Jeff Goodby: Is Advertising Still Fun?

ADWEEK 25TH ANNIVERSARY

The business may have lost some magic, but we still get paid to test roller coasters.

When the Adweek editors called me to write about whether the business is any fun anymore, I must admit I thought I was the wrong guy to ask.

During the past few months, I’ve sat around wondering how to shoot a black hole swallowing the known universe for HP. I’ve had to decide whether I had time to go back over to Cannes to pick up our gold Lions. I’ve been to India “on business.” Meanwhile, Sam Mendes has been shooting dance numbers for us on eBay. Jamie Barrett is having cars seem to shop the world for their rightful owners. Harry Cocciolo is making cell phones human for the first time ever for AT&T Wireless. And I’ve been directing things for Budweiser that may end up on the Super Bowl.

If I said I wasn’t having fun, I think you’d all be entitled to come to San Francisco and give me the world’s biggest wedgie.

So I’ve decided the question isn’t whether I still think the business is fun but whether The Business Is Fun in a bigger sense. To determine this, I think you have to look at things through the eyes of someone, say, 30 years old, with the big cake of the rest of their business life still uncut in front of them.

For people like those at my agency (and they’re the ones I know well), things are not so bad. Not long ago, for instance, someone took the company errand car for a package pickup and disappeared for four days at Lake Tahoe. With the force of the company behind them, people who have never shot a commercial in their lives are selling whole TV campaigns. They are staying at Shutters, working in the searing clarity of Rich Silverstein’s judgment. And it’s still curiously hard to locate certain people, even at high noon (on a warm day with a felicitous surf report, forget it).

Not really all that painful, I don’t think.

As I write this, however, I compare it all with my own experiences in my early 30s. I must say, there are key differences.

First, at the age of 30, I don’t think I was staying at the very best hotels—but I did experience something better, something I believe is rare these days: I had a mentor. I was lucky enough to work for Hal Riney when he still had time to shepherd me and my writing. Sure, the process wasn’t always peachy—he flicked cigarette ashes in a book I was reading at an edit one day, when he didn’t think I was paying enough attention—but, in the end, he made me believe that, every second, I could and should be doing the best work in the world. It was something he knew when he saw it, and he would know it early enough to make sure you got it right.

I’m not sure there’s time for mentors in the business these days, and it’s a shame. Maybe it’s because there are so few bosses who know what they’re doing in the first place. Maybe consolidation means small companies get bought up before there’s a chance to produce a knowledgeable, dedicated mentor. Maybe it’s like professional sports (I always think everything is), where managers have to walk on eggshells because the young people don’t want to listen anymore.

Whatever it is, I think the relationship Silverstein and I have with younger people is more like that of a big brother than a mentor. (Although we have been widely described by our creative people as “the crazy uncle and dysfunctional dad.” But I think that’s, you know, inaccurate.) As big brothers, we are more chummy than authoritative. And if we teach, it’s more by example. There’s little time for anything else.

Beyond the lack of mentors, I think there’s another big difference in the business today that affects the prognosis for fun. It seems that something, for some reason, is discouraging entrepreneurialism.

Starting an agency changed my life; I’m not sure I’d even be in the business now if I hadn’t done it. A big part of the reason I did do it was because the world was so welcoming to such an idea at the time.

It certainly didn’t look like a great financial opportunity. Nobody had really started a successful national agency for quite a while in the early ’80s. In the year prior to our opening, I had signed a mortgage and had my first child. On our first project, Andy Berlin and I had to drive to Los Angeles, carrying the exposed film to the editor, because there was no money to fly down.

Yet for some reason, the business world seemed to be rooting for us. You could feel it. People wanted to rekindle the fun and energy of New York in the ’60s or Howard Gossage’s agency in San Francisco, and they were counting on us to pull it off. Around the same time, Fallon McElligott Rice and Wieden + Kennedy opened, to the same reception. Within five years, both our agency and Fallon had been Agency of the Year in big national trade magazines. We each, I think, had fewer than 100 employees.

That would never happen now. Whether it’s because we’ve all gotten more interested in swallowing up agencies than encouraging them, whether we’re more interested in the business profile of agencies than their actual creations, for some reason the world just doesn’t seem to care about a handful of people opening up in America’s No. 8 or No. 9 city. Even at the height of the dot-com era, when small agencies were opening in every empty flower box or shopping cart, they didn’t seem interesting. They just seemed … common. They existed.

That’s the world for a 30-year-old today. But looking more closely, I believe there are reasons for optimism.

The success of Crispin Porter + Bogusky and Mother during the past couple of years has attracted press attention like few other agencies in a long time. Their notoriety has come not just from having some good creative work—which they do—but from representing exciting new, and diverse, agency models.

Will they be fun? We’ll see. But I feel people are rooting for someone new again. As advertising watchers, we do these things as much for ourselves as for the targets of our fickle affection.

And, perhaps because there are more of us in New York than anywhere else, I seem to feel this optimism there in particular. I can’t put my finger on it, and I don’t know of any imminent skyrocket successes there, but I feel people desiring a new agency, or agencies, to rise there and be somebody.

Finally, I still feel a strong pull for fun from people outside advertising, which is good. These are often the people who, in contrast to their own business lives, see ours as a matter of getting paid for testing roller coasters. Despite TiVo and Replay and dwindling budgets and the splintering of media buys, my friends outside advertising still notice when something great or controversial or immensely stupid appears. They still talk to me as if advertising matters, as if it’s some kind of mojo that everyone buzzes about, a force than can magically supercede logic and business projections and rational obstacles.

And when they talk like that, for me, it’s suddenly 1962 again, and I’m George Lois or Mary Wells and we’re having so much fun, no one has any idea.

As long as that’s out there, there’s hope.