March 30, 2011

Advertising's Cranky Senior Citizens

I generally read two kinds of advertising blogs -- those written by young people who are enthusiastic about the business, and those by old people who are fed up.

I am very happy that there are young people who are excited by the prospects for the ad industry. I salute their spirit and their optimism. I hope they are right.

But this post isn't about them. It's about advertising's cranky senior citizens.

The question is this: Are these old farts correct that something has gone terribly wrong in adworld or are they just typical whiners, past their sell-by, who are nostalgic for an imagined yesteryear that never existed?

Being one of the prime perpetrators of crankiness and disillusionment, I'm pretty sure you can guess where I come down on this question. I think the ad industry has become a stinky heap of group-think and acquiescence.

Here are some of the things that have gone wrong.

There is way too much money and power in the hands of the wrong people.
The ad industry is now run by horrifyingly dull men in grey suits. Advertising used to be an entrepreneurial business lead by (sometimes crazy) people who actually practiced the art. You can't tell the ad guys from the bankers any more. The new oligarchs have added almost nothing of value, other than a relentless drive to eliminate costs. In the not-so-distant past, no agency had more than a 2% share of the U.S. advertising market. Today, four global monstrosities control over 70% of the advertising dollars.

The waiters are doing the cooking.
Remember when Steve Jobs was kicked out of Apple (1985-1997) and it was run by a series management geniuses? They immediately turned it into a piece of crap. The same is happening in advertising. It is no longer run by ad people. There has been a massive transfer of power away from creatives toward managers and technocrats. Yes, there are still some wonderful creatively-driven agencies. But they are becoming a tiny minority.

The tactical is driving out the strategic.
Tactics always drive out strategy. But there has never been a time when I've seen so much lip service given to strategy and so much money spent on tactics. There are two important advertising words I almost never see or hear anymore -- campaign and concept. Nobody has the patience for a campaign, and a concept has no "metrics." The internet has turned us all into a bunch of math majors.

As Socrates might have put it, just because we're old and cranky doesn't mean we're not right.

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