Editor’s Note: I am excited to introduce Mark St. Amant to our readers. Mark is an accomplished ad guy and author of two books about sports. He lives in Boulder, CO.
Human Centipedes And Other Nastiness
Right now, more than any other point I can recall in my 25-year (yikes) career, the Advertising industry is quite simply the worst it’s ever been. The. Goddamned. Worst. Apologies to all the kids, puppies and my mom out there for my ‘blue’, NSFW language, but I’m more angry than sad about it . . . which says a lot considering I’m Crying Jordan-/Nick Nolte mugshot-level sad.
I’m not talking about the work or the thinking, mind you; no, big ideas are still humming along at a nice clip, with loads of those “Damn, I wish I’d done that” concepts and executions popping up nearly every day. Work full of humor. Tears. Shock. Awe. Heart-stopping, thought-provoking, change-inspiring power. Work that changes minds, hearts, culture, and more. Work that, despite all the TMZ-level headlines coming from Cannes, still matters.
No, what I mean by “the worst” is: Advertising just seems to be unprecedentedly chock full of the lowest-rent, most abominable human qualities and actual humans these days. Maybe it’s because we have more access than ever to the Human Centipedes lurking inside people’s minds, but never before can I recall so much vitriol; self-loathing; jealousy; buzzword-spewing charlatans and self-proclaimed rock stars; nastiness; misogynists; phonies; frauds; criminals; upward-failers; cheats; and outright fools. Are you one of them? Is your art director partner, CCO, “Chief Soulfulness Officer” or “Hugger-in-Chief” a mean, empty, self-absorbed bullshit artist? Well, to paraphrase the old poker saying: if you’re looking around the conference room table and you don’t spot the person possessing one or more of these traits, then it’s probably you. Sorry.
Take, again, Cannes. Instead of celebrating all the amazing creativity, brainpower, riskiness, and collaboration leading to the world’s best work—note I didn’t say “bravery” because this is just branding, people, not a hot zone near Kandahar—then what are we talking about? Sexist party invitations. “Recruiters” trolling the boardwalk for hot chicks. Scam ads, e.g. Almap BBDO/Bayer. The non-functioning, phony iSeaApp from Grey/Singapore. And work that somehow managed to deftly combine both sexism and scammy-ess—that same Bayer scam ad, with its “Don’t worry, babe, I’m not filming this” headline. What, is Bayer actually Rohypnol? Is a headache the victim’s largest concern after her shitbag boyfriend secretly tapes their liaison and uploads it to 4Chan? I’m utterly blown away it won anything even without the predatory creepiness.
But the ridiculousness in France is only matched by all the nonsense and venom swirling here back in the good ol’ USA and elsewhere, which honestly makes our industry a very tough one to root for. Even for me, a longtime, diehard, grateful fan of what we all do.
So Many Scumbags Running Amok In Adland
There’s Bill “Catch Me If You Can” Grizack defrauding several agencies out of millions and ruining the lives of a lot of good, honest, innocent people. But almost worse was the subsequent glee and petty piling-on from industry malcontents proclaiming that Grizack was a charming, haughty prankster and victims like The Variable, McKinney, Egg Strategy and others “deserved” to be fleeced because…why? Because they’re in marketing and, therefore, are con men and women themselves? Because our entire industry is so self-loathing, sinful, materialistic and consumed with—and blinded by—style-over-substance narcissists that these agencies were either unwilling or unable to lift up the tarp hiding The Griz’s Elephant Man exhibit-of-a-personality and reveal him for what he truly was/is?
Then, there have been countless #BrandFails in recent memory, which always draw the ire of the non-marketing masses and further polarize us as a society. Like DiGiorno’s idiotic “You had pizza!” response to the #WhyIStayed trending topic, which addressed why women stay in abusive relationships. Beauty brand Seoul Secret’s “White Makes You Win” campaign promoting its skin-lightening products lead to success. Or Epicurious tweeting out healthy, energetic breakfast recipes to Bostonians…to help them get through the Marathon Bombing tragedy. Cue blank stare.
Our food tweets this morning were, frankly, insensitive. Our deepest, sincere apologies.
— epicurious (@epicurious) April 16, 2013
But wait, as old-timey voiceover copy used to read, there’s more! Like ex-JWT CEO Gustavo Martinez’s apparently embracing his inner Patrick Bateman and making awkward, clunky public rape jokes on film. Good call, Gus! And Campbell-Ewald/San Antonio’s “Ghetto Day. Oh, and for the king of brand vilification, I give you one word: Jared.
But worst of all might be the comment sections of blogs lately whenever (A) a capable, smart, talented, experienced female of any race, color or creed is hired at a senior level, or (B) a capable, smart, talented, experienced middle-aged white male is hired at a senior level.
Despite the great work of the 3 Percent Conference and the awareness they and others are generating for the lack of gender diversity in senior roles, that woman is inevitably accused of sleeping with/pleasuring/blackmailing some more important male to get that job because, of course, everyone knows that a silly woman can’t actually succeed on her merits, brains, experience or the content of her character, right?! Like the ECD who recently hired in Kansas City who happens to be an attractive blonde woman. While the quality of her portfolio, like all Advertising, is subjective, it was her gender that really released the mouth-breathing hounds, drooling out comments like “Clearly she got hired because of her ‘skills’”, “She must be a championship league client ass-kisser”, and “People have become so obsessed with affirmative action and being PC that it’s sucking what fun there is left out of the field.”
