An Outlaw Culture Responds

It’s become common to come upon accounts of conferences, seminars and speeches in which marketers focus on the failings of their advertising agencies.

They declare with a kind of round-bellied condescension — an attitude fostered by a certain sort of hotel ballroom furniture — that their agencies are never “proactive” enough, never “futurist” enough. They want small agencies to act like big agencies and big agencies to act like small ones. They blame agencies for not pulling together broader capabilities at the same time they announce their interest in sampling capabilities from different sources. (Just try this line of reasoning with your spouse or partner: “I want you to invest more, much more, in this relationship. As for me, I’m going to tomcat around a bit.”)

In all of this public venting there’s an unmistakable note of disapproval, even a faint disgust for advertising agencies. It’s a kind of cultural revulsion, a shrinking of decent people from the lawless, the wild, the unkempt.

One never hears a response. Of course the reason is plain: One party has all the power over the other.

The spectacle suggests a convention of jailers telling after-dinner anecdotes about their prisoners. And the prisoners cannot respond, unless they want to pay a fearful penalty. Who, after all, wants to have his rations reduced? Who wants to be transferred to another facility?

Every outlaw culture, however, has its own way of fashioning its reply. Passed from cell to cell, transmitted in code from glinting hand mirrors, smuggled out in batches of laundry, encrypted in monitored pay-phone calls, carved into soap whittlings, carried by word of mouth from parolees comes one collective response.

Taken together, fragments of this mixed-media samizdat form a powerful counterargument: a judging of the judges, rules for the rule makers. Considering that the authors are hard cases, trialed in cruel experience, the code of conduct is stern and lean and muscular.

Here, the rules for the jailers:

Feed us. Bring us something. Come carrying information and insight into your business and industry that you, of all people, ought to know better than anyone. We can get marketing talk anywhere.

Tell us the truth. Tell us what you think-not what you think the level above and the level above will think. Be brutally honest, not brutal.

Don’t use us for experiments. Don’t use us as a tame and captive labor force to try out ideas, to find out what you think.

Don’t make us break rocks. Don’t make us make presentations for your presentations, PDFs for your PowerPoints. We need to make things. We need to make things that people see. It’s good for pride. It’s good for keeping us good.

Appreciate hard labor. We spend very long hours on very small things. We actually care about the way the folds drape on the coat on the little animated bear that runs around your cereal box.

Allow rebellion. When a strategy is too much about what you want to say and not what the world needs to hear, let us kick against it. It’s better for you to come in for tough treatment now because out in the free world you’ll find things a lot rougher.

Don’t punish deviance. Allow for innovation outside the norm, accepting the equal possibility of brilliance or failure. What about setting a percentage of the budget for communications R&D? Your engineering arm does it, why not your marketing arm?

Come into the yard with us. We work with photographers and filmmakers and animators and illustrators and musicians and Flash designers and programmers and data whizzes and inventive geniuses in dozens of arts and sciences. Feel lucky. Take pleasure in this.