The Beginning of the End

Riddle me this. Riddle me that. Which came first: the recent writers’ strike or the explosion and proliferation of reality TV (and with it gems like Howie Do It and Momma’s Boys)? It’s a chicken-and-egg conundrum, in which you’d be forgiven for mixing up the cause and symptom of a long-term problem.

NBC’s decision to phase out scripted comedy and drama in one of prime-time’s sacrosanct three hours signified a historical milestone. But this was a blemish, not a gold star-and a sign of things to come. Maybe a reverse tipping point?

The downward spiral continued with this year’s Super Bowl. The shark has jumped.

There were rumors about unsold inventory coupled with a controversial attempt by a Los Angeles-based agency to sandwich eight advertisers into a 30-second spot.  And then there was 12-year veteran (or perhaps just masochist) FedEx pulling out of this year’s Big Game. And while CBS’ CEO, Les Moonves, postures for rising upfront prices, deep down we all know that the new trend is very much down and not up.

But this column is not designed to pile on any more speculation about the beleaguered 30-second spot (at least, not directly). Instead, I’d like to cast the spotlight on another starring role in the media pantomime, the “traditional” ad agency, and ask a related question: Have we arrived at a similar Rubicon moment?

I refer less to the same influencing factors surrounding TV, radio and print, and more to the recent hemorrhaging of talent, manifested in wave after wave of layoffs. To get a sense of the “bloodbath,” monitor former Brandweek managing editor Jim Edwards’ layoff ticker.

I guess on one level, we’ve seen this before: Remember 2001-02’s dot-bomb-inspired discharge? One might argue that the “fat” was culled from the beast, but it did have long-lasting repercussions. Much digital talent, for example, was lost. I think it’s safe to say that creative and media agencies aren’t exactly known today for their digital leadership.

If one takes the glass half-full path, one could argue that today’s purge is cathartic, designed to rid the agency world of its surplus. But it’s not only the dregs of humanity being let go. Look around you (or even in the mirror).

Many of the best and brightest are being cast aside. We’re seeing a lot of the fringe (social media evangelists and emerging ones) eliminated as well.

And why? Status quo prevails. That which is part of the agency’s bread and butter trumps the experimental delicacies.

“Bodies,” as they are so affectionately referred to, are really just math-based equations, inextricably attached to revenue. And when emotion is involved, it’s the wrong kind: political alliances and affiliations that preserve incumbency and defeat insurgency.

If I’m being cutting here, I apologize. It kills me to see so many friends and colleagues out of work, and angers me to see so many fat cats holding onto undeserving paychecks.

Whether you’re sad, mad or glad, I guess the real point of this piece is to go back to the original question: Is this the beginning of the end for the ad business? Will it recover? Will this follow the same cyclical “blip” (OK, earthquake) being experienced by the global economy? Or is it, in fact, a perfect storm?

Think about it. What’s going to happen to that agency fee with double-digit percentage points being drained from the talent frame? At a time when clients demand more from less, where transparency and accountability are not optional add-ons, where clients discover they’re capable of emulating the same benefits of advertising by investing in commitment-based programs that “go direct” to their customers, instead of being held hostage by middlemen, something’s gotta give.

And then there’s the exodus hangover. Do you really think all this talent will giddily flock back to cubicle city with open arms and an all-is-forgiven attitude? Where do you think the explosion of millennials is going to hang its hats (if it even wears hats anymore) and call home-an ad or media agency, or a new breed or brand of service provider?

I’m not rubbing my hands together with glib joy and self-congratulatory pride.

I’m just asking the hard questions. Perhaps you have the answers and, if so, I’d welcome them as well.

Perhaps this does signify the closing of an old chapter and the opening of a new one (one door shuts…). Perhaps this will inspire the agency world to innovate, change, adapt and evolve. Perhaps we will see new compensation schemes-risk/reward or performance-based sharing partnerships. Perhaps the Phoenix will rise from the ashes.

In marketing they called it the just noticeable difference, the combination or culmination of a series of smaller events that, over time, presents a watershed moment. For fatties, it’s the day your pants split or the chair breaks. For network television, it could have been the writers’ strike. For advertising, it’s arguably the embarrassment of layoffs.

Now what?

Joseph Jaffe is president and chief interruptor at Crayon.