My Bets On The Biz

In 1997, the agency I was working at asked me to do predictions for its new Web site. They stayed on for a couple of years, were deleted and, I thought, forgotten. But an alleged friend sent me them a couple of weeks ago to tweak my fortune-telling prowess.

The predictions below are followed by my thoughts about them now (italicized)—they get as close to honesty as I can without soiling my gray flannel suit.

1) In-house agencies will make a comeback as superstar-advertising people begin to reside at client organizations, because with IPOs and stock options and a guaranteed share of profits and revenue, it simply becomes more lucrative than working at ad agencies or creative boutiques.

Bold prediction. Also wrong. At least for copywriters and art directors. Maybe not so wrong for others.

2) Political advertising will get a bigger and bigger share of total national spending as the thirst for power and celebrity sees the efficacy of paid media as the way to slake that thirst and create personal brands. The Cult of Personality becomes the Cult of Branding. If the originality of Bill Clinton is that he is the Madonna of politics, be assured he will have many imitators as polling, spinning and perpetual campaigning bring democracy to new heights, or to its knees. We will know the answer by 2004.

The first sentence is correct, but I underestimated the power of negative commercials. They are more believable than positive ones because viewers bring initial assent to negative notions about politicians. We now know presidential advertising in 2000 was irrelevant, but it played a big role in 2004 across at least four media.

3) Every time there is a new medium, a spate of new agencies seize the moment and rise with great acceleration. As with N.W. Ayer with national magazines in 1912 and Y&R with radio in 1935 and Ted Bates with television in 1951, some interloper will break through with the Internet and then broaden its expertise in the other media rather than the (expected) other way around.

Seemed good at the time. Would press if I were a betting man.

4) Ad agency people will come more and more from elite institutions of higher learning. They will instantly, not gradually, morph into one of Robert Reich’s so-called Symbol Analysts. Focus groups, therefore, will be the only way they will come into contact with folks who clip coupons to buy detergents, diapers and deodorant. Alas.

Lot of truth here, but “elite institutions” is unclear. It could range from the Big 10 to the Creative Circus. From St. John’s to Hartford to Howard to the University of Florida at Gainesville or even Harvard and Adelphi.

5) The bare essentials of a market economy have gone from food, clothing and shelter to those plus communications, transportation, entertainment, education, healthcare in the last five centuries. In the next decade, added to that will be two more bare essentials: protection of your wealth (investment advice no matter how small a fortune) and protection of your body (personal security becomes an industry Pinkerton could never have imagined).

Seemed pretty obvious. Not much of a prediction. Kind of like picking Secretariat in the Belmont.

6) Religions, which once competed only on the battlefield and in the bookstalls, will vie on the airwaves for your soul and your dollar.

Wish this were true. “Once competed” is quite a naivete. Dumbest prediction of the lot.

7) The business cycle becomes shorter and shorter since retooling becomes cheaper and cheaper. There will be a recession in 2001, but it will last only six weeks. Therefore, it won’t be recognized as such until 2002.

I had completely forgotten this one, but it is interesting. And calling the year and the magnitude of a recession four years ahead ain’t bad.

8) The four-day week will be prevalent and driven by client organizations. But the days will be like days in a firehouse: 16 hours long and a pole to slide down from the creative department to the print studio or the in-house Avids.

Carl Ally Inc. had a four-day week from 1971 to 1976, an altruistic act by Carl because he lived by his own clock anyway. Agency got very little new business as the policy was no doubt used against him. Anyway, Carl’s actions and my prediction are in the opposite direction from the current ad scene, which has added days and hours to the week not seen since the French Revolution (the 1789 one) thought a 10-day week made more sense in a mathematical way than seven, rejecting the notion of the Sabbath as faith-based management. Then there was the comment of copywriter George Rike when I left Doyle Dane Bernbach. How can you go to a four-day week at Ally from a three-day week here at DDB?

9) “You never step into the same agency twice.” So said Heraclitus, the old Greek copywriter some 2,500 years ago. Even more than American farming, the American ad agency is in a constant state of flux. The difference is the farmer loves new tools that make agriculture easier, faster and more productive. Agency folks are often like guilds men, holding on to old ways. Do you know how long it took agencies to move from film to tape? In 1983 (11 years after home videotaping was introduced), half the agencies entering award shows sent their stuff on 16mm reels instead of videotape. This Web site should have been done years ago. By 2010, Web sites will be changing hourly and will be read more than newspapers. And with scrolling, Evelyn Wood would be reading 35,000 bytes a minute.

First part looking back is OK. Second part, regarding Web sites, is gross underestimation of the power and rapidity of change once put in motion.

Knowing what’s going to happen and wagering on it brings rewards. Bernard Baruch and Joseph Kennedy supposedly shorted the market in 1929. The former got a school named after him; the latter acquired the presidency.

Notable ad people who bet on their clients include Bernbach and Doyle, who got on Polaroid early; Carl Ally, who went big with Federal Express and MCI out of the gate; and Barry Vetere, who, having missed the run-ups of his clients IBM, MCI, Commodore Computers, Fiat, Volvo, Time Warner and Dunkin Donuts, put a dime or two on mattress company Select Comfort well before its stock awoke from its sleep number slumber.

Me? I have a Knicks-Hawks game with the over at 181; it goes into overtime nine short; New York and Atlanta, offensive juggernauts that they are, get the grand total of eight points in the extra five minutes and stall at 180. Nobody sees the future better than the descendants of Meyer Lansky, the odds makers hanging out in the new-style rub joints on the corner of Las Vegas Boulevard and Flamingo.

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