Here’s a pair of popular maxims on technology. I like both because they’re downright folksy enough (if too factually accurate) for a Tea Party stump speech, yet still highly relevant to advertising today:
1. “You don’t see many horse-and-buggy drivers anymore.”
2. “Television didn’t kill radio.”
Both are true, but as metaphors for disruptive innovation, they conflict. The first warns, “Don’t be a buggy driver. Evolve or die.” The second counters, “Radio survived. Don’t abandon the radios of the world prematurely.”
So which is it?
One of the first advertising people I met was Tyler Whisnand, a Creative Director at Wieden + Kennedy. At the outset of his career Tyler had been a copywriter, so when we spoke I was paintballing him with questions about how “the words” led to “the work.”
I explained to him that on paper (so to speak), it wasn’t clear to me how a writer could bring much to the modern advertising table. Interactive microsites and branded community platforms and even TV spots rarely need extensive copy. In the age of Subservient Chicken and what seems like a general devaluation of the written word, writing looks a lot like the new buggy driving: on its way to obsolescence. For my part, I worried that without bolstering (or straight up replacing) my writing with something else — like HTML or PHP or even Photoshop literacy, just something more “digital” — I’d be spoiled product before even getting a start.
Tyler’s advice was revelatory. He said no; that a writer should write, as much as possible, and not to worry about the rest. Coders code, filmers film, strat planners purportedly do something, and writers write. Their value doesn’t erode just because the media change, Tyler said. The bedrock of everything from print ads to the Nike+ program is still that same essential kernel of inspired thought, which before it becomes a digital/visual/experiential masterpiece is often just some words and a sketch.
So breathe, Tyler told me. And write.
His message is comforting, but it hardly lays the issue to rest. Can’t you imagine a UX designer somewhere laughing at such quaint analog naïveté? As he counts the scalps of dinosaur writers he’s made redundant and silences another recruiter’s call? I can. I’m plagued by skill set insecurity (and envy) that’s only exacerbated by reading things like Dan Goldgeier’s recent post on Talent Zoo.
Our knowledge economy has spread the knowledge around quite well. And made it easy for certain jobs – writing, design, photography, videography – to be done and spread by anyone. It’s why there’s much more demand in advertising right now for interactive types like programmers and developers than other types of folks. They’re the ones bringing the work into existence. When it comes to execution, the ideas themselves don’t seem to have the intrinsic worth that actually making them does.
We can’t know for sure whom to trust — and it varies from person to person — but hedging bets with new skills and education seems the safer route. Maybe some Lynda.com cases are in order, though I’d prefer to just hone and practice writing. But do we get to make that call?
Are you a buggy or a radio? Are you certain?
Previously on AdPulp: The Surfer’s Journey, Vol. 4