The ad business has been suffering through a decade of self-destruction and self-denial. There has been the accumulation of client debt, and the ensuing bastardization of the purpose of marketing from the creation of consumer demand to servicing of financial gimmickry.
And now there is the inevitable dismantling of bigness. Companies which had wreaked havoc upon themselves in the execution of accumulative theory are now deconstructing in massive, painful swoops, hoping to find some new order that can be constructed or construed from the ashes. And all that has been learned is that change for its own sake is bankrupt as a raison d'etre.
Through the turbulent decade, which began in 1983, the agency business was called upon to refocus its sacred mission. It was asked to use its manipulative might to make consumers dance to corporate self-interests. But for a variety of reasons, advertising discovered that despite its considerable magic, it would prove generally inadequate.
And therein lies the rub.
There has been an unrelenting frustration in the ad business for the past 10 years. Everything it knew how to do was now being used in ways for which it was never intended. Did advertising indeed not work anymore, or at least not as well? Was the future to be built on the automation of mailing lists and universal product codes?
The responses of the agency business have by and large been lame. There was the most telling fad of the sloganization of terms like integrated marketing. Now it would have been one thing if integrated marketing had been a response to the fundamental changes that had occurred in the underbelly of American culture. But it didn't mean that, because ad agencies and the clients they worked for didn't understand what was troubling America, let alone what would motivate it.
Once again it was finance rather than creativity and vision that was leading the charge. And it did not work.
There was one overwhelming reality that was afflicting the agency business, and its real problem, its real failure, was that it could not overcome it.
America has been, for the past five years, between cultural decades. The 1980s, which Madison Avenue was so adept at interpreting and influencing, ended as a cultural phenomenon the day Michael Milken went to jail. We, as a people, knew that something was over and we braced for its long, painful unraveling. And it is nearly impossible to create when there is so little going on, and so much going under.
Despite the best efforts of all those pundits who are paid far too handsomely to play Name That Decade, the '90s did not begin in 1990. Or in 1991 or 1992, for that matter. But the new cultural decade has now begun to come out of its cocoon, and in some metaphorical sense it has begun just as Michael Milken has been paroled from his excesses - and as President Clinton has come to represent the passing of the old guard.
Whether Clinton will be a good or bad president is, for now, irrelevant. What matters is the unleashing of the fundamental prospects for cultural change and rejuvenation. We still don't know from where the poets of the '90s will come, but we can tell that America is holding a place at its cultural table, anticipating their arrival.
And that is the stuff which will rekindle creativity in advertising. And from that, advertising will again be driven by creative instinct instead of financial pressure, and it will cease having to defend or even explain itself.
There are signs we can watch for. The first may be how quickly advertisements abandon the use of the word 'you' in their preachy, desperately-seeking-influence way.
In the middle of a cultural interregnum, we were told, 'You don't want revolving credit. You want to know what to drive.'
And all the while, you didn't know what you wanted; you just wanted the pain to stop.
We can also expect a media revolution that will make the past 10 years seem like a blip on the screen. We will go from 50 channels to 500. There will be a passing of the guard in who controls media choices from the purveyors to the public. And there will be a tenfold increase in the opportunities for consumers to avoid traditional avenues for commercial messages.
Moving into the next cultural decade will not come at the direction or insistence of clients or financiers. It will come from the rejuvenation of creatives trusting their instincts, unleashing their passions, and answering only to those phenomena that defy logical articulation.
The first to forsake the immediate past will be the first to connect with the unfolding future.
Copyright Adweek L.P. (1993)