enough to know what makes them different or better than their competition.

I know it’s terribly au courant to say that we live in a post-fact age—and details and unique selling propositions no longer matter. But I’m not really buying that idea. Most of the commercials that seem to me to be effective usually impart useful consumer information in an executionally brilliant way.

Apple became a trillion-dollar-brand doing essentially that in commercial after commercial, print ad after print ad. Even Hyundai’s latest commercial on a self-parking car seems to be singing from that hymnbook.

Or he/him/she/her/they/them-book.       

I suspect it’s much easier to create bland work about some feeling a brand creates than to dig deep and get to the essence of what makes something vital.

Not too long ago I had a mini-assignment to work on a high-end TV brand. I did some research and discovered the difference between an LED screen and an OLED screen. I have to believe about one person in ten-thousand knows the difference.

LEDs are lit by a back light. The OLED screen is it by millions of individual lights embedded inside individual diodes. When those lights were off, they were off. Whereas the back light could never be fully off. That meant that the screen with millions of lights could produce blacker blacks—because their black was based on the absence of light.

That seems relatively simple and believable to me. If you can make it interesting enough for people to understand.

What occurred to me today is how few agencies today know what makes them different.

Sure, they all have their proprietary nonsense about getting to the core of the ectoplasm of brands and the customer. But none of that matters or is even vaguely decipherable to anyone who doesn’t add a big pour of McKinsey to their morning coffee.

Maybe because agencies no longer dig deep and determine what makes brands or products different, they no longer dig deep and determine what makes their brand or product different either.

This isn’t about a tag line or a bunch of diagrams. This is about how you approach an assignment, what you present, what it’s based on and how it’s produced. This is about talent. Finding talent that digs deeper. That doesn’t follow formulae. Finding talent that believes that information intelligently handled can persuade people as effectively today as it did thousands of years ago when people learned of gods and war and love and loss around campfires.

In modern parlance, you could call this a mission. A mission and a belief. A mission, a belief and a core value. That, in the words of Dave Trott “a rational demonstration can have a more powerful emotional effect than something vacuous designed purely to appeal to the feelings.”
That was then.

This is now.
In short, “done properly, reason is emotion.”

We might, if we care to create an entity that did something different, also
build on some words Bob Levenson wrote many years ago when he was at DDB. That:

“There is indeed a twelve-year-old mentality in this country; every six-year-old has one.
“We are a nation of smart people.

“And most smart people ignore smart advertising because most advertising ignores smart people.

“Instead we talk to each other.

“We debate endlessly about the medium and the message. Nonsense. In advertising, the message itself is the message.”

But to proffer any of that at an agency today would get you cast out into the wilderness. You’re old, they would tell you. Today’s consumer has no attention span. Marketing doesn’t work that way anymore.

And 99% of the industry—clients included—go along with it. It’s so much easier to take the road more traveled. To assume the consumer is a moron. To abide by the dominant complacency of the age: If I show people happy and smiling and dancing when they use my product, viewers will believe it because it shows what happens emotionally when you eat a new, nacho-cheesier nacho-cheesier nacho.

What’s more smiles and high-fives and fist bumps and spontaneous dancing are so much easier to do and that what everyone else is doing so it must be right. And creative parroting will allow us to hire the inexperienced, which allows us to drive wages down, cut staffing and quality and become a low-cost provider of work that neither educates nor enlightens.

That’s how most brands, and agencies, seem to operate today.

We spend our time fighting over details while the lights have gone out.

As an industry we may extol the genius of Apple’s great ethos “Think Different.” And many of us might have memorized the words to Apple’s “Here’s to the Crazy Ones.”

But the reality is we hate different. And we prize, not constructive lunacy, but lockstep conformity.

Yes sir!