So advertising is dead. Everyone says so. In its place, we’ll use banner ads, email marketing, product placement, that kind of thing. The 30 second spot? Oh, that’s dead as John Cleese’s parrot.
Right? Well maybe. Me, I think the argument is deeply mistaken. I believe that nothing manufactures brand meanings like a 30 second spot.
But I am beginning to think that I am the only one who takes this position. From the agency world itself, we hear not a peep. Well, there was Lovemarks, from the head of Saatchi and Saatchi, but this was a book so bad that it almost made me wish that talk of the death of advertising were true.
Otherwise, all is quiet.
Could it be that the ad world suffers a state of paralysis? Is it mesmerized by the new marketing and now helpless in its path. Will MadAve go quietly?
This doesn’t seem very plausible on its face. The ad biz is nothing if not "snappy with the come-backs." This profession is well stocked with conceptual and expressive gifts. It is occupied by people who can perform a 180 degree course correction, reinventing the entire logic of the pitch, in the 5 seconds it takes them to register "the client is not happy." Capitalism has a secret company of improv players, and one day many of these subversives will prove to have been on the payroll of Madison Avenue.
No, I think the problem goes deeper than this, straight into the heart of the industry and the most adaptive of its adaptive strategies. The first ethnographic work I did in Detroit was for an advertising agency. An agency guy saw what we were doing as particularly "new wave" and he regaled me with stories about the old days
In the 1950s, apparently, the agency had a favorite technique for managing the client. It would go out and hire someone who was quite a lot like the client. Actually, they sought a match so close, the effect was sometimes chilling. The agency guy would just happen to like the same movies, the same sports teams, the same Vegas hangouts as the client. He would kind of look like the client, talk like the client, and dress like the client. In fact, in some cases, it was difficult to tell the difference between tweedle dum and tweedle dee, all the better to persuade Pontiac (or some other GM account) to sign those breath taking cheques and leave the agency alone.
Call it a doppelganger strategy. The 50s version was the most exaggerated form. But I believe this strategy is with us still. I believe the advertising world long ago committed itself to having no idea of what is was and what it did. Surely, this was the smart thing to do. I mean, if an agency insisted it used the Aaker model of advertising, well, what would happen if a client appeared who was particularly anti-aaker (I mean, of course, Aanti-Aaker)? Surely, specificity was a bad idea. The industry decided that on balance a clear idea of advertising would always cost an agency more than it gained it. Oh, I don’t mean to say that there weren’t tendencies in the ad world. Leo Burnett was always going to be seen as more "x" and J. Walter Thompson more "y," but, on balance, the industry conspired to create a code of silence on precisely what it was and what it did. This was the smart, the adaptive, thing to do.
This sort of thing costs you, I believe, in the long term. Being all things to all people creates a certain imprecision of self definition. After awhile, it’s hard to know who you are. In the day to day, this doesn’t matter very much. The prevailing notion seems to be, "What does it matter what they call us, as long as we just get paid?" Everyone harbors the idea that one of these days, if we wanted to do, we could just sit down and sort this out.
But neglected ideas have a way of disappearing. Some, the head strong ones, will away in the night. Others, heart strong, wither and die, proving not so heart strong at all. And I think that’s where we find the industry. Now that there is a crisis upon us, now that there is a paradigm shift under way, now that the industry is facing the disintermediation that has destroyed once mighty industries and brands, it proves to be too late. The cupboard is bare.
Sir Martin Sorrell once made the sly remark that the "interactive marketing is more measurable than traditional advertising–so its more pleasurable for the decision makers." And I think this means we are entering really perilous waters. We know, or I think we know, that much of the best work by the agency world would never have happened if advertising had always occupied a measurable world. Sure as shooting, the client would have measured the wrong things, leapt to the wrong conclusions, and otherwise mangled the creative opportunity without shame or apology. (The creative director with whom I worked in Detroit told me, "If I let the client get away with it, every single ad would be about engine specs and turning ratios!")
It’s as if the advertising world has been too fluid, too adaptive, too flexible and now that it is called upon to give an account of itself, it dithers. "Don’t tell me. I know this one. Umm. Oh, damn." As long as the client had no options, we could pull a "St. Augustine" on them: "do not seek to understand that you may believe but believe than you may understand" aka "just give us the money, and we’ll look after it." But now that there is competition, there’s trouble.
There is a darker possibility here. It may be that the advertising world wasn’t merely withholding clear and coherent ideas of what it was. It may be that it never had these ideas in the first place or long ago ceased to believe in them. Perhaps there was a creeping dread that there was no value here, that the whole thing was just a lark, a way to pry money out of clients, amusing one another, attending those endless award ceremonies, and dining often and richly on someone else’s account. Some may have believed secretly that the cupboard was always thus.
I hope I’m wrong. Perhaps Sir Martin Sorrell has a blistering manuscript in his desk drawer that will throw off the cloak of the shapeshifter, renounce the ways of the doppelganger, and make the case. Maybe the ad biz isn’t dead after all. Yeah, that’s it. Maybe, as Mr. Praline would say, it’s just stunned.
Cleese, John et al. n.d. The Dead Parrot Sketch. here.
McCracken, Grant. 2006. Lovemark. This Blog Sits at… Februrary 24, 2006. here.
McCracken, Grant. 2005. When Cars Could Fly: Raymond Loewy, John Kenneth Galbraith, and the 1954 Buick. Culture and Consumption II: marketings, meanings and brand management. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, pp. 53-90. (for one of the accomplishments of the advertising world in the 1950s)
Sorrell, Sir Martin. Patricia Sellers Interviews… The Hidden Persuader. January 27, 2004. here.