There used to be this thing called advertising.
Updated: Dec 25, 2021
There used to be this thing called advertising.
Man, was it a blast.
We had so much fucking fun working in this thing called advertising, that you knew eventually it had to end.
Shit like that can’t go on forever.
It isn't sustainable.
But it was great while it lasted.
It was our thing.
We were a bunch of fucking cast-offs.
We were weirdoes and misfits with stupid haircuts and manageable drug habits.
We couldn’t work anyplace else.
We didn't know how to do anything else.
And no one else would let us in their building.
We practically had to go through make-up and wardrobe just to look respectable enough to present in front of a client.
But they didn’t care.
They loved us.
They gave us— a bunch of idiots —millions of dollars to play with.
And we gave them stories for days to take home to their buddies.
They’d show up at the beginning of the year with buckets of money.
They wanted TV commercials, print campaigns, outdoor boards and radio spots.
After they showed up with their buckets of money they’d disappear for 6 weeks while we came up with the splashy ideas.
After a while, they’d ask how things were going.
And we’d tell them we needed two more weeks.
Even if we didn’t.
When the presentations finally did happen, there’d be creatives lined up all the way down the hall with boards tucked under their arms.
The good ones presented well.
The great ones put on a show you’d pay money for.
At the end of the day a decision would be made.
It was like winning the fucking lottery.
You took the whole thing home if you won.
And then the clients would be taken out for a night they’d not soon forget.
There were no fucking receipts.
Fuck that shit.
All a receipt would do is provide proof.
No one wanted that kind of evidence laying around.
This thing called advertising required a certain amount of plausible deniability.
But even if you got busted doing something you shouldn’t it still didn’t matter.
Because everyone out there on the street was running around shouting, “Whazup??”
People all over were saying, “Stay thirsty my friend.”
And folks were singing the Real Men of Genius song.
People loved us.
And they damn well should have.
We were fucking hysterical.
We were better than half the shows.
We were contributing as much to pop culture as anyone in Hollywood.
Shit. Hollywood started coming after us and plucking off creatives left and right.
They even made our commercials into movies sometimes.
It was nuts.
But it was good nuts.
You never came to work before 10:30.
People looked at you weird if you showed up any earlier than that.
They knew you were up to something.
The only reason a creative would be at work at an ungodly hour like 9 a.m. is because they were making color copies of their book to send to a headhunter.
Which we all were doing as much as possible.
If you wanted to be in New York there was Ogilvy, McCann and BBDO.
Grey was shit.
Nobody good went there until Tor went there and made it great and then he left and it turned to shit again.
Kirshenbaum was so fucking cool that they painted their entire office gold.
Mad Dogs and Englishmen were insane.
They were lunatics.
There were drugs all over the place.
It was fucking National Lampoon.
Out in LA you had Chiat/Day.
These guys invented an entire advertising aesthetic.
They called it West Coast style advertising.
And people ate that shit up.
Goodby was killing it in San Francisco.
Creatives would work for free there if they could.
Same with Wieden.
Everyone wanted to do a Nike spot.
Including directors, who would shoot them on spec if you gave them enough business.
You could get anything you wanted if you gave people enough business.
We got concert tickets and expensive dinners. Shit, I got a helicopter ride one time.
I had a boss who would take the entire group to Las Vegas each year.
He paid everything.
He gave me $1000 just to mess around with.
I was 25 years old.
Do you know what kind of fucked up shit you can do when you’re 25 years old with $1000 in Las Vegas?
I did that.
This thing called advertising encouraged it.
And leveraged it.
They wanted us out of our minds.
Because the people who watched our commercials wanted them written by people who were out of their minds.
It all seemed to work out just fine for everyone involved.
This thing called advertising was one boondoggle after another.
And when the clients with the now empty buckets went home, they took their TV commercials and print ads and radio spots with them and they left you the fuck alone until next year.
They didn’t sit around every day fretting over the metrics.
There were no metrics.
We didn’t know what the fuck a metric was.
You walk into a creative department back in the day and start throwing around words like metrics you’d get your fucking ass kicked.
Sure, we had focus groups and testing and stuff like that but we didn’t pay attention to it.
It was just another excuse to go out and have some more fun.
Except instead of Los Angeles or New York or someplace glamorous you did it in Cincinnati.
You still got a nice hotel room out of it.
One time I spent three days in a hotel room eating and drinking exclusively from the mini-bar and watching pay per view movies.
They had to refill my fridge and snack cabinet every day.
I spent over $700 on little bottles of Johnnie Walker and chocolate covered almonds.
