Wednesday, April 29, 2020

20/20 vision versus 2020.

I noticed something back around 1999. That was around the time the internet took off and traditional ad agencies began building or acquiring digital agencies. It wasn’t unusual at the time, given the growth of these agencies to meet a young creative who had about three or five years experience and about 20 awards from Cannes.

It wasn’t unusual to hear about someone who was making $80K in June to be making $120K in December who went out one lunch hour in March and got himself a job for $160K. (Often, I had to work with these savants. Given their ascents, I expected some sort of brilliance from them. More often than not, I found them lacking.)

It also wasn’t unusual to see an executive back in those days whose agency had grown 371% over two years. Such people, it was assumed, were brilliant. And they quickly moved up in various holding company hierarchies.

That agency economy—fueled by the rapid growth of the internet and social media—gave rise to a raft of industry optimists.

To be more than a smidge nasty about it, when they doubled their salaries, or won 62 major awards for a static banner or grew their agency YOY 182%, they were able to ratiocinate that they did so because they were brilliant. They never, really, considered that they were in the right place at the right time. As former Secretary of Agriculture Jim Hightower said about the first president George Bush, “he was born on third base and thinks he hit a triple.”

It’s the sort of thinking that allows people like Donald Trump, who’s never earned an honest penny in his life and is a six-time bankrupt, to take credit for what had been a strong economy—without of course due consideration of the fiscal sump he’ll pass off to the next president and future generations.

What’s happened, to my mind, what’s afflicted our world is an insane amphetemine optimism. Where institutionally we all join hands and agree that these are the best of all possible worlds and we have so much to be optimistic about.

We  believe in the sanctity of our nation, the resilience of the earth (dolphins in Venetian canals) and the human or meteorlogical ability to miracleize a pandemic away because tattoo parlors in Macon, Georgia and Applebee’s restaurants in Lawrence, Kansas, or baseball season needs to start lest someone actually reads a book instead.

So, collectively, as a nation, we assert, it will all be all right, because gosh durnit, we’re upbeat, we’re positive and we’re gonna make it happen.


I’ve been a lugubrious sort for even longer than I’ve known what the word means. And I’ve been disparaged for it.

“George is really good, but he’s so negative.”

Or from a more macro point of view, “We’re really looking for optimists here. They inspire people.”

In Sunday’s Times there was an article that caught my downcast eyes. It was called “In Praise of Pessimism,” by Jennifer Senior and you can read it here. 

Senior makes “a positive case for pessimism.” She calls it, “Defensive pessimism.” specifically. If things start going downhill, Senior says “defensive pessimists will be the ones with their feet already on the brakes.”

Senior defines defensive pessimists as “people who lean way into their anxiety, rather than repress it or narcotize it…They busily imagine worst-case outcomes and plan accordingly…They reject what the theoretical psychologist Barbara Held calls ‘the tyranny of the positive attitude.’”

To my eyes, the tyranny of the positive attitude is the malady that afflicts our nation and our industry. The tyranny of the positive attitude is the unwavering belief in the rightness of our nation even in its wrongness. And it’s the invariable belief in the rightness of the decisions an agency makes over-time, even as it hemorrhages business, has a 40% attrition rate, jettisons everything that makes it unique and fails to attract new clients.

But, we’re all in this together, we’re working so hard, we’ve had such success before, we’re gonna make this happen!

Julie Norman, a professor of psychology at Wellesley College, told Senior….defensive pessimism “keeps your mind anchored and focuses you on things you can control.” Defensive pessimism is productive, according to Senior and “depressives tend to be the true realists, not happy people. They have extra receptors for bad signals—or are more apt to pay attention to them, at any rate.”

Optimists, as we’ve seen in our nation and our business, can and do “tip swiftly and dangerously into self-delusion.”

That’s what happened. We prize optimism. We disparage pessimists. And we find ourselves neck-deep in self-delusion.

Smile! It’ll be ok. We’re in this together.

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(modern agencies)
(accurate observers)

Digital will change everything. It will be easy to reach consumers and target them precisely.

Essential human truths remain constant. Reaching people effectively will always be hard.
A good idea can come from anywhere. No need for expensive and cantankerous creative people.
Experience, while expensive, is crucial. “You get what you pay” for still holds.

Targeting will allow us to talk to the right person at the right time with the right message.
Data is a crap shoot just as prospecting for gold is. Sometimes you hit. Most times you wind up with dross.

If you follow best-practices you can’t help but succeed.
To get someone’s attention, to communicate an idea and to persuade them can’t be reduced to a replicable formula.

The clients have more MBAs than we do. So we’ll sell our unique trademarked process that all but guarantees successs—usually based on a case study of 12 people in Malaysia in 1977.
Agencies have one or three things clients lack. They are outsiders so can look objectively. They are paid to be incendiary. And they know how to get attention.

Now that everybody has a camera and editing skills, users can generate content.
You could give everyone a test-tube. Users still won’t generate a Corona-vaccine.

People want to have conversations with brands.
98.7% of people don’t even want conversations with their spouses.

People will willingly interact with brands.

If given the option, 98.7% of all people would say ‘I’m too busy to breathe.’

Since content is always on, it can be produced quickly and shoddily.
Cheap and shoddy content makes your brand look cheap and shoddy.

The new generation has no attention span. We can reach them with work that demands no attention.

People will read what interests them. Our job is hard—it’s to make something interesting.
People don’t read. We can reach them and persuade them with work that demands nothing of them.

People will read what interests them. Our job is hard—it’s to engage people so they think.
Planners give us insights. Their job is to find them.

Life gives us insights. It’s hard to uncover those.
The prestige of working in advertising and at an agency allows us to attract bright people and pay them peanuts.

Bright people want rewards—like everyone else. It’s tough to keep them happy, but crucial.
Winning awards is key. Since we can’t do it via paid work (no one can) we’ll spend 30%-40% of our time doing bogus creative with no material effect on the success of clients.
The work that matters is hard. It’s for real clients and it improves their brand’s health and sales in the one-place that matters: the real world.
We can stay relevant by investing in new technologies.

We become relevant when we speak to people as humans and impart to them information they need in a moving way.
If we show happy people viewers will like our ads. Everyone in every commercial must smile all the time.

Not everyone is happy all the time. Sad people buy things too.

Open plan offices are conducive to communication and collaboration.
Open plan offices mean you’re interrupted in the middle of nearly every sentence you type.

America’s biggest problem is running out of beer and not looking cool.

People have real issues. And could use help, not
cheap gags and platitudes.

We’re so smart, advertising can be reduced to an if-then proposition. If we do this, then that will happen.

No one knows anything.

Brands are your friend. Let’s conversate.
Brands want your money.

We can make the world a better place.
You sell plastic wrap.

A strong call to action will drive sales.
If the offering and offer sucks, a call to action is meaningless.
We’re all in this together.
Brands don’t care. They want our money.

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