Maybe the Midlife Crisis Isn’t Bogusky’s?

It’s been interesting to watch some of the recent coverage of Alex Bogusky’s resignation from MDC Partners. Stories and blog posts have tended to focus on gossip (who got mad at whom?), money (how big a payout did Alex get?) and psychodrama (is the dude having a midlife crisis?).

None of that interests me much (well OK, the money part is always interesting). What I’ve been thinking about is, what does this incident say about the current state of the ad industry? And having considered that question, it’s got me thinking that maybe the midlife crisis here isn’t Bogusky’s.

Without knowing the inside dirt on whatever internal politics may have been involved, it seems clear that two things happened here. Part one: Bogusky in recent times became increasingly interested in things that did not directly relate to the day-to-day running of an ad agency — including such not-insignificant matters as ethics in advertising, the role of business in addressing social challenges and the future health of the planet.

Now, it’s easy to be cynical about this kind of an awakening, but it seems to me that a lot of people I’m encountering — in the ad business, in the design world, all over the place — are starting to grapple with these kinds of big social issues these days. So sure, maybe everyone’s just having a midlife crisis. Or maybe more people are recognizing that the crisis is, you know, all around us, and that it might not be such a crazy idea for people to start paying attention to what’s going on in the world with an eye toward doing something constructive.

Anyway, on to part two of what seems to have happened: MDC tried to give Bogusky a more hands-off role that would allow him freedom to ponder those bigger issues. But as Bogusky proceeded to do that, raising questions and inciting discussion on a couple of hot topics (including the subject of ads aimed at children), it seems to have caused friction with clients and led to a parting of the ways between Bogusky and the ad business.

The second part of the story suggests to me that some client companies are perhaps still a bit thin-skinned when it comes to having any kind of candid discussion about serious issues. Which in turn suggests that these companies are living in the past — in a pre-social networking era when they could actually still control the public debate.

You don’t have to be Clay Shirky to know those days are over: Everybody talks about everything now, and companies are much better off being engaged in the conversation and maybe even leading it. But they can only do so if they’re willing to talk about issues (including potentially controversial ones) honestly and openly.

There are lots of tough questions companies must confront in dealing with a consumer who’s more engaged, more informed and more concerned with social issues than ever before. Among those questions: What does the company stand for? What does it believe? How does it make its products and treat its employees? Is it being straight with us in its ads? All of these points are part of the larger conversation people are now having about brands.

One of the new roles for ad agencies may be to help clients figure out how to have these expanded, deeper conversations with the public and come out looking good. It’s harder and more complicated than just doing one-way messaging in the form of clever 30-second commercials. Helping client companies transition into this new era of accountability and responsibility may require that the agency be willing to step up and ask a client some of those tough questions cited above — and then help that client figure out how best to address these issues in a way that doesn’t come off as empty spin.

This might involve making ads, sure, but it could also involve launching community initiatives, revising corporate policies, improving product design — it could involve just about everything the company does, as well as what it says. Is all this non-advertising stuff any of the ad agency’s business? It ought to be. In the newly transparent business environment, everything a company does ends up communicating some kind of message to the world. Which makes it all relevant to the relationship between a company and its communication partner.

To the extent agencies can succeed in taking on this larger role of helping clients broaden and deepen the conversation with the public, the agencies will of course be helping themselves, too. Because ad agencies, as we all know, are grappling with their own midlife crisis — which began a few years ago, when they noticed that their favorite tool (the TV commercial) was suddenly showing signs of aging and diminished potency. On top of that, the business is losing some of its appeal to bright young people who, these days, are showing more interest in solving problems and creating progress than in just selling stuff.

One way for agencies to get beyond being just “ad guys” is to become mediators in this new conversation and this deepening relationship between a company and its public. It might even allow the ad agency to claim some of the moral high ground as it plays a greater role in guiding companies to do the right thing — not just for themselves, but also for the world at large. Is that an overly ambitious and idealistic vision of the future of ad agencies? Maybe. But hey, when you’re having a midlife crisis, you’re allowed to dream big.

Warren Berger is a consultant and author of Glimmer: How Design Can Transform Business, Your Life, and Maybe Even the World. He can be reached at warren@warrenberger.com.