Fear and Loathing on Madison Avenue

I must be out of touch with the latest therapeutic techniques practiced in ad industry circles these days. And in this case, I literally mean circles.

I was taken by an article written by Danielle Sacks in Fast Company, “The Future of Advertising,” in which she describes a group therapy session of displaced advertising professionals, who voice their insecurities to one another.

“The first person stands up. ‘I walk around in fear and loathing, dazed and confused,’ he says. . . . One by one they exhale the cold fears of an entire industry . . . ‘I kind of feel like the digital world is a gated world. It’s wide open, but I don’t know enough to walk in. This whole collaboration, we’ll work together as a team’—breaking down of the creative director and art director team—I find it fucking difficult.’”

Since nowhere is this session mentioned within the confines of a 12-step program, let me step outside of this circle and say I find this annoying, platitudinous and so pathetically wrong.

Ever since I discovered that God was dead, or Nietzsche was dead, or the 30-second commercial was dead, or the “traditional” agency was dead, I’ve been wondering what alternative universe I inhabit. I have worked at big agencies for more than 30 years, and never have I felt more alive, more vital, more relevant and more capable to execute what global agencies are in the business of doing: Building strong, enduring global brands that evoke loyalty—if not passion—from an ever-growing base of satisfied users.

Let me be upfront about this. We are not in the TV business, or the print business, or the digital business, or the content business, or in the publishing business. We are, always have been and always will be in the business of developing strategy and delivering persuasive communication for brands and businesses—and even some great causes in the world. Although the tools of our trade have changed and will continue to change, our mission and our obligation to our clients have not.

It was Mark Twain who said that rumors of my early demise have been greatly exaggerated. But I’ve been hearing that I’m dead for a good 10 to 15 years, at least, since the dawning days of the Internet. But guess what? I’m still here. As is JWT, and Ogilvy, and BBDO, and McCann and a host of BDAs (Big Dumb Agencies). And no, none of us have been deemed too big to fail. We just haven’t failed. Much as many would like us to.

Fifteen years ago, when I was at Ogilvy, Shelly Lazarus raised a cautionary note to a newly formed client team: “You know the whole world wants us to fail. So we’re not going to do that. But I’m giving you permission personally to fail and to take risks because we’re making this up as we go along.”
Big agencies let you do that—at least, the good ones do. And yes, we’re still making this up as we go along. And what great stuff we’re making up. Great stuff that’s both old and new, analog and digital, created by us or created by consumers.

Advertising is not dead. It’s been reborn. Digital is at the heart of what we do because that’s where our audience is consuming media. That’s not to say traditional brand-building skills—like the ability to craft an attention-grabbing TV spot or even a print ad—have gone away. That would be subscribing to the fallacy of displacement. Radio did not displace print. TV did not displace radio. The Internet and digital did not displace TV. And social media are not displacing banners and rich-media units.