September 25, 2014

Bulletin: Agency People Are Unhappy.

Last week Digiday ran a piece called "Why Agency People Are Unhappy."

Before we discuss how they got it all wrong, let's get a little perspective.

Unhappy agency people are nothing new. Agency people are whiners, always have been and always will be. Many are lovable whiners, but whiners nonetheless.

Half of the whining is legitimate -- many jobs in advertising suck.

Half of it is just the discontentment of people who consider themselves too creative for what they are asked to do.

And the third half is the natural inclination of everyone everywhere to bitch and moan.

Now back to Digiday.

Has the level of discontentment in advertising gone up in recent years? My sense is that has has, substantially. While I've heard an incessant drumbeat of unhappiness among ad people for 4 decades, I believe it is now considerably worse than ever.

Digiday drags out all the usual suspects to explain this:
  • Demanding clients
  • Low pay
  • Horrendous hours
  • Disrespect for the contribution
  • Disrespect for creative work
  • The effect of the Internet
  • Fear of innovation
These are mostly effects. They are not the cause. The deeper cause of all this angst is something much more subtle and misunderstood -- it is the consolidation of the ad industry.

As I have mentioned before, when I started in advertising, the largest agency in the U.S. was Y&R with about a 1.5% share of market. According to the latest figures I've seen, four enormous holding companies control over 70% of the advertising in the U.S.

The advertising industry is, structurally, a totally different industry than it was when it was pleasanter and creative-er. It is also totally different culturally. This makes an enormous difference.

A handful of giant megaliths -- controlled by financiers, accountants, lawyers and corporate flat tires (what a colleague of mine used to call "fearsomely dull men in grey suits")  -- run the ad industry. They are a very different breed from the craftspeople/entrepreneurs who used to run it.

I think you will find that the agencies in which people are most satisfied these days are either the independent agencies or the agencies that are so creatively successful that their holding company masters wouldn't dare screw with them. 

There is no secret to what happens to industries when they become consolidated -- the customers become angry and the employees become dispirited. Look at the airline industry, the telecom industry, and the banking industry.

The ad industry will never be any different as long as it is controlled by the likes of Michael Roth and Martin Sorrell.

We sold our industry to the highest bidders. And in doing so, we sold our soul.

It's hard to be happy when you're soul-free.

A few sidebars today...
...I try to be assiduous in my fact checking, but sometimes I screw up. In a few recent talks I have stated that "people 75 to dead buy more new cars than people 18-34." It should be "people 65 to dead." Sorry.
...Just checked the YouTube video of my talk in London at Advertising Week Europe earlier this year. I am blown away at over 30,000 views of something 45 minutes long. Thank you all so much.


Elias said...

Thanks for the excellent sum-up. What do you personally think will happen to the industry at large? More consolidation or rather new indy agencies taking a big bite out of the pie?

James Maclean said...

I definitely agree with the thrust of what you're saying. However I think the pay aspect is more than a mere symptom. As a relatively young creative I was shocked to discover that pay rates have been dropping dramatically in real terms since the 80's. A friend of mine was on the exact same day rate as I am 1987! So much for inflation.

Obviously this has a lot to do with the separation of media, hourly billing and financiers running agencies etc, but whatever the reasoning it explains why a lot of creatives feel undervalued.

In the past struggling artists and writers would effectively be lured into the industry by the filthy lucre. They'd sell out. Nothing wrong with that, the Sistine Chapel was a commission. But now that the bottom has fallen out what are creatives actually selling out for? To tell their family and friends that they just did a fanfuckingtastic banner for Canesten, complete with gurning woman? At least in the past they could buy everyone a round at the bar.

I think this also goes some way to explaining why the quality of creative has taken a hit, we simply can't attract the best talent anymore. Plus, the talent that is here couldn't give two fucks. Why should they bust their humps until the wee small hours for the same money their Barrister makes?

I don't know if it's the same in the States, but there's something very wrong when the suits are taking home far more than the creatives.

TCWriter said...

My first two agency gigs (in the mid-to-late 80s) involved a lot of unhappiness. While all the usual culprits were in play (including a bit of whiny creative's entitlement on my part), the real backbreakers involved money -- and a wholesale lack of honesty about the stuff on the part of the agencies.

It's hard to be happy when you're working for people you don't trust. When it comes to money (and the promises made about it), many agencies are simply not trustworthy, and never have been, which is why I've mostly freelanced.

As real pay rates have declined over the the last 2-3 decades, I can't imagine the problem has gotten any better.

Doug Garnett said...

Superb discussion.

