Tuesday, June 13, 2017

Fifteen Ways The Advertising Business Used To Be More Fun, Part I

If you are under forty or so, you keep hearing how much fun advertising used to be. Starting back in the 1990’s things began to get serious and, today, most of the fun has been squeezed out of the business.  This has happened largely because of client dictated fees. Most of the things on this list, which are now missing, can be traced back to the reduction of income to ad agencies.

As I was writing, this list got long enough to do it in two parts.  Second part, next week.

Many of us have seen the business lose its luster and fun, which effects the work. One comment puts this post into perspective. About fifteen years ago, a very well-known advertising person was approached to come out of retirement and become chairman of one of the major agencies.  He and I had lunch to discuss the feasibility of his success.  One of the things he wanted to do was to bring back water-fights to the creative department. Yes, that’s right, water-fights.  Literally. (Over my advertising career, more than once I got soaked just being an innocent - or not so innocent - by-stander.) I suggested that he should probably not bring it up to the management team interviewing him; I didn't think it was appropriate. But he brought it up anyway.  He did not get the job.  I  thought strategy was right, but the execution wrong – we need to bring back the fun.

I have given this a lot of thought and here are some of the things that actually made the business fun.  Most don’t exist anymore.

1.    Big production film shoots
I can remember going to California for weeks at a time with the client and a huge contingent of agency people.  An entire account and creative group would go, including assistants.  We stayed lavishly (I loved the bungalows at The Beverly Hills Hotel), ate where ever we wanted and the clients joined us.  It was a wonderful bonding experience and, ultimately, helped produce better work.

2.    There were real training programs
Once upon a time all the young people participated in real training; training was for account people, creatives, research and media.  It consisted of lectures about the work (often showing creative work from other agencies), about strategy, marketing, about the media and about the business, often culminating in being given a case which the participants were broken into groups to solve.  Everyone worked hard, had a good time and got really good exposure to management who judged their work.  It, too, was great for bonding.  Case history winners got good prizes and accolades. Assistant account executives and junior creative people went on local shoots – it was part of training and got people motivated and involved with the business.

3.    Agencies did much more than advertising
We wrote both marketing and advertising plans.  We analyzed sales and marketing data and made recommendations based on our observations.  Last week, I wrote about the best focus group insight – the issue was only tangentially related to advertising. We worked with clients as their partners to solve problems, bring new products to market.  Sometimes, we even conceived of those products.

4.     We went out with salesmen and helped make sales calls
We were so integrated into our client’s business that, often, the client sales force came to us with observations and ideas rather than their own management.

5.    Water-fights and other nonsense were an integral part of the business
They really did happen. Probably not as much as portrayed by those who, in retrospect, yearn for the good old days.  But ad agencies worked hard and played hard.  I can remember a head of account management who would take the entire account group out to the movies during lunchtime. We ended up loving each other and having fun.

6.    Client entertaining wasn’t just reserved for management
Everyone was encouraged to spend social time with clients.  Getting to know clients on a one-to-one basis was taken for granted.  Going to good restaurants, theatre and ball games was encouraged and smart business. These perks were not just reserved for senior management.

7.    Everyone pitched in to help each other
Long before there were collating machines, I can remember laying out huge documents on a conference room table and having twenty people march around collating the pages.  It gave everybody a sense of ownership and participation.

To be continued, next week.


  1. Yes to all 7, although no water fights. I do however recall one agency phone system that allowed you to call one person, put the call on hold transfer to another person and you could stay on the line listening to some very funny conversations as the two tried to figure out why they called/were called.Collating was hell. Especially at 2AM.

    1. Collating was hellish, but necessary.

    2. Holy crap, I remember those 'collating' sessions, making circles around a conference table or across multiple desks!

  2. Paul what is sad about some agencies where I consult, too many young professionals believe what the company does is "advertising" which is not totally correct. With digital channels brands are doing more than communicating - they are fulfilling more of the value chain by being a channel for distribution, sales and customer service. If you're a digital agency person building apps, websites and other digital technology that does more than just put words on a page, then you are no longer just doing "advertising."

  3. Back in the day, we had more time. Even though we always waited until the last minute, we had time to think and research and experience brands in action. Now it seems like you need a crazy idea every second, a little validation from Google, and a few social likes to be a hero.

  4. There was a big-shot (in his own mind) Vegas-y account guy who was always up the CEOs ass. I stole the CEOs memo pad and wrote a note to the Account guy: "I just got a hot lead on the Trojan account. Come to my office immediately to discuss. Bring product samples" He did.

  5. Forget these 15 reasons or Paul’s next 15 reasons … The reason why Advertising isn’t fun anymore is because we now judge people on “How” they do what they do rather than “What” they do. Was a time in the ‘60s when creatives and “suits” drank and smoked too much. Then came the ‘70s when we morphed into drugs but could still smoke cigarettes in the office. Then came coke in the ‘80s and I don’t need to explain that. Yet with all this, we created the best advertising that the world has ever seen. Since then, "No smoking", no nothing. it’s all about computer KPIs and political correctness. The “fun” about advertising back then was accepting the diversity in our individual personal proclivities as long as we got the job done on-time for our “team”. Maybe go out for drinks together at the local pub after work. Anyone done that lately? The best to hope for now is eating at your desk, and getting the Hell out of the place as soon as possible … to have some fun with friends or family before midnight.

