November 14, 2019

Greg Stern Needs To Apologize

Greg Stern is Chair of the 4As. Unfortunately for Stern, his chairmanship has coincided with the
most unsettling, corrupt, and damaging era in the history of the ad industry.

In recent years, we have assiduously cataloged the problems the ad industry is facing (here's a good place to start.)

Earlier this week, Stern wrote a piece for Campaign in which he tried to frame the confused and weakened state of the agency business as a hopeful jumping-off point for "positive change." That remains to be seen.

In the course of doing so, Stern took some ill-advised and unnecessary cheap shots at people who have done nothing but radiate credit on our industry.

Stern's article is framed as his reaction to presentations and comments he has heard recently at industry conferences. He starts out by saying that the "overriding messages have spanned from hopeful to dire." Fair enough. I attend lots of conferences, too, and I hear the same baloney.

Next he gives us his "real talk" outlook: Yeah, it's tough out there but this is no time for negativity. OK, if we were in his shoes we'd do the same.

Then we get the obligatory parade of clich├ęs about "transformation,"  "disruption," and "collaboration." Once again, fair enough. In his position, I'd throw a coin in the jargon jukebox, too.

But then things go very wrong. Instead of honestly asserting that there are reasons to be concerned about the direction of the agency business -- which is shocking news to absolutely no one -- he looks for scapegoats.

He starts by planting the seed that conference organizers sometimes have unwholesome ulterior motives...
"a conference sponsor’s agenda will often come through, whether implicitly or overtly."
He follows it up one paragraph later with...
"I recently attended a small, private conference in San Francisco, where the tone wasn’t even cautiously optimistic."
This is patently false. I spoke at that conference. It included some of the most upbeat and inspirational speakers you could hope for. It including Margaret Johnson, Chief Creative Office and Partner at Goodby, Silverstein & Partners, Sarah Mehler, CEO of Left Field Labs, and Mark Figliulo, founder of FIG. 

These are three amazing, talented, and cheerful people who made me, and I'm sure everyone else in the room, proud to be in the ad business. I don't know what presentations Stern was watching, but the assertions that the nature of these presentations "wasn't even cautiously optimistic" is beyond explanation.

The conference in question is nothing short of excellent. It has been so for 10 years in which time it has displayed the type of integrity that some of our advertising "leaders" could learn from.  The implication that it was influenced by some treacherous "sponsor's agenda" is, there's no other way to say this, simply truth challenged.

Another of Stern's cheap shots made me sick. Stern characterized one of the talks as follows... "one industry big thinker phoned in a presentation (literally)"  

I'm not going to abuse anyone's privacy by naming names, but the speaker in question is a very brilliant person who's had a stellar career in advertising. He made a phenomenal presentation despite terrible hardships. He could not come to the conference because of a heartbreaking illness to one of his children. Instead he did his presentation over the phone from London. I just hope for Stern's sake that he never has to "phone in" a presentation for a similar reason.

Stern owes an apology to the organizers of the conference for implying that there was some kind of sinister "sponsor's agenda" lurking in the background. There most certainly was not.

He also owes an apology to the speakers mentioned above for the nasty and condescending characterizations of their excellent and inspiring talks as "not being even cautiously optimistic."

But of course, since I was on the agenda, it wasn't all lollipops and roses. Stern says...

"The Ad Contrarian delivered his usual rant, only somewhat paraphrased as 'no one in digital advertising has any idea what the hell they’re doing.' 
While I will gladly stipulate that no one in digital advertising knows what the hell they’re doing, this is a grossly inaccurate characterization of my talk. 

In fact the lead organizer of the event, one of the most highly respected advertising lawyers in the industry, wrote to me after the event to say...
"Several of my colleagues who dropped in....told me you were the best, most entertaining, and important speaker we’ve had at the firm in anyone’s memory."
But, as we all know, you can never trust a lawyer. So judge for yourself. I am posting my entire talk here. Read it and see if the distinguished 4As Chair's characterization of my talk is fair. 

Make no mistake, I was highly highly critical of the industry and I could see how it would make Stern squirm. But if he wanted to counter my argument he had a perfect platform to do so in his article in Campaign. Instead he opted for an ad hominem cheapshot.

It's hardly fair to lay all the troubles of the ad industry at Stern's feet. I have no idea what the chair of the 4As is supposed to do other than go around mumbling platitudes about transformation, disruption and collaboration. I understand why Stern wrote what he wrote. He's in the wrong place at the wrong time and he's had a tough go.

However, mean-spirited, self-serving commentary should remain the purview of blogweasels like me. It doesn't reflect well on the chair of the 4As.

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