Art & Commerce: Strange Bedfellows

History shows us that recessionary times make for strange business bedfellows. Add to that the current dearth of excitement in the advertising business, and that’s the only reason I can think of for the appointment of Crispin Porter + Bogusky, Burger King’s lead agency, as the new agency for Domino’s.

Sorry, but at face value, I’m not buying the explanation from the Domino’s spokesperson that “We don’t see any conflict, as the two brands don’t compete in the same industry. When we focus on our competition, we see those who sell pizza.” Hello? Can you say fast food? Quick-service restaurant? Those are still recognizable terms within the business community, no? Last I checked, you had to clear doughnuts as a potential conflict with pizza.

I’m sure the current economic climate is making the pressure in the C-suite palpable. In a recent Wall Street Journal survey, 55 economists projected the likelihood of a recession occurring in the next 12 months at 36 percent, up from 28 percent a month earlier. The C’s have got to be asking, “Do we have the best people on our team?”

And to that end, not to take anything away from Crispin, but their appointment demonstrates the shortage of bright lights in the business. This lack of smart agency options (or better yet, what agencies should be: business solution providers) points to the popularity and uprising of the AnomalgatedFrogMothers of this era. To their credit, they’re stepping up—albeit perhaps with a little more sizzle than steak—and positioning themselves to succeed in the New World. A world that also has the MyGoogleTubeFaces bearing down and taking market and dollar share faster than Barry Diller can count his stock options. Recently, MySpace launched a program that uses the personal information of its 110 million users to tailor ads and improve click through by 80 percent, and Google poached the co-head of Ogilvy’s New York office to reportedly start an innovation lab to collaborate with marketers, agencies and entertainment companies. Now if that’s not a new agency model (Googilvy? Sorry, I couldn’t resist.), then I don’t know what is.

As someone who considers the industry a brotherhood, I’m concerned about where the business is, but moreover, where it is headed. In the 15 years since CAA took Coke away from McCann, there’s still not an agency leading the charge as the undisputed go-to provider in the branded entertainment game. It’s been seven years since The New York Times Magazine cover proclaimed TiVo as the killer of the 30-second spot. And now Googilvy, not Ogilvy, leads the way in advertising effectiveness and accountability. How can this possibly be?

But don’t surrender all hope and off yourself over the state of the advertising industry. (“It is always consoling to think of suicide: In that way one gets through many a bad night.” —Friedrich Nietzsche) Not all of what one might arguably deem the “establishment” agencies are to be written off. Take Goodby, who if asked for an integrated case history a few years back would have sent a TV reel and a few print ads. Today, based on work, business acumen and culture, they remain my favorite agency in the country and were Adweek’s Agency of the Year, based in large part on their digital prowess.

Rather, consider the words of another great man, The Godfather’s Peter “Fat” Clemenza, when he counseled young Michael Corleone as the Five Families prepared to go to war: “These things gotta happen every five to 10 years. It helps get rid of the bad blood.” Ultimately, change and competition will make the weak tough (or dead), which is good for the overall health of the business. (OK, more props to Don Nietzsche, who also said, “What does not destroy me, makes me stronger.”)

However, before you go to the mattresses, also consider that perhaps the pizza chain’s appointment of Crispin is NOT indicative of a tough economic climate or a lack of viable agency options. Perhaps it’s a sign that the often-suffocating definition of conflicts in the advertising industry is loosening and that something I’ve always believed to be true is formally taking root: Simply, that there’s no such thing as conflicts—just bad explanations.

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