I grew up in the advertising agency business during one of the most vibrant periods in its history. It was an era where creative ideas actually got produced, where the creative community really was a community, where people shared insights openly and everybody understood that their Job #1 was to move brands forward, because it was good for the economy and even better for the soul.
A lot of this sentiment was a spillover from the late 60s when the creative revolution that had started a decade earlier (around the same time as the series Mad Men originally was set). I was mentored by the guys who were on the front lines during the initial wave, and they taught me a lot.
Bullshit Doesn’t Really Baffle Anyone
One of the key things they taught me was that people, no matter who they are, have really good bullshit detectors when it comes to advertising. If you make a claim for your product or service, you had better be able to walk that talk every time. Companies like Procter and Gamble totally understood this and had done very well for themselves in a nuts and bolts kind of way, similar to a lot of other packaged good manufacturers. The problem with the Procters of the world was that they didn’t really let creative people interpret their strategies so much as they did make them execute those strategies quite literally. The result of this was a lot of batshit boring advertising that sold products really well because, there was always some sort of demonstration of the product’s efficacy involved in any of the messages they put out. And their lack of creativity made them, somehow, more believable. Ironic indeed.
These were the kinds of accounts that were avoided like the plague by people like me for a long time. In fact, I always managed to find jobs that allowed me to work on pretty cool stuff, and when it wasn’t so cool, I always had good art directors who could make it look dynamic and it could succeed for that reason. A lot of the advertising that we all did during this period of the 70s was what we called “concepts in search of strategies”. It was wild and wooly and nobody was ever quite sure what they were doing. But as long as it was ubercreative, the clients seemed to be happy and business kept growing.
The Big Step Forward
In 1982, after ten years in the business, I decided to go on my own, having had a short freelance stint a couple of years earlier, which I liked very much. But just as I was in the process of making that decision, I got a call from an old friend, Pete Langmuir, who wanted me to come and work at the agency (DMB&B Canada) where he was creative director. I hesitated at first because the agency he was running was loaded with packaged goods accounts. But his argument, and this was a key thing for me, was that I had all the creative chops anybody could want, this experience would teach me how to work with and interpret well-formulated strategies and that would be the key to my success as an independent.
Now this was a really sane and sober thought in an otherwise crazy world. But in retrospect it was one of the smartest decisions I ever made. It was everything Pete promised it would in terms of a learning experience. The people experience was fabulous too. And we actually got to do some pretty decent stuff in the process. Nothing that would set the world on fire but, and I never really noticed this at the time, that era was coming to a close.
When I left DMB&B eight years later, the biggest achievement I would talk about wasn’t concerning any specific ad or commercial or campaign that I was involved in, but in the bigger picture of helping that agency grow from 25 million in billings to over 150 million. And the only reason for that growth was the success of the advertising and marketing that was done.
In 1989 I set out on my own. And thanks to my friend Pete Langmuir, and all the great people I worked with at DMB&B Canada, I was incredibly well equipped to handle myself out there. But the equipment I was using was quite a bit different than it was before I took the job at DMB&B.
Navigating Unknown Waters Is Best Done With Map & A History Book
It’s easy to rock a boat when you work on business that’s powered by creative ideas. But when you work on businesses that are powered by strategy, your perspective changes, or at least mine did, and I started thinking, for the first time, like a real marketing person.
Today, after 24 years on my own, I look at the advertising agency business as very much a commodity production line. Back when I was in it, I used to look at advertising without paying much attention to the fact that it is a relatively small part of the entire marketing process. My time with the biggies in packaged goods showed me how to look at the big picture, and see a product or service as it is reflected through the entire spectrum of activity that it takes to make it a real brand.
Tunnel Vision Is The Hobgoblin Of Most Minds
When it comes to marketing, it’s the easiest thing in the world to put on the blinders and see things from a very narrow perspective, especially if you are a creative person. But learning to see the big picture, learning how to develop ideas that will have the legs to carry the brand message through many different delivery channels, without a loss of integrity, that’s the art.
The More Things Change The More We Need To Question The Reasons For Change
As I look around at the world of marketing, I see a lot of emphasis on ‘content’. But what I also see is a lot of people who have no clue about how to market that content. Part of it is evolution. This is a new medium and the rules haven’t been figured out yet. But it’s also a medium that appears to have a kind of megalomania attached to it, in that it’s being sold, to a great extent, as a compulsory part of the marketing mix for almost every type of business.
I personally think this is a huge flaw in the way that things like social media and other forms of online marketing are influencing clients’ planning and spending.
As an objective observer, I am always suspicious of anyone who tells me I must have anything, especially when there is not a lot of concrete evidence to support this demand.
Someday there could be. But till that day, clients need to keep their options open.
Because in today’s world it’s not so much about rocking the boat as it is about steering the boat.