Southern Comfort

It was déjà voodoo for me in the Crescent City. I was in New Orleans for the second time in a month for another Association of American Advertising Agencies talkathon. And I must confess, even though the town and I get along like beads and blouses, I was a little uneasy heading to the Big Easy this go-around.

In March I was there for the 4A’s Media Conference. Even in a down economy, that’s a fun ride—three days with 1,000 people who go to parties for a living. And this year, despite some Sturm und Drang, there was at least an attempt to be upbeat.

But two weeks ago, I was there for the 4A’s Management Conference. A day and a half with 250 people who do analyst calls for a living. Not the kind of crowd you expect to see downing Sex on the Beach shots in a filthy Bourbon Street dive while listening to a hard-rock band doing AC/DC and Twisted Sister covers.

The media conference was held at a riverside hotel across the street from a casino. The management conference was at the Ritz. You get the picture.

Here’s what I thought going in: CEOs are the most battered breed in business. A besieged privileged class facing momentous challenges and unyielding scrutiny, the weight of multibillion-dollar enterprises resting on their well-attired shoulders. Last year, in Laguna Niguel, all they did was bitch about how bad everything was and how they ought to stop stealing accounts from each other. So there figured to be a lot of po’ boys in New Orleans this time around, and I’m not talking about the local sandwich.

But I couldn’t have been more wrong. To a careerist, every one of the attendees acted like Kirsten Dunst in Bring It On—cheerleaders with an attitude. They were realistic but eager to fight back—against a bad economy, against their industry’s lousy reputation, against malfeasant clients, against the McKinseys running agency reviews, whatever. It was on, dog.

Some speeches were better than others, but I didn’t hear one that was boring. All were thematically similar: no more moaning, let’s get down to work. And some were flat-out energizing. (This was the first time I had witnessed the Roy Spence phenomenon, for example, and he lived up to his nickname of “Reverend Roy”: He was the millionth executive I’ve heard refer to The Art of War, but he made it sound like an amazing new insight. In a Texas twang, no less.)

Burtch Drake, Ken Kaess, Bob Schmetterer and all the other movers and speakers were similarly upbeat. Confident, not arrogant.

In March, the media guys put on happy faces, but they were masks. This group really believed what they said.

If I were their shrink, I’d be very pleased with myself. This gang has moved past denial, fear, even anger, all the way up to determination (or whatever those stages are).

Maybe there was a macro reason for all this heartiness. A sign of a turn in the cultural tide. Advertising practitioners perforce live one step ahead of where the society is at any given moment, and often change before their focus groups do. I think that’s what happened at the Ritz.

We’re in the third year of this decade, which is about the time when a decade begins to define itself. And it looks like this is going to be the “what the hell” decade. Times are tough, and even when they get better, they won’t be as good as they were. We’re fighting wars every other week. The rest of the planet hates us. Even the flu has turned badass. So, what the hell, let’s just get on with it. Flex our fingers, grip the bat and get back in the flippin’ game.

I think the executives were right. The industry could be ready for a comeback. Because in the what-the-hell decade, consumers have a lot bigger things to worry about than advertising.

Oh, and I was wrong about something else. Judging by some of the familiar faces I saw in that dive bar, it seems CEOs do like Twisted Sister.