It’s Not Enough To Succeed; Others Must Fail
And what of that proverbial middle-aged white dude who gets another ECD gig? Well, he’s instantly, verdict-without-a-trial- convicted of basically being Satan simply for being—yup—middle-aged and white, i.e. the poster boy for the archaic past who now MUST be nailed to the marketing cross to pay for the sins of his caveman-like, misogynist, sexist, racist Madmen-era forefathers, because everyone knows that all middle-aged white guys are all Satanic misogynists, sexists, and racists, right?! Even the Grizack story mutated into a blanket condemnation of all white males vs. one destructive wingnut, via comments like: “This industry repeatedly hires white male bullshit artists with Warby Parker glasses spouting acronym-packed gobbledygook…and everyone is shocked to find that a prime chuck sociopath just happened to sign a couple of offer sheets?”
Yes, everyone in this business nowadays seems to be twisting their handlebar mustaches, sticking pins into voodoo dolls of colleagues and strangers alike, and vociferously, actively rooting for the demise, pain and rightful “comeuppance” of everyone else, as if we’re all nothing but a bunch of Ramsay Boltons . . . with laptops, trucker hats and Instagram feeds. And considering this Chernobyl-like atmosphere, can you blame anyone for secretly hating themselves or sheepishly, grudgingly admitting that they even work in Advertising in the first place? After all, according to a 2015 Gallup Poll, Advertising is the fifth least trusted profession in the world, only beating out such filthy pond scum as Lobbyists, members of Congress, telemarketers, and car salespeople . . . and losing to such bastions of integrity as stockbrokers, lawyers, and union leaders.
Bottom line, for these and countless other reasons, no one in Advertising seems happy. No one trusts, supports or encourages anyone else. No one seems just plain decent anymore. Everyone’s a hack. Everyone’s an a-hole, d-bag, fraud or phony. Everyone is undeserving of even the most gristly scrap of happiness or success. Everyone’s racist or sexist.
Advertising’s official new tagline? “It is not enough to succeed; others must fail.”
One-To-One Redemption In Massachusetts
Like many of you, I’m sure, it’s been wearing me down lately. Why am I working so hard to thrive, survive and succeed in an industry that, apparently, is parasitically devouring its own host body? What am I getting from Advertising besides the paychecks, the freedom to work in coffee shops and the propensity to mutter “Um, Advertising” whenever someone who works for a Syrian refugee relocation nonprofit, rehabilitates abused race horses—or is even a lawyer—asks me what I do.
Exactly. What do we do? Why do I—why do any of us—keep doing it? Well, whenever I’m even close to giving up on the people in Advertising, I hear an offhand story like the following that gives me my answer:
There’s a small shop outside of Boston. Not tiny, but not huge and certainly not the kind of place that can willingly float one of its most senior level employee’s salary and benefits while she doesn’t work for them.
But that’s exactly what this agency did after said employee, whom we will call “Sara”, tragically and unexpectedly lost her husband. The agency founder and CEO, whom we’ll call “Dan”, told Sara that the agency would pay her in full, no questions asked, for as long as she needed to grieve, process what happened, whatever it took for her to decide—if she even decided—it was time to return to work. And this, believe it or not, was a tough sell to Sara because she was a notorious workaholic (a longtime, award-winning art director) who would have to be pried off her double-monitor.
Hence, Dan went a step further: he personally called Sara’s sister and asked that she make sure Sara stay away from the office until she was ready and not a minute before. Even if she had to duct tape Sara to a chair, he pleaded, do not let her come into work due to any sense of obligation or loyalty or hyper work ethic. They had her back, however long and whatever it took. Hell, she could decide never to come in again and the agency would keep paying her salary and benefits, ad infinitum.
Now, cynics—and trust me, I can be more cynical than most— might say that this is just one, tiny island of good floating in a vast sea of sewage. But this otherwise everyday story of an employer’s simply treating his/her employee with a modicum of concern and respect—and going beyond that in Dan’s case—has got to just be one of many out there, right? One positive tale in our business that doesn’t make the headlines, but cancels out a million Grizacks, insane rape jokes and/or scam ads?
Good Works And “Good Work” Go Together
The Dan and Sara story reminded me that there still are truly good, decent, selfless people in our industry. It negated all the garbage. Showed me that there are still people in our business doing those seemingly small things that are actually monumental, even when there’s zero—or less than zero—in it for themselves. It was nothing short of a syringe of adrenaline plunged by Uma Thurman right through my sternum into my heart—a heart that was honestly starting to shrivel up Grinch-style and break for an industry and career that many of us are still trying like hell to love. Not to get all “Shawshank” on you, but it instantly reminded me of that Stephen King short story’s/Frank Darabont movie’s cornerstone quote:
Remember Red, hope is a good thing, maybe the best of things and no good thing ever dies.
So come on, people, let’s tap into our inner Andy Dufresne’s and have a little hope. Let’s stop all the bile-spewing; jealousy; misdirected age-, race-, and gender-shaming; lazy corner-cutting; self-loathing; gutless sniping from the comment section grassy knolls; and above all, the lack of faith that we can still actually make a difference in this world. Let’s re-boot whatever drew us to Advertising—and not finance, medicine, HVAC repair, grave-digging, lion-taming, and certainly not fucking Capitol Hill lobbying—in the first place.
It won’t be easy. After all, being a self-obsessed knob is the path of least resistance; it’s infinitely harder to be nice. But as we come out of our industry’s biggest celebration on the French Riviera and that joyous time in our branding calendar known as Q4, let’s all just try to take a deep breath, exhale, chill out a bit. Let’s think before we speak or post, lift each other up and encourage our collective positive impact on the world that, if the planets align, should be far more easily attainable than a scammy Lion.
Bottom line, from now on, let’s—forgive the pun—just try to “ad” a little more good back into Advertising.
Know any other great stories from our industry like Dan and Sara’s, to offset all the not-so-great? Send your story to firstname.lastname@example.org.