Tuesday, January 16, 2024


We used to be about making good ads that sold our clients' wares.

We used to be about simple, timeless human truths. Appealing to those truths. That was Bernbach. 

Many of us listened. We revered him. And the work his agency did.

Not everyone was so human, so invested in the quality of the work and the importance of creative thinking. But there were dozens and dozens of agencies. And if you worked hard-enough, you could get to one that gave a shit.

Then, a couple of decades ago, things seemed to change. Dramatically. And not for the better.

We decided that different mediums needed different skills. And some media were hot. And some were dead, or dying. In a rejection of a seminal Einsteinian-notion, we rejected the idea that there was a unified field theory. That humanity was built around core principles and physics.

Nah. They told us. New generations were radically different from old generations. People consumed differently. Lived differently. Thought differently. There was no longer a common core. Atomization had won out. And we leaned in. Which was new.

I remember a planner at R/GA saying people want to lean in. I said to her, "Andrea, I'm older than you. And I'm tired when I get home. I've had a long day of running about putting out fires. The last thing I want to do is lean in. I'd like to be leaning back on a chaise in Turks and Caicos."

Eye rolls.

As an industry, no longer were truth-finding, empathy and craft important. Marketing was about technology and interaction design. It was about finding new ways to reach fundamentally new human behavior. It was about science. If we put a learn more button in the right place, magically people would want to learn more. If we put a golden sparkle on that learn more button--we'd be internet trillionaires.

It was that simple.

Why bother understanding humans. Why bother with Alexander Pope or Isaiah Berlin? The proper study of mankind ain't man. It's skate culture! It's drinking PBR in Williamsburg. It's Foursquare!

So instead of hiring the best people we could find, we began seeking the best of a certain sort. We didn't need the best anymore. We needed a type. The right type.

The right type that knew the secrets of reaching the right people.

The right type was more important than the best type.

The casting had to be good. Exemplary. The trade-press would eat it up. And it would say to the industry that that particular agency was hiring the right type of people. So it must be the right type of agency. It must be cool. Clients asked for it too. I don't want old white men on my business anymore. I heard it. I saw it. I had it said to me.

The industry complied.

Soon it wasn't about hiring people who were good at making ads. Soon it wasn't about hiring people who were good at reaching people. Good at being real. At thinking. At understand the pains, the loves, the desires of others.

Who needs 'em?

We don't need those people.

We've got the right types.

They understand today.
They understand the need to be agile.
And stand-up scrums.
They're good at white-boarding.
They're digital first--no matter what the marketing problem, it can be solved by one orthodox way of thinking.

The ability to make ads was no longer what was needed to make ads. You had to be something you weren't. You had to be the right type.

If you were old, or a dozen other adjectives, you were eleven ways to Sunday shit out of luck.

You weren't. 

You couldn't be.

No way.

I had a friend who put it this way, "I never learned the lingo."

Fractals is a weird concept. They're shapes that start out complicated and the closer you get to them, the less you know about them, the more complex you get.

A map of a seacoast is like that. If you look at the Great Lakes for instance, they look like five inter-locking sausages. Up close, the nice straight lines and parabolic arc disappear. 

In "Life Between the Tides," Adam Nicolson explains succinctly: "Fractal theory suggests that the closer you look at something, the more it remains unknown." Somehow we got so close to advertising and marketing, so MBA-i-zated, so professionalized that we forgot advertising is about humans. Emotions. Worries. Wants. 

Technology today makes the same mistake. We think with super-powerful computing machines we can equationize human-behavior. We're ignoring fractals. That humans are more more variegated than they can be interpreted by binary code. We try and try. But long-haired men like me still get baldness cures. 

Today we get so deep inside advertising that truth and humanity became unknowns. We spent more time was shaping culture, harnessing influencers, cool-spotting. And writing fake case-studies. I've never seen 92.7% of the breakthrough ads everyone in advertising talks about. Except in the trade press. On TV I see ads for diseases I don't have, Medicare Part C and $49 triple play bundles from telcos so domineering and evil to provide the services they over-charge you for.

As an aside, I'd wager the word Zeitgeist has been said more in the last five years than it was in the previous 5000. Zeitgeist became more important than timeless.

People no longer need to know what made one $70,000 car different and better than another, they just had to know that the cool car was built for "all their yous." "Doctor, what's wrong with me? I'm 66 years old and have only one you."

Years and years ago I was very close to a client. They ran two ads a week, almost every week of the year and I wrote most of them. So I was down at their offices selling work almost every week of the year. I was good at it.

They liked me. I liked them.

Once I presented some ads that made them nervous. I don't know why. They just did.

I remember their feedback like it came yesterday. Even though it probably came 35 years ago.

"George," my client said with client-gravity, "that's great advertising. But that's not what we asked for."

I think that somehow is what's happened to our industry.

It's no longer interested in doing great advertising.

It's looking for the right type. 

Ticking the right boxes.

Filling in the right forms.

Following the right au courants shot by the right director imitating the work of an even righter director.

We're no longer interested in doing something great. We'd rather do something purportedly cool. 

I don't need a cool washer-dryer. 

I don't need a cool frozen pizza.

I don't need a cool nacho chip.

Give me a nacho chip, it's up to me to supply the cool. 

I dunno. 

I'm just glad I'm off the bus.

Or run over by it.

Whichever hurts more.

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