Nobody fucking cared.
We were doing good work.
People watch the show Madmen and think advertising is crazy.
Madmen is nothing.
That show was fucking ginger beer compared to what really went on.
Yeah, we were having the time of our lives but sometimes it got fucking ugly.
The egos became enormous.
There were fights all the time.
I remember a lot of yelling.
It was a pretty dysfunctional family.
And tensions ran high when the deadlines loomed.
Promotions and bonuses were at stake and more importantly so were reputations.
Yes, we had the greatest job in the whole corporate world.
But the nature of the business could bring out the worst in people.
They were all on the table.
I had all that shit done to me.
And then there was the fear to contend with.
It’s probably why they started giving us foosball tables and pinball machines.
We needed to be kept as distracted as possible.
Because despite the fun atmosphere, we were all terrified.
Terrified of sucking.
Terrified of doing the expected.
Terrified of being discovered as a complete fraud.
Totally unworthy of your position.
Reassigned to work on retail or the dreaded, direct.
They didn’t go to the fancy dinners.
They got in at 9.
Once they left your group you never saw them again.
And if you did, you didn’t talk to them.
They had the stink on ‘em.
In this thing called advertising, having the stink on you was trouble.
It was hard to get it off.
It preceded you into the room.
No one wanted you to sit near them if you had the stink on you.
You were bad juju.
But these ideas that we were after were serious business.
We were all fucking besties except when it came to the work.
Then it was Thunderdome.
And you never knew what kind of weapon someone was going to smuggle into the cage.
The whole assignment would be come up with a TV campaign and some asshole could walk in there with a brilliant set of newspaper ads that solved the problem better and it was game over.
You just lost because you forgot that in this business you can cheat.
You can do anything you want if it's brilliant.
Fuck the brief.
Let’s do that.
And then there were the ideas that were so amazingly stupid that they collapsed in on themselves and came out in a separate dimension as brilliant.
I worked with the guy who invented the Geico Gecko.
He held it back through three rounds of creative presentations because he thought it was so stupid that it would make him look bad to present it to his boss.
And when he finally did, even his boss wasn’t so sure.
The only reason they ran with it was because there happened to be a SAG strike going on and you couldn’t use live actors.
That’s the kind of shit that happened in this thing called advertising.
People walked around squawking, “Aflack!”
Which was moronic, but irresistibly fun to say over and over again.
Man, we had a good thing going.
And then we fucked it up royally.
Some asshole went into a pitch and his big idea to win the business was to slash his agency fee for the first year.
That’s when the nibbling began.
That’s when people started looking around at things and asking, “Do we really need that?” "Do we really need him?" "Her?"
When I was a junior, working at Leo Burnett in Chicago, it was the largest creative department under one roof in the entire world.
And then one day it wasn’t.
They started trimming the fat.
The deep benches became shallow trenches.
Everyone who was left just got more to do.
All you could do was ask, “Why? Why? Why?”.
And then we found out why.
They were gussying up the place.
Making it look good.
At least from a bottom line point of view.
And why were they doing that?
Because one-by-one they were all lining up for the biggest payday anyone in this industry had ever seen.
The holding companies came in with buckets of money that made the buckets that the clients used look like Dixie cups.
I'm talking big buckets.
And just like that, overnight, each and every one of us became commoditized.
It all went away.
All of the swagger.
All of the fun.
All of the horribly misfit characters with fried brains and half-baked ideas were sent packing.
That’s when “they” arrived.
The smart folks.
The big words people.
At first they talked a lot about synergy.
I remember having to look it up because I didn’t know what synergy meant.
Next came the emerging platforms.
Then came the data.
And the metrics.
Hal fucking Riney.
We used to have Gameboys laying around all over the place.
We used to have a beverage cart on Friday afternoons.
We used to go to movies and say we were concepting offsite.
Now we have metrics.
And programmatic buys.
And instead of shooting Tiger Woods, I’m searching for the right influencer.
Or maybe it would be smarter to use micro-influencers?
I just talked about being smart and using micro-influencers.
Put me out of my misery.
Take what’s left of my soul and just scatter it around like breadcrumbs.
Let the pigeons peck at it.
Better them than the vultures.
Goodfellas is one of my favorite movies of all time.
At the very end, when the Ray Liotta character goes into the witness protection program— he talks about ordering a plate of spaghetti and getting egg-noodles with ketchup.
He talks about how it’s all over now.
He’s just like everybody else.
He’s a schnook.
There used to be this thing called advertising.
It was fucking great.