In a year filled with chaos and uncertainty, it’s increasingly clear that the future of the advertising industry hinges on economic, social, and political forces constantly in flux.
And in the midst of the fog of 2020 comes a firecracker of a new book. British Creative Director Steve Harrison holds the advertising industry’s feet to the fire in Can’t Sell Won’t Sell: Advertising, politics and culture wars. Why adland has stopped selling and started saving the world.
Frankly, this book will piss a lot of ad people off, should they decide to read it.
Harrison is not subtle about what he sees as an industry dominated by myopic, left-leaning urbanites who’ve forgotten what they’re supposed to do as ad professionals and are out of touch with the audience they’re supposed to be talking to.
He echoes a point of view that’s gaining popularity among some folks in the industry even as it contradicts the “conventional wisdom” one often reads on blogs, in industry trade publications, and on the “About Us” web page of many agencies: That in a quest to embrace “brand purpose” or the idea that brands should be taking moral or political stands, the real purpose of the industry has been lost. That we’re not building brands, selling products, promoting businesses, or truly offering valuable results for our clients. And that because of a desire to force-fit a sense of social justice into every deodorant, snack food, or sneaker brand, we’re not only failing to keep our industry alive, we’re failing to do our part to help capitalist economies provide the means to a better life for our fellow humans.
Harrison is British, so much of the book is written through a British lens. If you’re an American like me, some of the details, people, and campaigns he references might be little tough to relate to. But of course, in 2016 there were parallels to the Brexit results and the election of Donald Trump, which is where much of the book really has its origins. And there were similar reckonings felt among both American and British advertising people, many of whom had trouble reconciling their personal beliefs with what so many of their compatriots voted for. Harrison places the blame on an industry he sees as having turned insular, filled with too much groupthink and too little grasp of marketing fundamentals.
In an interesting twist, Harrison completed the first manuscript of his book in March 2020. The COVID-19 outbreak, economic crisis, and subsequent ad industry downturn compelled him to write an additional chapter reflecting the new reality our industry is confronting. Among other things, he admits that his skepticism of the power of digital marketing has changed due to its vital role in keeping brands and sales moving in a world under lockdown.
Can’t Sell Won’t Sell isn’t some extended blog post. Harrison’s done his homework and the book is filled with extensive footnotes culled from several years of posts, articles, surveys, reports, and other ad industry sources.
Still, in a lot of areas, the book does feel like an intentionally inflammatory screed. There’s a whiff of “get off my lawn” sentiment here and there, and there are also some very big generalizations throughout. For instance, Harrison references the ad industry’s renewed support this year for Black Lives Matter by calling it a “movement devoted to the destruction of capitalism.” Perhaps he’s confusing a mild statement of support for the tacit endorsement of the codified platform of an actual organization. Regardless, he completely dismisses the impact of overt and subtle forms of discrimination Black professionals in the ad business have experienced, at least in America. It gets only a brief mention, but it’s a jarring statement in a book that’s full of provocative rhetoric, and such language reduces the credibility of his larger points.
Thankfully, Harrison does point out some of the ways in which advertising has worked for good — when a cause remains true to a brand’s mission, as with REI’s “Opt Outside” idea. And he revives his own experience as an agency owner to talk about how he’d approach cause marketing, pick the right type of clients, or let his employees pursue work that reflects their personal values. So there are some nice lessons for ad professionals looking for the middle ground of running a successful agency that does good by its clients and good by its people.
But in the end, Harrison believes the ad industry is on a suicide mission by injecting what he sees as narrow-minded ideology into the core of the business. He knows that he’s perceived as being on the wrong side of the debate. As he states right out, “I’ve already been dropped by a couple of left-leaning industry friends who I’ve known for years.” (Full disclosure: I’ve met Steve Harrison a couple of times and consider him a friend, even after reading the book!)
I can’t say he’s completely right, and I can’t say he’s completely wrong. After all, Bill Bernbach once said, “We are so busy measuring public opinion that we forget we can mold it.” And that desire to make culture drives many people in our business to right what they perceive to be society’s wrongs. Ad people have a charge to change the status quo and in a world that’s evolving, the industry must evolve as well. Still, we have an obligation to move the needle for the clients we work for, and so much of today’s lauded work fails to do that.
Ultimately, Can’t Sell Won’t Sell raises some important issues worth discussing. I haven’t read an advertising-related book as provocative as this one in a long time. But because of its very nature, I suspect many of the people who should read it won’t touch it.
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