The New Age of Wisdom

Data rock. They’re the floorboards I walk on, the headlights that guide me in the dark, the fishing guides who tell me which fish are where, when and what they like to eat. Without data you’re just casting your line out into open water and crossing your fingers. You’re romanticizing, not hunting. You’re an artist, not an ad person.

And of course, in the ad business, the data gatherers are the only ones who seem to be feeling, well, bullish. They’re the new high priests and priestesses. The go-to guys. The sine qua nons. The icing and the cakes. Hmm. Careful now.

After all, the world is in the middle of a gigantic data-management crisis. Much of the world’s financial data seem to have been catastrophically mismanaged. I’ve been around a lot of financial people — and indeed, live among many at the business end of Manhattan. They’re charming, measured men and women in suits with haircuts as immaculate as the prows of cigarette boats. They’re a touch low on emotion — OK, let’s be frank, emotion is a dirty word with these here folks. There’s no place for it in the arctic ice stations of numerical perfection. Though they seem to be getting younger every day, these people sift and talk data with the effortless control of veteran sculptors discussing their mastery of metals. Even the ones in their 20s make me feel like a teenager, they’re so certain and composed. Yet the world finds itself in the middle of a gigantic financial crisis.

Which means something, somewhere doesn’t add up.

To try and find a solution to this problem (well, at least one that amuses me), let’s forget the financial district for a moment. Allow me to transport you to the Starrett-Lehigh Building in Manhattan’s Chelsea district and the offices of mcgarrybowen. In the middle of all the doom and gloom, this powerhouse has just been bought by Japanese giant Dentsu for a rumored $200 million. That’s quite a financial commitment to make at this time. Clearly, Dentsu believes it’s putting its money somewhere safe and I, for one, completely agree. Pitching against these guys is a nightmare. They’re tough to beat and their work is uniformly above average — probably the biggest compliment I can give an ad agency producing big work for big clients.

Like anybody with their head down plugging away and doing a great job in this business, mcgarry has its detractors. And its detractors have a single-minded bent: The agency is too old. CEO John McGarry is 66, CCO Gordon Bowen is 58 and chief strategy officer Stewart Owen is 57. “I hear you’re pitching against the Cocoon agency,” a reporter chortled to me once. It’s like old is the new gay, something to make snide jokes about around the watercooler.

I remember a piece in a magazine in the U.K. that incensed me some years ago about a creative director who retired. It was full of stuff like, “At his age it became hard to…” etcetera. He was 56, fer crissake! What do journos think ad people are doing? Playing Stanley Cup hockey? What the excellent mcgarry proves is that energy, passion, creativity and commitment are totally, utterly, 100 percent non-age specific. This is something that the Japanese understand better than most cultures; an unshakable regard and respect for elders is an important pillar of that society. As it should be in every society.

Most interestingly, perhaps, mcgarry’s success at this time suggests one possible reason that the finest financial analysts in the Western world, masters and mistresses of a universe built on hard, real-time data, find themselves in a world of pain. They’re a little short on an unfashionable, unsung, old-school commodity that you don’t get in a fast-track economics Ph.D. and you don’t cultivate as you’re pushed to rule the world at 30. It’s a commodity that Messrs. McGarry and Bowen possess in spades. It’s called “wisdom.” Yes, that’s right, it’s back. And this time I reckon it’s here to stay.