Want to Make Art?

Go buy some canvas. Advertising is a business first

Last week I judged the Newspaper Association of America’s Athena Awards. During the breaks, the judges were interviewed on camera. Great. Another opportunity for me to contribute to that B-roll of dumb stuff I’ve said over the years. About midway through I was asked the one question that rears its ugly head about once a month or so: “Is advertising art?”

“Oh, that question,” I replied, and rattled off my standard answer: “No, advertising is a business masquerading as art. We’re hired by clients to convince consumers to buy products. We do our best to create something that is relevant and entertaining, but in the end, it needs to motivate someone to buy something. That’s not necessarily what art is all about. Only time will tell if, in fact, we made art along the way.” And time is a bitch. Just ask LeRoy Neiman.

Reading Adweek on my flight home to San Francisco the next day, I came upon Jeff Goodby’s piece, “What I haven’t learned in 20 years of running an ad agency.” As I read, I got that sick feeling I get when I’m embarrassed by something I’ve done or said. Particularly when I read this part: “The history of advertising is littered with idiots who have made a living reminding us that advertising isn’t art. To me, they are the ones hanging on the ropes as the balloon lifts off without them.”

No biggie. I’m pretty sure Jeff called me an idiot at least once during my two-year stint at his shop, and it was undoubtedly deserved. And I’m probably the last guy who wants to disagree with him publicly. But as I thought about that Athena tape floating around, I realized I had to. So I’ll say it again: Advertising is not art. It’s a business masquerading as art.

Every year, a new crop of students comes out of school thinking they are creating 30-second gags to crack up their friends or making “art” rather than selling their clients’ brands. It’s hard as hell to run an agency when clients sniff this out. And you know what? Clients are smart, and they generally do.

Advertising is about motivating people to buy something. Find a client that disagrees with this and, please, send them my way, because I’ve got a truckload of dead scripts that probably should have been saved for a career writing for Saturday Night Live.

I am proud of some of the work we have done. Some of it has even won a few awards along the way. But in the end, it is not art. I’m not entirely sure what art is, but I believe it’s something done by the likes of Lucien Freud, Damien Hirst and Woody Allen. Not the stuff advertising agencies crank out. Sorry. (OK, that new Honda spot from the U.K. comes pretty close.)

When we create advertising, we pray that consumers find it appealing and relevant, and that it sells. Damien Hirst doesn’t give a rat’s ass if you like his work. He just wants a reaction and not necessarily a sale. He’d probably be quite pleased with himself if he repulsed you.

The last thing we should be telling the class of ’03 is that our industry is the place to create art. As I’ve told a good many art directors and writers when they balked at a layout comment or an editorial mandate and refused to budge, “Walk down to Pearl Paint and buy yourself a canvas and some oils, my friend, because this is advertising, and it is not a spectator sport.”

Advertising can be “artistic,” I suppose. Basketball isn’t an art, but guys like Michael Jordan certainly make it look like one. And I guess, using that logic, folks like Dan and Jeff and Lee and Rich have done the same for advertising. But whenever I hear someone say advertising is art, I feel like a self-absorbed phony.

Jeff’s a smart guy, a great writer, and he’s created an incredible agency brand. Everything else he said resonated with me. Except one other thing: From what I’ve been told, you actually can’t have beer in the vending machines at work. The lawyers won’t let you.