Art & Commerce: The Age of Blandness

Michael Deaver, who passed away last month, was my hero. Deaver was a member of the famous “holy trinity”—along with Jim Baker and Ed Meese—who ruled the Reagan White House. While Baker, the chief of staff, and Meese, counselor to the president, ran the country, Deaver ran Reagan. His job was to handle Reagan’s image. Maybe because he came from Hollywood, Reagan understood the value of a good director. And because he was a pitchman for GE in his waning days as an actor, he understood the value of image.

While liberals sneered at Reagan as a lightweight, Deaver endeared him to the rest of America by casting him as a wood-chopping, horse-riding, plain-speaking folksy cowboy—a latter day conservative Will Rogers.

Does image matter anymore in the advertising business? When clients are looking for a new agency, what’s really behind their search? We’re all familiar with the standard RFP criteria: geography, relevant experience and size often matter. What’s never explicitly laid out in plain English is that subconsciously or not, clients want to hire an agency that’s cool.

Though it’s sometimes hard to remember as you’re lugging presentation materials deep into New Jersey or finding yourself at 10 p.m. eating suspect sushi leftover from the previous day’s late night, we work in a glamorous business. For many clients, advertising is show biz and working with their agencies is the most fun part of their job. So even the dullest agencies are cool to some degree, at least compared with the clients’ accountants and legal teams.

But those aren’t the agencies I’m talking about. I’m talking about the ones that we in the ad industry think are cool. Those are the agencies that clients lust after, because while it’s debatable whether or not advertising is indeed show biz, it’s irrefutable that the advertising world is like high school. The cool kids rule.

Maybe it’s an unexpected consequence of global warming, but the temperature of the agency business feels a bit tepid; there’s just no new cool kid on the block.

There is a little bit of which-came-first-the-chicken-or-the-egg logic going on here: Having cool clients definitely helps. If Apple ever leaves Chiat\Day, the agency they go to will become a cool agency—though they probably were already.

So how did they get that way?

If they’re like cool agencies of the past, they have an elevated idea of themselves. They’re selective in the accounts they go after, realizing that desperation is not an attractive trait and scarcity breeds desire. They look at advertising not as discrete ads and commercials, but as part of the cultural landscape. They don’t measure themselves against other agencies; their competition is any form of entertainment or communication content that captivates people’s attention. And their physical space is designed and styled so that it can never be mistaken for a law office.

They probably also have a charismatic person in charge. Many of the cool agencies in the past were headed by fearless, provocative iconoclasts willing to live with the consequences of their choices. The thing is, the consequences are that the best clients and talent flock to them.

There are no rebels in our industry right now. Granted, being provocative is not as easy as it once was. Utterances that would have gotten you fired, kicked out of the industry, jailed or all three can now be heard on All-Lindsay-Britney-Paris-All-the-Time TV, so on the one hand the outrageousness threshold has been raised. But on the other hand, increased sensitivity on all sorts of fronts has redefined what’s acceptable even among the rebels. Jerry Della Femina, whose provocative behavior has been limited to goings-on in eastern Long Island of late, was considered outrageous in his day, largely because he was. Naming a book about advertising—From Those Wonderful Folks Who Gave You Pearl Harbor—after a proposed line for a Japanese electronics company was outrageous when it was published in 1971, but today’s sensitivities would render it scandalous and not publishable, at least not under that title. Society has both raised and lowered its standards and maybe that’s why no one’s trying anymore—it’s just too much work.

This any-color-as-long-as-it’s-black blandness makes us less interesting and less valued to our clients. Maybe agencies fear creating a distinct image for themselves because they’re afraid they won’t be taken seriously. This is shortsighted and bad business. Image instead of substance is bad—image that complements substance is bulletproof.

That being the case, this is a call for more exposure. Not intentional politically incorrect posturing that relies on mere shock value, but ostentatiously brilliant self-promotion backed up by brilliance and audacity that knocks your socks off and makes an agency interesting. Carl Ally. Ed McCabe. Jay Chiat. Jerry Della Femina. Mary Wells. Donny Deutsch. Just to name a few who got it.

Big shoes to fill. Anyone ready to step up to the challenge?