A brilliant new book from inside the advertising sector shows an industry in decline as its executives failed to change their ways, writes Andy Law
Most people don’t know about other people’s industries. They’re like private city-states, zones of particular mores and culture. So its no surprise that if you’re not in advertising you’ll know very little about the people and the companies who make up that specific industry. Mad Men, in fact, might be your only reference point.
However, what makes the advertising industry uniquely interesting to those outside it, are two things. First, its output is all around us everyday. It’s in our ears and on our eyes. In truth, it’s in our faces perpetually. Sometimes it rests in our minds. We respond to it. We sometimes discuss it. We expect it. It’s a part of everyday life and has been for many decades.
Secondly it’s an industry that is more of a craft. Unlike banking, accountancy, law, architecture, software design, health or education it requires no professional exams, education or training. You just tip up and start. If you’re smart, savvy and brimming with hubris you’ll go far. You can even creep in with a degree in Latin, Greek and Ancient History if you like. I know that, because that’s what I did.
Michael Farmer’s book, Madison Avenue Manslaughter, takes the industry apart in a cool, dispassionate and efficient way, explaining why “the operating and financial health of ad agencies has reversed and is weakening”.
Not that the-man-in-the-street would have noticed. We seem to be in an advertising explosion with more ads in more places, more of the time.
This profusion of product, Farmer believes, has not been matched by an appropriate profusion of profits. Admen are doing more for less and as such are being treated poorly.
The book provides a lively, useful and interesting glimpse at the last 60 years of advertising and neatly pinpoints key moments that created the decline of the industry. Admen are now “junior business partners” he asserts.
How you will regard this book depends entirely on where you now are in the Ad Land Firmament. If you are Sir Martin Sorrell who sits atop WPP you’ll not see yourself as a “junior partner” at all. Nor will Maurice Lévy of Publicis, or the other holding company chiefs. They are making serious money and returning value to shareholders.
And if you are a client you will continue to force costs down and drive quality and quantity up. There’s no surprise here. They will find it difficult to sympathize with the complaint that now you must have “all three”: Good, Fast and Cheap.
If you are Sir John Hegarty, you’ll be satisfied that your career has been handsomely rewarded by selling your independent, cool, highly creative agency to Publicis. Admen have been turning themselves into millionaires since the industry was created. Farmer picks out Bob Jacoby of the ad agency Ted Bates who made $111m when he sold to Saatchi & Saatchi in 1986. He notes the disdain that caused in the industry. “A living symbol of greed”, an Adweek reporter called it.
The book seems to me to work best for those admen who feel lost and trapped. Lost because creativity no longer caries a big stick and trapped because they are uncomfortably wedged between the holding companies and the tech companies who claim to deliver more, for less, without the fuss.
Farmer concludes that a root and branch look at the ad agency is essential and he provides a tidy process for so doing.
Agency chief executives must ask themselves two key questions, the author says, “What are our most fundamental problems?” and “What do we have to do to solve them?”
He makes the point that these sound simple but goes on to point out that agencies are hidebound by a long list of preconceptions about the perceived problems they are facing. I agree with his list. In fact I go further. Ad agencies should stop whining about the loss of their “Golden Age” and get real. Was advertising ever really THAT important? I remember that throughout my entire career in advertising (1978-2003) all I ever heard was a complaint that advertising “never sat at the top table”.
I feel Farmer has a sequel up his sleeve. Transformation is what is needed but in my experience this comes from more than just introspective insight and asking questions with “our” and “we” in them.
A good starting point for his sequel would be Professor Theodore Levitt’s wonderful 1960s Harvard Business Review article “Marketing Myopia”. To paraphrase Levitt, The ad agencies did not stop growing because the need for advertising declined. In fact, it grew. The ad agencies are in trouble today not because that need was filled by others (digital agencies for example) but because it was not filled by the ad agencies themselves.
Ad agencies need to stop the myopic introspection and unseemly moaning that comes from an ivory tower business. Admen should look around and see what is really going on. They are being superseded by new industries delivering more of what the customer wants.
Another starting point would be Marshall McLuhan’s 1964 book “Understanding Media” which has been cogently explaining the impact of the internet to us for over 50 years.
Both Levitt and McLuhan were writing in the early sixties, which the era of Farmer’s Ad Land “Golden Age”.
Farmer’s sequel might relate that the Mad Men never took their own advice “to be different and bold and relevant”, or bothered to understand what “signs of the times” their contemporaries such as Levitt and McLuhan were pointing to.
It could well be that the Mad Men came and went without anyone noticing, because from outside the industry, nothing much seems to have changed.
MADISON AVENUE MANSLAUGHTER