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?

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