Hey Ad Man, What Business Are You In? #Rhetorical

I don’t know if ad grunts are any more likely to complain about work than any other profession, but I do know we find plenty to complain about: unreasonable timelines and budgets, long hours, okay pay, testy clients and account directors, unnecessary attitudes from the creative department, mindless focus on the minutia, and so on.

But all that is the glass half-empty view of the agency business. For the glass half-full version we turn to former CEO of Leo Burnett Singapore, John Kyriakou.

Writing for Campaign Asia-Pacific says, Kyriakou extolls our virtues, while challenging us to reach higher.

I still hear people say ‘we’re in the ad business’. At some point we need to realise that the success of our business is entirely based on the success of our clients’ business. Entirely.

If we at least begin to accept that, then we should be developing ideas, not just ads, that help strengthen the spreadsheets of our clients. We need to become, you guessed it, thinkers and innovators.

Businesses need to be more creative now than ever, not more conservative. They need new ways to stimulate people, whether it be through product development, packaging innovation, new distribution channels. People do not need more of the same, they need difference in their lives. Agencies have everything at their disposal to supply it.

It’s funny, I was in the “ad making” business for awhile, and it was a me-centered universe. What mattered was selling the best creative, regardless of what the client thought of it, or if it actually might work in the marketplace. Because those things didn’t matter. What mattered was a better book for me, so I could get a better job and more pay. If my clients and their customers were also happy, all the better.

Thankfully, I managed to grow up and get past this limited POV, but I am well aware that the conditions which created it remain in place. We are human beings and we like to follow formulas. Even the best agencies follow formulas. Take W+K. It might be a stretch to say their work is suffering, but I will say it is increasingly formulaic. And there’s a reason for it, which has everything to do with following formulas.

The formula W+K and other elite agencies use looks like this: Hire only the people we know, or know of, people with strikingly similar books and backgrounds, and keep them busy doing what the agency is best at — delivering TV campaigns.

Why do you think digital is such a challenge for W+K and other leading traditional shops? Digital is outside the formula. So, right now a new digitally-enhanced formula is being made, which will theoretically create new digital hits. Yet, for digital to jump the direct marketing shark and emerge as a brand building platform, we need radical disruption, not another formula.



About David Burn

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. Today—after working for seven agencies in five states—I am head of brand strategy and creative at Bonehook in Portland, Oregon.