CLIO: ‘Advertising Agencies Are Dead,’ Says Exec

“Advertising agencies are dead.”

That’s what Tony Granger, global chief creative officer at Young & Rubicam, New York, told an audience of industry professionals during the opening  keynote question-and-answer session at the 50th annual CLIO Awards here at the Hard Rock Hotel & Casino yesterday.

“This is the worst time in our business since the Great Depression,” Granger  said. “If you’re in an ad agency and you’re not thinking [outside] the 30-second box and you’re not thinking [outside] the confines of a spread in a magazine or a newspaper, you’re not going to be around in two years’ time. You’re just not.”

Granger’s “death” pronouncement — in response to Adweek creative editor Eleftheria Parpis’ query on how agencies can help brands innovate in a harsh economic climate — transported the session into darker territory.

In fact, it seemed to set a tone that to some extent spilled over into the first awards presentation of the three-day CLIO Festival. Although in a sense, it’s not surprising that execs would feel somewhat haggard and beat-up following months of a down economy with client spending cuts and staff layoffs increasingly the norm.

CLIO’s Communications Awards were revealed during a ’60s-themed ceremony set in a town that used to host haunts where Mad Men’s main man Don Draper would feel right at home, such as The Stardust, The Sands and The Oasis. And nearly 50 years after the first season of the show was set, series creator/executive producer Matthew Weiner was on hand to accept an honorary CLIO.

The faces at the ceremony were celebratory but sober, matching the mood of Granger’s Zeitgeist.

However, appearances aren’t everything — and most agency players revealed that, at the very least, their attitudes have begun to improve.

Especially upbeat was industry veteran Keith Reinhard, chairman emeritus of DDB Worldwide, who introduced Weiner at the ceremony where the producer received his prize.

“Advertising might have been more glamorous back then, but the work I saw last night in print, posters and outdoor is more creative than the body of work we turned out in the ’60s,” said Reinhard of winning efforts in the Communications Awards, which recognized excellence in print, direct mail, radio, posters, billboards and, for the first time this year, public relations.

The younger generation of agency leaders generally seemed to be taking things in stride as they navigate an increasingly complex media landscape during rough economic times.

“It’s like the Wild West,” said Carl Johnson, managing partner and CEO of Anomaly in New York, during a Tuesday’s “Owning Your Own Ideas” panel discussion. “These days, nobody owns anything anymore, even the brief.”

Added Anne Bologna, founding partner of Toy: “Only the paranoid survive.”

There are those who say rough economic times are an endurance test for ideas, a high-stakes Vegas-style game where shops take risks and only the best creative survives.

“What I love about this moment in time is you get to experiment, you get to try shit, you get to fail,” said Wieden + Kennedy co-founder and CEO Dan Wieden at his lifetime achievement award brunch on Wednesday. “I love to fail.”

The recession has had some impact on show attendance, which attracts an international crowd. “Attendance is down from previous years,” said Wayne Youkhana, director of the CLIO Awards, who wouldn’t give a precise figure. “[This year’s] audience is going to be more senior people who are getting the OK to go.”

The economy is causing shops to make more thoughtful choices in terms of CLIO submissions. “Entries are definitely down from last year — agencies and production companies were very selective in what they entered,” Youkhana said. “Vanity entries seem to have gone away. People were very strategic.”

“I do get a sense that at least we’re not dwelling on the negative as much now,” said Tom O’Keefe, creative chief at Draftfcb in Chicago, who also noted that the Communications Award winners were visually stunning, expressive works. “There was a lot of eye candy,” O’Keefe said, sounding optimistic about the direction of creativity. “This work I saw on the wall was not conservative.”

“I go to a lot of ad conferences, and at this one, it seems like there’s something happening, said Lee “Chappy” Chapman, director of strategy at Translation, who was on Tuesday’s “Brand Fusion” panel, and who’s attending the CLIOs for the first time. “The recession is obviously on everyone’s mind, yet it’s counterbalanced by the optimism of Obama. There’s less puffery, more substance. We’re all thinking how we’re going to take this information back to our companies, back to our lives.”

Granger’s Q&A even ended with an optimistic tag. “When I say ad agencies are dead, I mean the agencies that are absolutely, fanatically focused on a 30-second spot and a print ad and a smattering of digital content,” he explained before clarifying how creative agencies place to be. “Now I would far rather be at a creative agency than an ad agency because a creative agency allows you to behave differently. It allows you to collaborate with screenwriters in Hollywood to create content for your client. It allows you to sign up bands. It allows you to come up with ideas that you then sell to networks jointly with your clients — it just opens up a whole new world for us, a far more exciting world.

“Thirty-second spots are really, really important still — don’t get me wrong — but while you’re going to shoot that 30-second spot, cut a two-minute version of it, cut a 60-second version of it, cut a 65.2  version — whatever is right for the idea,” he suggested. “You know, create content within it. Shoot different endings. There’s so much more we can do now.”

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