Let me suggest that expectations multiply this problem dramatically. Despite consolidation, advertising training is driven with the mythology of the independent creative shop. And our young talent is encouraged to be as iconoclastic and independent as possible.

Then they hire into the mega-national "crank it out" agency...and reality doesn't fit what they were told to expect. Big requires bureaucracy. So they end up working as one more faceless creative in some nicely decorated "cool" area buried deep within the agency.

Can they have big impact? Never. Not for their clients (where the client machine demands 5,000 new creative executions per year & they create 2 of those). Nor a big impact on their agency where they are forced to be one of thousands.

The best fix isn't to change the education - but to change our business. The realistic fix might be for advertising training to begin to set expectations with courses like "How You Can Be Satisfied Even When Working Inside A Multi-National Agency".

alex said...

The first time I worked for one of the big multinationals, it was a regional office, and the local president and ceo could do why almost anything, as long as revenue expectations where met. So, we had windows of opportunities to try and innovate.

The second time, it's in the US. The grey suits are everywhere. And there's apparently no cure. :(

shackattack said...

I think the discontent has to do with the rise in importance of the internet, the need to try to quantify what is essentially the art of persuasion and the speed at which we can get things done/make changes due to technology. Want an image desaturated, done. Not sure want to see it over saturated, done. How about posterized?

Before, if you wanted to change a headline or an image it took a week at best. The fonts were often hand created, individual letters had to be cut and kerned by hand, pasted up, sent to the print shop, proofed, etc… You couldn't just change the entire layout in a few minutes and ship the ad like you can today.

It was a pain in the ass to make any changes. Consequently, we paid more attention to the idea. We were more thoughtful about strategy and positioning. And we appreciated the craft.

Now, any half-way decent designer can make any bad idea look good enough to test. So, nobody gives a shit except about optimizing ephemera – is a green button more effective than a blue button? Think about that question. It assumes that all ideas are equally persuasive, relevant, engaging and thought provoking. They ain't.

Nobody cares about the creative product so when you are constantly tilting at windmills it leads to unhappiness.

Stephen Eichenbaum said...

The fact that every category of business in this country has been consolidated so that four people can own everything hurts advertising.
We need things to be competitive to do good work, and have good clients.
There are fewer of THEM, too.

Tim Orr said...

Irrespective of the issue of industry consolidation, I have long struggled with the problem that so much of what we do is "judged" by people who are totally unqualified to do so. If they want to say afterward that an ad is ineffective because sales didn't increase, I am OK with that.

It's when they say, a priori, that they don't think sales will increase or that an ad will be effective, sometimes based on what their sister-in-law (who took an art course at junior college) thinks of it. This is more often the case with smaller clients, but I've seen it with larger ones too.

From what I hear, lawyers and doctors aren't supposed to have to deal with this sort of thing, but for advertising professionals, it's a continual issue. I wonder sometimes if George Lois didn't have it right when he threatened to jump out the window if the client didn't do it his way. (Or even whether he actually did that – or was just making up a good story.)

R Nichols said...

Dear Bob,
Friend who attended recent conference shared video of your discussion concerning internet marketing, the fraud of such marketing in many cases, etc. Just wanted to send your way a word of thanks. We constantly fight our clients who know the latest buzzwords, and know nothing more about marketing to increase sales. Thanks for debunking the most danger myth in marketing/advertising...the internet. Our success for clients proves you correct, we thank you for now sharing this important message with the business, marketing, and advertising world.
Thanks again!

BingoJoe said...

Funny, the very thing advertising creatives thought they were/are a part of, turns out to be the opposite.

From Wikipedia on the word "Agency"...

"Structure and agency forms an enduring core debate in sociology. Essentially the same as in the Marxist
conception, "agency" refers to the capacity of individuals to act
independently and to make their own free choices, whereas "structure"
refers to those factors (such as social class, but also religion,
gender, ethnicity, subculture, etc.) that seem to limit or influence the
opportunities that individuals have."

This is what happens when people have their heads shoved so far up their collective bums that they have no clue where they are at.

What I'd like to know is, didn't people like Bob see this coming down the tube? And if they did, why wasn't something done to stop it?

You'd think that the top advertising folks would have been able to put together a marketing campaign that could have successful stopped the activity within the industry that caused it to become what it is.

It's really easy to point a finger... But never forget the three pointing back at you.

maryw said...

Er, shouldn't that be barista? Oh to make the same as your barrister..

James Maclean said...

Quite right, bloody autocorrect. My phone clearly doesn't recognise unnecessarily poncy titles.