Priority One

It should have been the perfect trip back from the West Coast. A fresh New York Times, People magazine’s worst-dressed issue, no urgent business to tend to, a seat in business class.

Opening the Times, I was drawn to a beautiful memoir by Jamaica Kincaid about her awakening to modern literature, her early jobs, her feelings about her craft. It was lovely and moving; and I was furious.

All I could think about was the speech I had just witnessed at an advertising conference for agency creatives.

The speech, by one of our industry’s young talents, was a lecture on how to win awards. Sadly, it seemed to reflect “the high bar” more and more talented advertising people are aiming for.

Would creators of any other art form (I join Bill Bernbach in thinking of advertising as the art of moving people) consider such a goal valid? Would any other self-respecting artist announce that recognition from his peers was first and foremost in his mind? Imagine Maya Lin, the architect behind the stunning Vietnam Veterans Memorial, giving a speech on how to design a memorial that garners an award. Or maybe Philip Roth talking about how to write a book that nabs the Pulitzer Prize.

Even those convinced that advertising is more business than art would be hard-pressed to find business leaders who consider kudos from their own industry something to shoot for. Would Jeff Bezos? Steve Jobs? Would Ben & Jerry’s goal be to win an ice-cream award?

My guess is they would consider such a goal shallow, misguided, sickeningly insipid.

It makes me ask: Do we have so little respect for our own business that slaps on the back from others in our profession are the best we can have?

I disagree: It is not the best we can hope for.

Great advertising can create an aura around a product that remains forever. It can reflect the current culture, change popular culture. It can move people. Inspire them. Challenge them. Amuse them. It can make people be better people. But that won’t happen if the creator’s mind is focused on dazzling award-show judges rather than having a one-on-one conversation with their client’s consumer.

Just think of the subjects our young speechwriter could have chosen: How to think more inventively; where to look for inspiration; how to create socially responsible advertising; how to make someone laugh; how to turn a brand upside down.

Awards are recognition from our peers, and recognition from one’s peers is rewarding—my own awards are proudly displayed in my office. But an award should never be an end in itself.

Advertising, whether you view it as art or commerce, can aim higher. Then hopefully, like Jamaica Kincaid, we can have true pride in our craft.