Monday, March 2, 2020

March comes in like a Lion.

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the nature of Colonialism, or how extractive industries work, or—and this is today’s attempt at a point—holding companies.

While I don’t have a degree in economics, I have taken my share of courses in economics, and I do read a fair amount about such matters, most recently “The Anarchy: The East India Company, CorporateViolence, and the Pillage of an Empire” by William Dalrymple, which was named a “best book of the year” by The Wall Street Journal, National Public Radio and Barack Obama.

I’ve also read “The Unwinding: An Inner History of the NewAmerica,” by George Packer. It won the 2013 National Book Award and was named a “notable book” by The New York Times, The Washington Post, The New Republic and National Public Radio.

Both those books and life at large reveals a pattern that connects, I believe, colonialism and what I’ll call economic imperialism, as it is practiced by the corporations like Walmart, Exxon Mobil or anyone of the major, or even minor, holding companies.

Basically, all these companies move into a territory with either money or resources. As the East India Company did on the subcontinent, Exxon Mobil and Walmart did throughout the world and the holding companies are doing across Madison Avenue.

To my mind, all these companies are “extractive” industries. They find wealth in one place and take it for themselves and move it to another place.

Having worked for three of the four major holding companies, I’ve yet to see any advantages from being part of one of those holding companies. In fact, appurtenances that we used to take for granted in ad agencies, decently designed work-spaces, raises and bonuses, and yes, well-curated agency libraries have all but disappeared.

I suppose if you’re a global client who needs advertising in 147 countries around the world, there is some benefit to hiring one agency that can essentially manage it all. And if you’re an independent agency owner being courted by a holding company, I guess there are benefits to you as well. You sell, essentially, your IP. And you retire well-off.

The promise of colonialism was almost always the same, whether it was made in India, French Indo-China, the Caribbean, or just about any other place in the world. In return for your riches and labor, you will receive the good-graces of “civilization,” and maybe a school or a railway or two.

Here’s a bit from Adam Hochschild’s great 1998 book on the rape of the Congo by King Leopold of Belgium as told in “King Leopold’s Ghost: A Story of Greed, Terror, and Heroism in Colonial Africa".

“Although the officials he is working with have been handling this shipping traffic for years without a second thought, Morel begins to notice things that unsettle him. At the docks of the big Belgian port of Antwerp he sees his company's ships arriving filled to the hatch-covers with immensely valuable cargoes of rubber and ivory. But when they cast off their hawsers to steam back to the Congo… what they carry is mostly army officers, firearms, and ammunition.

“There is no trade going on here. Nothing is being exchanged for the rubber and ivory. As Morel watches these riches streaming to Europe with no goods being sent to Africa to pay for them, he realizes with horror that there can be only one possible explanation for their source: slave labor on a vast scale.

Maybe I am too jaded by half. But I’ve worked at holding company agencies for 29 of my 36 years in the business. I’ve seen a lot of people kicked to the curb and a lot of brains sucked dry. I’ve seen very little material or resources come back.

Unless you count the annual email you get from the holding company chieftain (it’s always a man, and always a white man) warning you about Covid 19, or introducing nine new members of the c-suite who you’ll never meet or interact with or the twice annual note from the chief risk officer reminding you not to accept Christmas gifts and to wash your hands when you sneeze.

Like I said, maybe I’m jaded and burnt.

But I dare one of the holding company doyens to respond to this.


That would be human.

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