    1. This is too cynical for me. If you equate fun with drinking, smoking or drugs, you need to get help.

    2. I certainly don't equate fun with contraband or anything in excess. Especially on-the-job. But we seem to have homoginized everyone to the point of Evangelical sameness. No more "Mad Men" or women. Just computer people; with their headphones; checking Caller ID when the phone rings; banging away at their keyboards; with no sense about the value of actually doing something - anything - together.

    3. Anon: People are only homogenized because the holding companies treat them as with no deference or respect. The picture you paint is too bleak.

  6. So true Paul, the business has changed drastically...and not so much for the better. Relationships are not nearly as important. Good creative is not nearly as prevalent, and the willingness to pay for good creative too. Business etiquette is much different, less considerate. Change happens whether we like it or not, sometimes no better or worse, just different. But to me we're losing some of the human element in business. The way we treat each other, returning calls, thanking vendors for their efforts, those little nuances that always seemed important and worthwhile are fading.

  7. I think it became less fun in the late ‘80s as a result of many agency mergers. At least the media side did. When two full service agencies merged, the billings and work may have doubled, but management decided they didn’t need all eight associate media directors from both agencies, for instance; they could manage with five. So those five felt both pressured to get more work done AND in fear of losing their jobs. No more fun media lunches! I was a rep then and recall a guy telling me, “If I have a 90-minute lunch with you, that’s 90 minutes later I’ll be here tonight. We can meet in my office but not lunch.” That summed it up.

  8. Just rethink the "industry" you are in and the fun comes right back.

    Think of yourself as being in the 'ideas that build brands' business and 'off-site events', consumer ethnography trips around the country, presentations at client annual gatherings at exotic locations...become the norm.

    Sorry, water fights are not yet included. But 'idea relays' in a swimming pool are!

    Oh, and the pay is a lot better.

    The Purchase Managers don't know how to do comparison pricing of ideas.

    As yet.

    The word 'advertising' is soon going to be as outdated as the word 'typewriter'. Consumers don't trust ideas that look like 'advertising' anymore.

    Check out the new job/media list for Ideas.


  9. I'm in violent agreement with your second point, Paul.

    It is very sad that training has become a casualty of too-tight margins and too little time.

    As clients have become more experienced and knoweldegable, agencies, of financial neccesity, are becmoning less knowledgable and experienced, at a time when the business is vastly more cmplex than it one was.

    We're in a doom loop, with clients growing progressively more frrustrated and agencies becoming less able to deal with it.

    If we don't figure out a way to address this, the inevitable conclusion might be fewer agencies doing advertising, abdicating that responsibility to consulting firms, talent shops, in-house solutions, or any other, still-to-be-invented alternative that reduces client frustration and increases client satisfaction.

    1. Thanks, Robert. Your wonderful, articulate and important comment is very much appreciated.

  10. I definitely agree! I remember JWT used to have the cafeteria turn into a bar ("The Company Store") at 5 pm. Any given night you'd see senior execs drinking and chatting with junior staff. They threw theme parties like a back to school party with a lip sync and dance contest.

    Magazines threw great parties where you interacted with peers from other agencies. Redbook's Valentine's Day party and Worth Magazine parties were 2 of the best.

    Agencies encouraged young people to learn. From great training programs like Ogilvy & JWT, to attending local shoots, to sitting in on client meetings (and learning to write conference reports).

    We were immersed in our clients' businesses. We would do store checks where we went to various markets to actually count facings and check prices and promotions in cities across the country. The funniest one was when I was working on Lifestyles condoms, then owned by Warner-Lambert. I would have to spend quite a bit of time going through the entire condom rack. I can't tell you how many strange looks I'd get as a young woman, dressed in a business suit with a clipboard counting condoms and taking notes. Or when people would approach me asking where they could find something, and I'd have to say I didn't work there. One woman in Salt Lake City actually almost RAN to get away from me. I can only imagine what she was thinking!

  11. Absolutely agree about junior people in meetings. When I was a lass at Cunningham and Walsh (shows how far back) I was brought to Client meetings all the time. The understanding, unspoken but known, was that I was there to keep my ears open and my mouth shut. But that is how I learned. Same with internal, interdisciplinary meetings. By the time I left the agency side in the late 2000s,internal meetings had been replaced by emails excluding junior staff and we had all been told to minimize the number of people in Client meetings "not presenting not in the room". How are junior staff supposed to learn if they have no exposure to how the business gets done?.

    1. You hit the nail on the head. I meet a lot of young people who find the business boring and ultimately leave because or your very point. Thanks.


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