The biggest lies in advertising.
First of all, I’m not talking about ads that lie. Believe it or not, most advertising pretty much tells the truth. It may dress it up a bit and take a liberty here and there with a claim or two, but we’re pretty heavily regulated.
Sadly, you can’t just tell folks anything you want anymore. They actually have people who check up on that shit. They’re called lawyers.
I’m talking about the lies you’re told when you work in advertising. There are many. But let’s start with this one. It’s one of my favorites.
LIE: WE WANT YOU TO FIGHT FOR THE WORK.
Okay, that’s a big fucking lie.
It’s fun to say. It feels very butch to tell someone to go off and fight for something. But they always have their fingers crossed behind their backs. Because they know it’s a lie. No one actually wants you to fight for the work. It causes a ton of problems.
Here’s what happens when you fight for the work. You get labeled as difficult, unwilling to collaborate, not a team player, egocentric, stubborn and the best one of all—precious. Eventually the client will ask that you be taken off the account and your job is given to some pansy ass, order taker who everyone gets along with and is the living and breathing embodiment of spineless mediocrity.
The truth is that out of all of the people who work in advertising, I’d say about 5% of the total advertising population have the necessary reputation, successful track record and mental authority to actually fight for the work.
Lee Clow can say, “This is the ad you’re going to run or you can find yourself a new agency.” Of course, Lee is retired. So it’s really more like 4.9% now.
There are really only three people at any agency who should ever fight for the work: the CCO, the CEO and whoever the SVP is on the account. Those are your fighters. And if they want work to be fought for, they should be the ones who go running headfirst into enemy fire. They’re the ones who should be willing to step into the ring at any time, go toe to toe with the client and provide the necessary leverage to move a polarizing piece of work forward without jeopardizing the day to day relationships of the people who actually have to get shit done together.
If any of those people ever tell you to go fight for the work, they’re basically telling you to do their job and risk yours. It’s actually pretty smart. They're pulling in major salaries. You’re making peanuts. They don’t want to risk their club membership and Tuscan villa over a silly ad. You, on the other hand, can always get a roommate.
Here’s another big ass advertising lie. I love this one.
LIE: IT’S ALL ABOUT THE WORK.
Holy shit is that an enormous fucking lie.
Are you kidding me? Advertising is all about the work? As in the ads? Are you out of your fucking… hold on a sec… I need a moment.
Okay. I’m back and I’m feeling slightly better.
So it’s all about the work, huh?
Go get a job at an agency. Get a job as the creative director on an important account. Grow the business so that the account doubles in revenue your first year. Then triple it your second year. And then, just for good measure, do some work on that account that wins the biggest awards your agency receives that year.
Then, (and this is the really important part) suppose for one reason or another—a reason that has absolutely nothing to do with you or any of the work that you’ve done— one day that account suddenly leaves the agency.
While you’re in with HR receiving your severance package, ask whoever’s canning you if it was all about the work. You’ll get some interesting answers. None of which will be, “It’s all about the work.”
In fact, they’ll go to great lengths to tell you how much your involuntary departure isn’t about the work. It’s about making tough decisions and the unfortunate truth that the health of the agency must come first.
If you have any balls whatsoever, you’ll leave your Clios in one of the toilets with a note that says, “Anyone who tells you it’s all about the work is full of shit.”
Advertising is about a lot of things. It’s about clients and scopes and data and holding companies and process and winning and losing. That’s what advertising is about. There are winners and losers. The winners make a ton of money and have houses with tennis courts. The losers write blogs. That’s advertising.
The work? Ha! It’s fucking programmatic now. If it were about the work do you really think they’d let an algorithm do it?
It’s a doozy. But I have a lot of heart for this lie. It’s got spirit.
LIE: THERE’S NOTHING MORE IMPORTANT TO US THAN OUR CULTURE.
The genius in this lie is that it’s untrue on so many different levels that the sheer immensity of the deception is the very thing that makes it believable. Which is pretty fucking brilliant. This one had me going for a long time. I bought into it for most of my career. I even studied different agencies and what they claimed their cultures were.
But then I started working at different agencies. And I realized that they were all pretty much the same. It’s a rotating cast of similar characters, common catchphrases and endless blustering over and over again wherever you go. And yet they all claim to have a unique and robust agency culture that defines them and drives everything they do.
Which is just such a load of crap that it’s difficult to type it with a straight face.
There are a lot of things more important than your completely bullshit culture. Oh gosh, I’m not a business guy but just off the top of my head I’d say: your client roster, your billings, your revenue, your processes, your case studies, your ability to win new business, your resources for content creation, your leadership team, your reputation, your recruitment and retention of talent, the deli in your building and the design of your agency logo are all, in my humble opinion, far more important than summer Fridays and an annual agency talent show.
The idea of corporate culture itself is a lie. Agencies (and all companies) don’t have culture. They have a way of doing things. And usually, it’s because they have a strong leadership team that’s mapped out how they want things to be done.
And this is really the more common route…
There’s a head person. It might be the founder. It could be the CEO. The CCO. The managing director. Whatever. But whoever that person is, they have a way of doing things and whether they say it or not in most cases they’d be most pleased if people did it the same way.
Maybe they like to get in early. Or maybe they like to stay late. Maybe they like everything to be in the form of a PowerPoint presentation. Or they insist that nothing be in the form of a PowerPoint presentation. Whatever it is, if they’re the type of person who’s gotten to the top, then they most likely believe very strongly that the way they do things has been the key to their success. And unless you’ve got a new gig lined up or you’re incredibly dense, they’re going to assume that you’d be an absolute fool not to follow their formula.
What’s being sold as culture is really just the boss’s way of doing things. Which used to be quite clearly expressed as “It’s my way or the highway”. Which, if nothing else, never suffered from a lack of clarity. Someone, somewhere along the line suggested that it was insensitive, so they started calling it culture.
