June 10, 2010

Advertising's Degenerative Disease

Last week, Apple surpassed Microsoft as the world's most valuable technology company.

I've never done work for either of these firms, but they seem so different to me it's hard to think of them as being in the same business.

I was trying to understand what made them feel so dissimilar to me. I think it's craftsmanship.

It seems to me that Microsoft is a company run by a businessman. Apple is a company run by a craftsman.

This is not to say that a craftsman can't be a good businessman, or that a businessman can't also be a craftsman.

But there is clearly an aesthetic sensibility at work at Apple that doesn't exist at Microsoft.

As I said in a previous post, "We are so used to the name Microsoft, we have forgotten what an alarmingly awful, cringe-inducing name it is. When you start with such bad taste, it’s hard to ever recuperate."

I think there is a lesson in this for the ad industry.

The ad industry used to be a business of craftspeople. The men and women who started agencies were generally copywriters, art directors, or account people. They plied the trade of advertising and knew it well. They worked at ad shops and when they got fed up, they set out to do it better themselves.

They'd start their own shop and this would spawn a new generation who, in their own time, would break off and continue the cycle.

The leaders of today's global ad agencies are not crafts people. They're businessmen -- lawyers, accountants, financiers, insurance guys. They wouldn't know a rough cut from a lug nut.

In the era of the crafts person the ad industry looked very different. Not that long ago Y&R had the largest share of the ad market in the US at about 1.5%. Today, four global monstrosities control over 70% of the ad spending in the US.

I've been around the ad business long enough to know that it's never been a little slice of utopia. But I have a hard time believing that an ad industry controlled by financiers is preferable to one controlled by craftspeople.

It's a very rare apple that can have it both ways.

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