Monday, March 16, 2020

Jeremy Bentham, Bob Dylan, Covid-19 and Advertising.

About one-thousand years ago I worked at a hot digital agency--maybe the hottest. I called a friend in who I thought would be a good person to hire. She was a good writer and smart and self contained. What's more, and maybe most important, she was someone you could have an honest conversation with.

There aren't many people left you can talk to and say how you feel without worrying that they'll run to management, spread gossip or chatter behind your back.

My friend was interested in joining the agency; the place was that hot, but something gave her pause.

"What's it like here?" she asked me.

I thought about the large majority of the work the agency did. Huge projects and time-commitments behind creating apps that would never see the light of day, would never be used by real people, but would be finely crafted and promoted in order to clean up at Cannes and other award shows.

I answered her question in one simple sentence. "It's not a serious place," I said.

Some year after that, I read an interview with Sir John Hegarty in which he said, "Advertising has retreated to the fringes."

We do small things for small-minded clients for small, or negligible impact. There's a reason, I believe, that in just two-decades we have gone from being located near the nerve center of American business, to the swampy edges of our land-filled island. 

We're not in the center of things because we're not in the center of things.

In fact, not long ago I heard of a client that had probably spent $500 million advertising an offering and in five years had gained 1.58 percent marketshare. I said to someone, "We worry about directors and wardrobe and this word vs that word. What we should be working on is a presentation I've named '5 2 10.' Five years to get to 10% marketshare." He looked at me like I was mad.

There's a bigger point to this. It's about being serious. It's about looking at real information, looking at real needs, looking at real problems and attempting to unravel them in real ways.

Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832) was an English philosopher and political radical. He is known today for utilitarianism, which looks at actions based upon their consequences

A couple centuries ago, English social reformer and philosopher Jeremy Bentham said that the purpose of government was to bring "the greatest good to the greatest number of people."

I've always thought line served as a pretty good definition of what advertising is supposed to do, too. 

But we live in a world where we ignore facts. Where we ignore data that doesn't serve our purposes and where we even ignore common sense.

Our government's response to about one-hundred different problems is proof of this--its Corona Virus efforts are just its latest efforts to ignore reality. We have its embrace of fossil fuels, including coal. A regressive tax system that helps those who need the least help. The failure to say that no country can spend $1 trillion on defense and still provide for the welfare of its citizens. And its total abnegation of climate science.

The ad industry, I'm afraid, has been similarly non-serious and fact ignoring. 

For instance, the industry's response to the truism that fewer people are seeing our ads is to run more ads. When it should be to run better ads.

For instance, the industry's response to the truism that some clients no longer want to pay for experience and expertise is to fire most of the people who have experience and expertise.

For instance, the industry's response to clients saying we are too expensive is to proffer cheaper (and less effective) tactics.

A hard rain is gonna fall in our country.

We elected and 40% of our population deified a charlatan and a know-nothing. We will pay for despoiling the earth. We will pay for not caring for the sick and needy. We will pay for our perpetual wars for perpetual peace. We will pay for ignoring infrastructure, health care, innovation, education and more.

I'm afraid advertising has followed the same course. The heads of the big holding companies don't even know how to make what we sell, or at some level, don't believe in it. To a man, and they are all men, they are cruddy communicators and reactors not leaders.

Our industry is no more paying attention to what's happening in our industry than the current administration is paying attention to what's happening in the world.

We will keep asking questions until someone tells us an answer we like.

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