Why Advertising Is Different Today

Wells, Rich, Greene. Scali, McCabe, Sloves. Ally & Gargano. Ammirati & Puris. Levine, Huntley, Schmidt & Beaver. RIP.

These were some of the hottest creative shops of the ’70s and ’80s. As they disappeared, swallowed by bigger fish, some of the creativity in our business disappeared with them. Agencies today are not as entrepreneurial as those who set the creative standard a generation ago.

Much of the blame for that has been laid at the doorsteps of the holding companies. As the business shifted from a collection of independent agencies to a holding-company model, the argument goes, creativity and entrepreneurship were replaced by financial discipline. The business became, well, a business, and that killed creativity.

But maybe you can be part of a holding company and still be admired as a creative agency. Goodby, Silverstein & Partners, which has been part of a holding company for 25 years, and Crispin, Porter + Bogusky, part of a holding company for a decade, are exhibits 1 and 2. Berlin, Cameron & Partners, where I worked earlier this decade, became Adweek’s Agency of the Year after being purchased by WPP Group. Holding companies are not the death stars of creativity.

So if it’s not the holding companies, what hampers creativity?

For one, size. Today’s big agencies are simply too big. Being big means complexity that requires a process and bureaucracy. Bigness drives away entrepreneurship and passion, the oxygen for ideas and creativity. Instead it values management. Well, I’d take good art direction over the art of management any day. Jay Chiat was right when he said, “I want to see how big we can get before we get bad.” Most agencies got the answer quickly. Too quickly.

Small size is not a hindrance in a business of ideas. Berlin, Cameron, an agency of 40 people, snatched the most prestigious account on Earth, Coca-Cola, from uber-giant McCann Erickson. And McCann had it for 50 years. Advertising is a business of individuality and entrepreneurship, and it’s at its best when practiced that way, not by an army in gray flannel suits floating from meeting to meeting.

The business today is less personal than it used to be when ownership had its name on the door. When the principal was a familiar face in a meeting and not just a name on the letterhead, the work was better because the work mattered more — it was the soul of the agency. Those principals did not compromise and they put the work above all else. It was that attitude and their bigger-than-life personalities that inspired their troops. Today, I think there’s less Kool-Aid in the business.

Perhaps this is unavoidable. There’s no question that the creativity gene gets depleted from generation to generation of agency life. As we move on to a generation of managers taking over from entrepreneurs, the values that helped build those agencies are being replaced by other values. And maybe that’s why more and more clients turn to media agencies, newly minted and unbundled, as well as digital agencies for strategic thinking and creativity. In media and digital a first generation of an inspirational and highly entrepreneurial management is still personally involved in the client’s business.

Clients also have much to do with the fact that there is less creativity. Clients today are not as willing to buy a risky idea without researching it to death and watering it down. Maybe this reluctance to stick their neck out has something to do with the fact that CMOs get guillotined, often unfairly, at an average of 22 months. Or maybe it has something to do with the evolution of marketing from an art, where people were willing to make decisions based on judgment, to faux science, where procurement officers are part of the marketing apparatus and “accountability and ROI” are more important than “out-of-the-box thinking.”