Better or Worse

The most honest thing anyone in the ad business ever said to me was an offhand comment an agency CEO made this summer as he sat in his office, glumly watching CNN with the sound off.

“Man, this business sucks right now,” he said, putting a satisfying, hissing emphasis on “sucks.”

His candor was so startling, I wanted to freakin’ hug the guy. He was just so tired of rallying his troops amid layoffs and cutbacks, of pushing campaigns on tight-fisted clients, of being a salesman when no one was buying.

If there’s one good thing the ongoing economic doldrums have brought about, it’s a refreshing breeze of honesty. With the SEC circling, holding companies seem to have grasped the concept of “transparency.” With their bottom lines failing to back them up, obnoxious personalities are finding it harder to find audiences for their blather. And from top to bottom, agency executives are being forced to admit that advertising isn’t always such an exciting business to be in after all—in fact, at times it downright sucks.

All this in an industry in which cockeyed optimism is usually the norm. Take Adweek’s online poll from last week. Based on a story that indicated some freelancers are getting more work, the poll asked if things are starting to pick up in the industry in general. By press time last Thursday, 64 percent of respondents had jumped on the bandwagon of hope. In the real world, the Big Three automakers watched sales plummet almost 20 percent in November; United Airlines teeters toward bankruptcy and is laying off 350 pilots; war and terrorism continue to cloud the future; and, as of the close of business last Thursday, the Dow Jones industrial average had suffered five straight days of losses. Yet somehow, almost two-thirds of our Web visitors see the glass half full and rising.

If, as no less a seer than Martin Sorrell predicts, the ad business remains in the toilet for another year, it seems to me that a whole lot of marginal agencies, those kept alive in the past year by smoke, mirrors and blind optimism, are going to fold. For their owners, some of whom have been looking for buyers but still have an inflated sense of their shops’ worth, 2003 could well be the time for a fire sale—no offers too small, everything must go.

Then again, maybe things are picking up. As the sportswriters say about the games they watch, “Always root for the story.” To be perfectly blunt, I don’t really care which way this thing goes. Bounce or bust, we’ll happily chronicle. If a bunch of agencies flame out of existence, well, that’s business. But I also wouldn’t mind witnessing a resurrection, an economic renaissance bigger and less hollow than last decade’s boom. A return to fat budgets and over-the-top campaigns and agencies coming out of nowhere to ride the wave and make instant millionaires out of young leaders. As we’ve already seen, it’s a good story.

One scenario or the other, or perhaps both, will happen eventually. For now, the uncertainty persists, and there are times when the waiting does, in fact, truly suck.