By Callum Towler
‘Chess is as elaborate a waste of human intelligence as you can find outside an advertising agency’. In an industry practically choked with aphorisms, said by people who sell advert ideas and arrive at the conclusion that they’re some sort of omniscient sage, it took an outsider, the writer Raymond Carver, to best sum up the industry in one deft turn of phrase.
It’s true: many clever, brilliant people make up ad agencies, all pouring their best thinking into the ads now present in every nook and cranny of life. I know because for three years I was part of it – working at two big beasts of the agency world. A soppy story about a banished moon man or a talking meerkat may, by now, seem trite, but underpinning these campaigns are a rigorous understanding of the way we think, and make decisions – usually when the right emotional levers are pulled.
Advertisers are the only psychologists that speak to us everyday – through ads on the telly and sponsored posts in your newsfeed – yet the message, so often, is laden with false hope or incongruous with the product itself. Buy a burger at McDonalds because it’ll make you happy. Want to transcend into glory like your heroes? Spend £100 on the latest Nikes! It’s an industry built on cajoling people to buy things they don’t need, for reasons far removed from what the product actually provides them.
There is, of course, the genuine work done to promote good causes, and those rare purchases that people treasure for a lifetime. But the minimal resources directed to campaigns like this is simply a way of alleviating a collective guilt felt in the industry, on a par with McDonalds funding research into obesity.
The truth is agencies are kept afloat by ugly brands, flogging ugly things, who pay a hefty price for a very public makeover. David Ogivly, curiously dubbed a ‘sought-after wizard’ by Time Magazine, said ‘advertising is only evil when it advertises evil things’ which, if we’re honest, is a lot of the time: the junk food damaging your body, the extortionate clothes made for nothing in sweatshops, technology sold on ethical pretences – the list of individual cases could fill a book.
What becomes clear is the primary duty of advertising; to paper over the cracks with a facade, painting a smiling face on the faceless brand for affinity’s sake. A former director of mine wrote that advertising is the last industry to have an ‘ambiguity tolerance’, which when interpreted into everyday speech, is just a pretentious way of saying it’s bullshitting for a living. Bravado like this is par for the course in an industry that holds itself in such high regard. Advertisers must sell their trade by elevating it to an unknowable art, through fear that clients may bring the entire operation in-house.
I was initially lured in by my own misconceptions of what an agency was. Sold as a creative antidote to the suit & tie corporate life, I found this was merely a surface sheen disguising the similarities between the two worlds. Proving that advertising had perfected it’s trade – doing for the industry name was it does for it’s client’s perceptions every campaign.
Like most companies, the hierarchy is strictly imposed, and moving up the ladder is made painstaking on purpose. It was clear the satisfaction those satisfied few felt was from their ability to wield influence around them – earned by the in-built respect wedded to their title. An environment like this, where power is everything, means promotions are not dished out on merit but used as both a carrot and stick. Ability plays second fiddle to age, and a precocious tendency is best kept caged. Like a former inmate may say: it’s about keeping your head down and doing your time.
Unlike other industries, advertising suffers from the false conceit that a good idea – expressed by anyone from the CEO to the lowly exec – suspends the usual laws of hierarchy and prevails. In reality this democratic illusion, best illustrated in the classic group brainstorm session, is a suffocation of ideas; where what constitutes a good idea is determined by the power players, who in justifying their position, tend to hear nothing but what they put forward. At least in other sectors – I hear banking is one – they’re honest; pawns are made to feel like pawns. Agencies actively trick their junior members into thinking they’re included in the larger process.
At a more senior level, promotions are handed out tactically – it’s an industry that celebrates the lack of a backbone. Benignly agreeing with your boss, and implementing his will, seems to be a more effective way of rising up than offering something original. In a unstable world of takeovers and mergers, the boss’ position is a curious one; they need good people around them they can trust, but the danger in elevating real talent is that they may, quite publicly, be outshone and superseded. Leaving a situation where loyal servitude outcompetes genuine talent.
Leo Burnett, founder of the global agency, said “curiosity about life, in all its aspects, I think, is still the secret of great creative people’’. But for an industry that says it’s selling creativity, it’s certainly in short supply. If anything it’s a deeply uncurious environment, with people so embedded in the industry, that everyday chat about, say, our wider culture is a rarity. Those labelled as ‘creatives’ are usually entitled layabouts in sandals good at waxing lyrical in industry jargon. And the genuinely creative people I’ve met, funnily enough, are usually outside the so-called ‘creative department’.
What makes advertising an intelligent practise is how it reaches people on an instinctual level, forcing them into action. But I have a real issue with equating advertising and creativity. For me, the latter is pure original thought, while ad campaign’s are reliant on skimming off popular social trends from the top layer of culture, and selling it back to that culture in the from of a packaged product. For instance, Coca Cola is no more linked to the concept of union than chocolate cake is linked to dieting. To call this creativity is to admit a real lack of imagination.
When getting to know people in an agency, what’s strikingly clear, almost straight away, is that most harbour secret dreams of doing something else one day; something richer and more personal to their talents. Advertising is the preverbal petrol station on the road to a more rewarding final destination. I think this is true of most but in advertising it might as well be written in the job description. A handful who talk earnestly about it’s graces tend to have deceived even themselves on the hell-bent crusade for more power.
If advertising is about understanding the behaviour of humans from all walks of life than this isn’t mirrored in it’s people. As an industry, there is a pernicious undertone of prejudice towards race, class and gender, best illustrated by the abundance of the white middle class, with little space for those outside this group. The fact that there were only 2 black people in an agency of over 200 says it all. It’s human nature to employ in our image, but if a preconceived idea of what you look and sound like determines your access, then systemic prejudice will only become further entrenched.
There are plenty of women in the industry but the real positions of power tend to go to men. Symptomatic of our wider society, it’s a boys club pretending to have a conscience by filling the middle positions with women. And the message is clear: ‘have a little power but we don’t trust you with the real decisions’. This well-patrolled glass ceiling is penetrated only by the fortunate few, with only 3% of executive creative director positions going to women.
Despite the preceding rampage, my biggest qualm with advertising is it’s untapped potential; to create real and lasting change in the way we think. The fact that we have clever people in a trusted position, advising executives on the makeup of their corporation’s public face, and yet every time we get the same fickle drivel, is for me, a missed opportunity. It may be the idealist in me speaking but why can’t brands attach themselves to more positive causes through their advertising? Latching on, very sensitively mind you, to ideas about ending the divisions we still suffer from, or simply giving a voice to the silenced. Sadly I know the answer to this myself: there’s much less financial risk in following established trends, then trying to establish one yourself.