State of Your State: Michigan’s – Good People. Lousy System. Worse Environment.

By Matt Van Hoven 

Joe Hass is a Solutions Architect at Hanson in Maumee, Ohio. Previously, he worked as an Experience Planner and a New Business Graphic Designer for Campbell-Ewald. He was one of the first to be laid off from the Warren, Mich. based agency, which has seen more than its fair share of woes, including lost accounts and botched lay off procedures that have acted as a “what not to do” for other agencies. Here, Hass gives his take on the (sad) state of Michigan’s ad industry. Take it away, Joe.

Before I even broach the topic of what the advertising industry looks like in the Detroit area, you have to understand the psyche of the Detroit area itself as of this writing.

I’m 35. I’ve lived in the Detroit area for all but six years of my life, and the majority of that took place when I was a kid. Both my parents grew up in the area: my dad in Hamtramck (St. Florian, if you’re keeping track) and my mom in St. Clair Shores. Interestingly, no one on either side of my family ever worked in the auto business in any way until I went to work for a training firm in 2000 before going to Campbell-Ewald in 2005.

This is the most depressing atmosphere I have ever lived in. The region just went through a three week period at the end of 2008 in which we looked at nuclear winter: where we wondered if we’d find out one day that the game was over. There’s still a sense that it hangs us like a sword, dangling above. Every single person who had a job in this area wondered if this was it, regardless of whether they worked for an auto company, a supplier, or anything else. Never mind would they have it in a year, a quarter, a month, a week: would they have it tomorrow?

Now, before you think we’re throwing a pity party, let me also add that this region has done an absolutely magnificent job of putting itself in this position over the past 40-odd years. Lousy race relations, complete denial of what’s going on beyond the bubble, groupthink, a skyline of abandoned buildings, a union-at-all-cost mentality from the working class and a screw-the-blue-collar mentality from the suits. We were the ones who actually had a union rep in the mid-90s declare he’d rather see the DIA shut down than be sold to the Founders Society (the primarily-suburban volunteer organization that was offering to run it). You don’t get to be in this position just by dumb luck. It take effort to blindly ignore more signs than “Duck! Rabbit! Duck!” that the world has changed. And boy howdy, have we done that!

In 1950, Detroit was the fourth biggest media market in the U.S. In 2007, it’s 11th, and in the immortal words of Elaine Dickinson, “It’s dropping! It’s dropping fast!”

And sitting in the middle of all this are a group of agencies that are tied to the very industry that’s drowning around them. When you see the Ad Age News Alerts come across the e-mail, it’s rare to see an agency with a Michigan byline come in with a win. Some of that’s the regrettable mentality of people who’ve been around here longer than they should, with theories and staffing models that seem better aligned to 1979 than 2009. A lot of it has to do with the “Detroit Agency=Auto Business. Auto Business=EPIC FAIL. Therefore, according to the transitive property, Detroit Agency=EPIC FAIL.” mentality that permeates corporations.

I proffer for you Campbell-Ewald. In the interest of fairness, I will disclose that Campbell-Ewald and I did have a relationship until, oh, about six months ago, when, to borrow the opening from “The Odd Couple” Joe Hass was asked to remove himself from his place of business. That request came from his employer.” I was not, as you may have heard, the only one. It’s not a good year when three of the top ten stories on this website in 2008 deal with your agency, and they all have to deal with the same general topic.

Now, that being on the table, Campbell-Ewald still has business that isn’t Chevrolet. (Even if you don’t believe me on this, play along). One of them is U.S. Navy. There’s a product that’s always a positive:
the military! And not just the military, but the military during two unpopular wars! With a commander-in-chief who, to put it in a professional manner, seemed more interested in using your equipment to stage play.

And yet…remember this?

That’s Navy. Playing in the sandbox. Doing something cool and different and generally not what you’d think of. It’s promoting navyformoms.com, a community site for moms of people in the Navy.
*This* is cool. This is stuff that’s jumping out at you. They’re trying, dammit, in spite of it all, and doing work that you can talk about!

We’ve got creatives! We’ve got writers! We’ve got designers! We’ve got everyone! I dream sometimes of calling certain people and just going all Joliet Jake and saying “We’re putting the band back together” even though there was no band, but I can picture in my mind what could be!

The problem, of course, is getting beyond the fact that, when you look at the list of Finalists over at thedshow.org, the Detroit advertising creative awards (and a helpful hint to whomever designed that website: an all-Flash *screams* 2001), most of them are automotive. And the sense that still permeates the Detroit advertising scene: the worst person doing automotive is better than the best person doing anything else.

There are great people doing great things buried in Detroit. I’m friends with them. I love them. But they’ve started to scatter: some off to Seattle, some to Chicago, some to Toledo, as they wonder why this place seems hellbent on chasing them off.

I love this place. It pains me so to see it like it this.

More: “The State of The Square State: Denver

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