‘Adland’ Author on the Horrors of Advertising

Though he describes himself as having a “workmanlike” creative career, James P. Othmer can at least boast of having collected a lot of terrific stories in his years at Young & Rubicam and N.W. Ayer & Son, among other ad agencies. There’s the time he worked for a company that made cat food designed to shrink the animal’s turds, the time an account exec referred to Col. Sanders as “Captain” in front of 100 franchisees and, on a serious note, a trip to Normandy to film an ad for AT&T celebrating veterans who had stormed the beach during World War II.

Othmer recounts those tales in Adland: Searching for the Meaning of Life on a Branded Planet (Doubleday $26.95), though he also gives a pretty good overview of how advertising has evolved from the Mad Men-esque days when the 30-second TV spot ruled to today, when small shops with weird names like The Barbarian Group and Droga5 shun the word “advertising.” Othmer, whose first novel, The Futurist, might be made into a movie in 2010, spoke with Brandweek editor Todd Wasserman about his book and the state of advertising today.

Brandweek: In the beginning of your book you talk about a lot of ethical dilemmas that people at ad agencies face, but you don’t seem to pick up that theme later in the book. I was wondering why you did that.

James P. Othmer: When I was asked a lot of questions later on when I was doing press for The Futurist, people would ask me what horrible things had you done while you were in advertising. It made me think about it and it made me think of some of the brands I worked on…It was actually in the middle of the book at one point, but we decided thematically it seemed to work best in the beginning. I thought that the subsequent chapters while not directly answering those questions seemed to revolve around them to a certain extent.

It seemed to me that there were instances, like working on the cat food that it was less a case of “I can’t abide doing this” than “I don’t believe I’m doing this.” Were there instances where you worked on something where you felt compromised, ethically?

There were instances early in my career. I left Grey Entertainment and — a lot of people had left there and went to Mezzina/Brown — and that was all cigarettes and I was asked to go there. I had a job, but I was being offered quite a bit more to go there. I wasn’t up for that task. What also factors in is that I thought there was creative suicide going on if you went to something that specific. I was asked to go into a meeting with a four-star general who was the highest-ranking officer in the Army at that time in, I’d like to say early 2002. It was when the Army business was up for review. And Y&R brought in this guy to give us the lowdown on what some of the hot issues were to talk about in the Army pitch. And I met with him on the same day I met with Carrot Top. They had a meet and greet with Carrot Top [who was starring in ads for AT&T’s Call AT&T dial-around service at the time], which was also scary. But it was really interesting, the guy was straightforward and I determined that I would work on the Army pitch. I had an art director friend who refused to work on it and at the time I guess Y&R was doing well enough that they allowed people to bow out of things like that. But I made it clear that there was only a certain kind of advertising that I would do. I remember when I was 17 and my brother was 16 and we’d see the Marine Corps ads and I saw my brother get motivated enough to join the Marine Corps. A lot of that had to do with the image that was projected in the advertising and I wasn’t sure that a TV ad should be the thing to twist someone’s arm on the eve of an unpopular war.

Speaking of reviews, you talk about Y&R defending an account in 2000 for a bank, but you don’t name the client when it’s obviously Citibank. Why?

A creative director I used to work with wrote to me after the book and asked, “I’m just curious, but what is the algorithm for which names you name and which accounts you didn’t name.” I guess it’s pretty obvious, you could put the pieces together. I’m not sure. There were people at Y&R who I didn’t name because they didn’t come across that well. But I reread the piece and the client didn’t come across that bad.

Another one where you did name names was at KFC, where a Y&R exec called the Colonel “The Captain.” Are all clients that touchy?

No. I thought they were a rare case because in that instance, the CMO had the added burden of dealing with franchisees, so they were careful about how the agency people spoke in front of the people who I guess paid their salary. That was a really touchy situation. But why did I name KFC and not Citibank? I don’t know, though the KFC thing was probably the most unhappy experience in my professional life.

The tone seems to be that working at an ad agency was much more fun 15 years ago or so. Was it?

I don’t think so. It depends on the agency and it depends on the people. My golden era was at N.W. Ayer and I realize a lot of it had to do with the fact that I was 28 years old. We were going out all the time after work. We were winning business. I made friends there and I didn’t have kids yet. I remember I was at Y&R when I was in my mid-30s or upper 30s and had kids and I was like, “Wow, it just doesn’t seem like it’s that fun anymore” and someone said, “They’re just younger than you and they don’t have families and they’re not getting on a train at night.” And when I went to a lot of the so-called idea factories, I saw a passion for the work at Fahrenheit and The Barbarian Group. Even when I visited Goodby, which isn’t a small shop, I sensed a completely different vibe [than at Y&R]. Leo didn’t seen that different from Y&R, which didn’t seem that different from Ogilvy in a lot of ways, but I think some of the smaller, more vibrant places where people were embracing the chaos of the Internet, it seemed like they were embracing a lot of what advertising is all about.

But I get the impression from your book that you think a lot of those digital agencies are bullshitters who claim to have the Internet all figured out, but don’t really.

I think there are a few that do get it, just like there were a few good ones back in my day. And there are plenty that position themselves as the future of advertising or not-advertising and it remains to be seen whether they can monetize themselves in three, five or 10 years and continually turn out winning creative and brand messages. Because I love Droga, but I left there wondering how they were doing [financially].