Simply put, culture is code for “Around here we do things a certain way and if you don’t like it then you can hit the bricks.”
Don’t believe me?
Call up one of the 40 people left at Crispin and ask them about their culture. They were agency of the decade. They didn’t even have to pitch accounts. Alex Bogusky was so fucking cool that he could just call up a company and say, “Hey, we’d like to do your advertising now. Please send us all your assets.”
Crispin was Crispin because Alex Bogusky was a fucking advertising savant who worked his ass and his people’s asses to the bone around the clock, non-stop—only occasionally pausing to either ride mountain bikes or go pick up another round of awards at Cannes. He also had an incredibly deep bench with people like Rob Reilly, Andrew Keller and Rob Strasberg who could stay up for days bringing Alex ideas until one finally made the cut.
It wasn’t a culture. It was one brilliant, dazzling, rock-star, workaholic who an entire building full of talented people wanted to be like. And I don’t blame them. The dude was a total badass. I wanted to be like him too. I also wanted to be like Joe Strummer, but I’m not. And it isn’t because I’m not embracing Joe Strummer’s culture. It’s because I’m a shitty fucking guitarist.
Need another example? No problem.
The Richards Group.
When I was stupid enough to believe that agency culture was a real thing, I always used to point to The Richards Group. I loved the stories of the long tenures and Stan walking through the agency at 6 o’clock insisting that people stop work for the day and go home to their families.
Stan was big on family. He was a traditional guy. In fact, he was such a traditional guy that for most of the agency’s history women weren’t allowed to go on his annual company ski trips.
And yeah, he used to tell people to go home at 6, but if they weren’t at their desks on time in the morning, he would publicly shame them over the company loudspeaker.
It turns out, that what I thought was culture was really just one man, imposing his worldview and his way of doing things onto his employees. That’s not culture. It’s rules.
I have no problem with rules. However, as a creative, it’s sort of my job to break them. So maybe Stan kept that in mind? I don’t know. I never worked there. I just heard the stories. And then, like everyone else, I saw what happened at the end. My heart goes out to the hundreds of employees and their families whose lives, careers and income were disrupted by one man’s folly. We won’t wade much deeper into those particular waters at this time.
The point is there is no such thing as agency culture. It’s a big fucking lie. And it’s a bummer because there was a time when I really thought it wasn’t.
Turns out, it’s just another tooth fairy.
Sorry, but someone had to tell you.
However, in my opinion, here’s the big one. The grand-daddy fib of them all. The undisputed heavyweight champion of advertising lies.
LIE: ADVERTISING IS OBSESSED WITH YOUTH.
How many times have you heard that one?
Yeah. Me too.
It’s total bullshit. It’s bullshit from a bull who is fed nothing but bullshit his whole life. That’s how much bullshit it is.
Advertising is obsessed with youth. Really?
Why in the world would advertising be obsessed with youth? As a target market? They don’t have any fucking spending power. 90% of all advertising is targeted to mom’s and baby boomers. That’s where the money is. They have the most spending power. Trust me. I’ve been to a lot of focus groups. Not one of them has anyone under 30 who isn’t married with children. They all have big bowls of M&M’s. But trust me when I say that none of them are designed to find out what young people think. We don’t care what you think because you don’t have any money.
So maybe it’s the people in the ads where advertising’s youthful obsession is? Well, we do like to put good looking, youthful people in commercials. I mean who wants to watch someone old and ugly trying out a new toothpaste? Good heavens, that would be disgusting. But if you’ve ever actually shot a commercial you know what a pain in the ass it is to work with anyone under 18. There’s a whole buttload of union rules you’ve got to follow when you’ve got minors on set. It’s a pain in the ass. Not to mention, most kids are really shitty actors. I’ll take a dog over a kid any day on set. Dogs know how to hit their fucking marks.
So, I guess, it must be the actual employees at agencies where the whole advertising is obsessed with youth thing plays out.
Advertising loves to employ young people. And can you blame them? They have so much to offer it’s irresistible.
We adore their lack of life experience which results in a complete inability to understand the true motivations and actual lives of working parents (who are the main target for nearly every ad and every product).
We place tremendous value on their complete ignorance of any pop culture reference that pre-dates the Wu Tang Clan. This can really help a brand miss the mark with baby boomers (who are the other main target for nearly every ad and every product).
And most of all, we love their inexperience as marketing professionals. It allows us to be mentors.
I totally get why advertising is obsessed with youth. It makes perfect sense.
And it’s the biggest fucking lie out there. Advertising isn’t obsessed with youth. If they were, then they’d begin every new business pitch with a few slides about how young and inexperienced the people are who will be working on your business.
“We’ve got our average age down to 24! How fire is that?”
No. That doesn’t happen. Because advertising isn’t obsessed with youth. It’s a fucking business. They’re obsessed with making money.
Which is where the truth finally comes out.
Youth is cheap. Experience costs money. Seasoned talent costs money.
People who understand families and baby boomers the best are people who actually have families and/or actually are baby boomers. And those people cost money. They also need to leave at a decent hour to pick up kids, prefer to spend weekends with their families and every once in a while, take a vacation. You gotta pay for that and advertising hates that shit.
I’m not anti-young people. I’m anti ageism. And I’m pro serving clients to the best of our ability. And that’s where the lie hurts the most. Advertising’s obsession with youth is not because they have their fingers firmly placed on the pulse of pop culture. It’s not because they’re better at coming up with ideas. And it’s not because we need them to understand new platforms. It’s because they’re cheap and profit margins are thin and payroll is pretty much the only place left where you can find the dough to pay for a decent Tuscan villa.
The only thing advertising is obsessed with is money.
If anyone tells you different, they’re lying.