Caught In The Act

The consumer is in control. If advertising still had its head in the sand about that, two stories from the past few weeks should cause the industry to wake up, smell the coffee and start brewing it to order.

I’m talking about a) the Neil French contretemps (it’s hard for me to talk about l’affaire French without using French words), and b) the revelation that a ballyhooed spot by TBWA\Chiat\Day for Apple starring Eminem bore stunning similarities to a Lugz footwear commercial from 2002. The firestorms descended on the very heart of the industry—a top executive at WPP and a top creative shop within Omnicom. And if the way they developed doesn’t telegraph to the industry just how much media has changed, it’s hard to know what will.

Neither story would have taken on the life it did without the technology-enabled power that consumers now have to talk back. News of French’s indiscretions reached the ad world at large only after Nancy Vonk, co-creative director at Ogilvy & Mather Toronto, posted her thoughts directly on the Web site of the event’s organizer, And the controversy over the Lugz and Apple spots gathered steam only when Adweek’s blog, acting on a tip from a reader, linked to the spots and posted frames from each.

I could use the b-word here—blogs. But that’s only part of it. What we’re really talking about is a sea change in communication, in which individuals can harness the power of self-publishing to sow seeds of controversy—or praise, for that matter—quickly and effortlessly to an ever-expanding audience.

For a moment, let’s talk (some more) about Neil French. As someone who has covered the Internet for more than a decade, and who now edits a blog, I believe that French committed the crime of “not getting it” on more than one level. The first crime, of course, was to publicly make such inflammatory remarks about women in advertising. The second was his inability to grasp the workings of modern media. That’s equally egregious, considering French is in the communications business.

Clearly, he believed himself to be an entertainer, just as those who create big-budget ad campaigns are; he told that “the audience had paid to be entertained, not lectured to.” But he missed something: No public communication, even one intended as frivolous entertainment, is a one-way monologue any more. Whether you say something on a stage in Toronto or during a Webcast in Silicon Valley (like the one earlier this month in which Steve Jobs gushed over Apple’s Eminem spot), people will hear it, transcribe it, distribute it, interpret it and, yes, perhaps misinterpret it. This is not “trial by blog” or “death by blog,” as French called it. This is the way media works now—and from here on in.

In some ways, the trajectory of the Apple/ Lugz story was even more dramatic. It began at 4:01 a.m. on a random Saturday morning, when someone posted a tip to under the name David Stone; the story ended up splashed across the pages of the major media, including the ad column in The New York Times. And any agency that’s chuckling at TBWA\C\D and Apple’s misfortune might do well to remember: Next time it could easily be you.

Maybe the folks at TBWA\C\D agree with Neil French that so-called “trial by blog” is a sad innovation. But maybe it’s a useful one. Isn’t WPP better off knowing what one of its top executives really thinks about women in advertising? Isn’t it a good thing to reignite discussion about the lack of top women creatives? Won’t Apple and TBWA\C\D’s experience perhaps spur the next creative team to reach a little higher?

That seems to be worth a few bad headlines along the way.