Sunday Sermon: Towards A Sustainable Communications Practice

I’ve learned some things in my ten plus years working in advertising. Perhaps the most important thing I’ve learned is that I’m ill suited for this business. Simply put, I have the wrong temperament. I lack all patience for the daily compromises that must be made. That’s what this business is, like politics, one compromise after the next. I also have zero interest in serving “corporate America.” I loathe corporate America. Note, I did not say I loathe business. In fact, I love business. Business with a higher sense of purpose can do a lot of good for its workers, its customers and the community at large. Take Patagonia. Patagonia doesn’t just manufacture outdoor clothing and gear to make money. Patagonia is not part of corporate America, they’re part of corporate Utopia. The company is a change agent on many levels. When the founder and CEO writes a book called Let My People Go Surfing, you know it’s far from business as usual in Ventura.

Let My People Go Surfing is the antithesis of the book most captains of industry keep near and dear. Their book might be titled Let My People Eat Shit Sandwiches, because that’s the primary diet in corporate America. The ingredients that go into preparing this dish include: incompetence, greed, poor communication skills, need to know power trips, headgames, meritless advancement, fear for one’s job and a commitment to maintain the status quo at all costs. What’s lacking from the menu: innovation, honesty, trust, instinct, real teamwork and a moral compass to name just a few.

When you work in advertising you almost always serve the drones, because others like Patagonia, frankly don’t need you. Exceptional companies have lots of fans and precious word-of-mouth. They can focus on improving their product, customer service and their internal processes. In these special cases, advertising takes cares of itself. The drones on the other hand need lots of puffing up. Since people aren’t inclined to to recommend their product or service, they have to recommend it themselves and their ability to do so is seriously flawed. Face it, no one likes a blowhard and companies forced to toot their own horns are exactly that. This is where the lies come flooding in. A company that advertises in a typical fashion is telling the world about its best features according to them. Yet, people inside the firm are almost always unable to see what the best features to put forward are. They’re too close to it and too deeply invested in towing the company line to see things objectively, which is precisely how consumers see things.

Our job as agency advisors is to walk the line between the client and the customer, between fantasy and reality. And yet we too often fail. We fail because we tend to adopt corporate America’s bad practices. Instead of holding tight to objective reality, we get sucked into the clients’ various fantasies about themselves. As soon as that happens, we’re toast. We’re toast for our clients’ bullshit spread. And then we wonder why consumers won’t bite. Please. Consumers are people with jobs in corporate America. They already have plenty of bullshit in their diets—they’re not going to volunteer to eat more.

So, where does this leave us? Thanks to the web, we’ve entered the age of radical transparency. People are talking and sharing information on a scale heretofore unimaginable. This is what we mean when we say, “You don’t own your brand, your customers do.” A brand can invest millions in whatever fantasy gets them off, but it doesn’t mean a thing if it’s not real, nor true. The future belongs to those brands with the balls to tell the truth. It’s that simple. Our job as trusted advisors to brands is to help them find the truth and then present it in a compelling fashion. Should a client resist—and they will—the relationship is doomed. Will it fall apart overnight? Yes, sometimes it will. In other instances, the fantasy will be perpetuated for years, for some brands have thick layers of insulation (also known as money). But in the end the truth will be told, just like it is in politics.

I know many who read this are presently attached to the lies of old. Those lies have provided homes, sports cars, boats, nice shoes, expensive wines, fancy vacations, etc. But let’s recognize that the lies are not sustainable. Hence, our power to earn is not sustainable. What is sustainable is a communications practice based wholly on the exploration and glorification of the truths inherent in the brands in our care. Each brand has such truths, however mundane. We have to dig for them and then find the best way to present them. Doing so works for everybody—the brand, the agency, the customers and the community.

About David Burn

Co-founder and editor of AdPulp. I wrote my first ad for a political candidate when I was 17 years old. She won her race and I felt the seductive power of advertising for the first time. I worked for seven agencies in five states before launching my own practice in 2009. Today, I am head of brand strategy and creative at Bonehook in Portland, Oregon.


  1. Hallelujah! Well said.
    Preach on.

  2. Hi David,
    I hear you on all fronts when it comes to the conflict between business vs corporate America, and the conflict that some of us face in advertising. After 17 years in ad agencies around the country, I experienced something that changed the way I viewed each. At a brand off-site with Gary Hirshberg of Stonyfield Farm yogurt, it became plainly clear that businesses could be run differently–along what is known as a double or triple bottom line axis–and that I could work as a marketer aligned with these brands alone. We started egg in Seattle in 2004 to work with companies like his.
    Have you heard about NAU in Portland? They are pushing the limits even further and present to me a challenge of the business as usual paradigm to the extent that anyone has before. I have my fingers crossed for them. Check out their blog. The Thought Kitchen. And ours, for that matter: egglog.
    Take care.

  3. Wow. Nice one.
    Agency politics aside, (or maybe not!) it all really does boil down to the Truth. I’ve been lucky enough to have spent only 2 of my 15+ years in the ad biz working for an agency – and it’s true, for an industry that thrives on communication there’s an amazing lack of it. I’m more interested in true blue relationships than I am dealing with the NTAC (No Talent Ass Clowns).
    As far as my two years of dining on bullshit sandwiches, compromising everything I know to be real, true and factual, all while playing “The Game” as the buzzword dropping big wig drones refer to it, your comment about incompetence, greed, poor communication skills, need to know power trips, headgames, meritless advancement, fear for one’s job and a commitment to maintain the status quo at all costs rings loud and clear to me.
    Don Sexton, a professor of business at Columbia University, said it best in a recent Advertising Age article: “Sizzle alone won’t do it, you have to have the steak as well. Great advertising makes a lousy product fail faster.”
    Thanks for the insight.
    H. Michael Karshis

  4. Danny, Marty and Michael,
    Thank you for your kind encouragement. When you speak your truth you wonder what’s going to happen next. That like-minded individuals will find you, and you them, is what we all hope for. I’m glad to see it working.

  5. rich nicol says:

    Hi all,
    Good write up of some of the problems in communications. I work for a not for profit environment advocacy group on a corporate enagement program called Green Capital
    I am looking at messaging in communications and the responsibilities of ad agencies and advertisers in telling the truth and promoting a sustainable form of consumption. There is a direct conflict of interest in selling more and more new products whilst discarding the old (sometimes barely used ones) So how does an organisation continue increasing sales and revenues whilst fostering sustainability? and what responsibilities do ad agencies have in encouraging less consumption? A bit of a conundrum when advertising is designed to primarily sell product. For example should a “responsible” ad agency promoting sustainability agree to market cars? The other issue I am interested in is appropriate messaging within ads that can actually change the way consumers think. Just some thoughts

  6. Rich,
    Thanks for jumping in. You ask, “What responsibilities do ad agencies have in encouraging less consumption?” Brutal question. And one no one I know in the business has a good answer for.
    I think to answer it honestly would bring financial damage to the industry and the myriad industries we support. Because less consumption is the key to a sustainable future on the planet. It’s our duty as humans to consume less. Yet our duty as designers and writers in the employ of brands mandates that we find new and better ways to sell. Failure to do so is utter failure in business terms.
    A conundrum, indeed.