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

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 now head of brand strategy and creative direction at Bonehook in Portland, Oregon.