When Eitan messaged me to write about my perspective on the ad industry, I immediately said yes. After all, I heard the names of the others being asked, and they were all well-respected hotshots. Finally, after years of irrelevance, I was being asked to sit at the well-respected hotshots’ table. Sounded good. Plus, it was a chance to practice being agreeable (I need work in this area). “Let’s do it,” I emailed.
Soon after hitting send, I wasn’t comfortable with my decision.
Amidst a pandemic, quarantine, wiped out economy, civil unrest, and curfews, I couldn’t muster the enthusiasm to write about this failure of an industry.
This profession, at best, funnels the creative energy of young people toward selling chips and soda. At worst, it produces the friendly-faced masks corporations hide behind while committing egregious crimes–many of which got us where we are today.
Eitan suggested, “Why don’t you just write about that?” So, here I am.
I’ve developed this point of view after watching the industry evolve (and I’m being generous with the term) over the past 25 years. I’ve participated in the business from many vantage points: I started as an account guy. Switched over to being a copywriter. Worked my way up to creative director at well-regarded shops. Went to work at Facebook, where our team worked directly with “Zuck” as we tried to push the company towards more humanistic efforts, and ultimately, briefly (and hysterically) held the position of chief creative officer of BuzzFeed.
It’s a career that looks pretty good on paper, but no one uses paper anymore.
My last full-time job was seven years ago. Since then, I’ve been steadily freelancing. Over the last few years, I’ve been working another full-time job–becoming a standup comedian.
When COVID-19 hit, a string of shows I had in Berlin were canceled and all the freelance dried up. This left me with a lot of time on my hands, so I started “Quarantime,” where I offered up my time, free of charge, to anyone who felt my experience could be useful.
I wound up fielding video chats with people from all over the world. A large chunk was from young people asking if/how/could/should they get into advertising. Many asked about ad school. To figure out what was motivating them, the first thing I’d ask was what their goals were. The answers came in three main flavors: “I Want to Do Something Creative,” “I Want to Be in a Creative Environment,” and “I Want to Pursue Art or Writing.”
To those with motivations like these, I would say do not go into advertising. And certainly do not fork over a ton of money to go to some ad school. Jesus. No.
One of the most ridiculous things about advertising is that one needs a fantastic portfolio to land a mediocre job. One must put together a collection of intelligent, funny, provocative, well written and designed pieces, just for the opportunity to make Cheerios commercials. It ain’t worth it.
I’m using Cheerios as a placeholder. Insert almost any brand. Although, having worked on the Cheerios account, and having seen the historical reel, I can safely say the Cheerios commercial has barely changed in 50 years. If you put a bee in a room with a bowl of O’s, a Cheerios commercial could self-assemble at this point.
It doesn’t take much creativity to produce this stuff. It certainly doesn’t require the throngs of people assembled to execute this type of garbage. I’ve sat in rooms of upwards of 12 people just to discuss a banner ad. Advertising doesn’t have an unemployment problem, it has an over-employment problem. I’d say we have too many cooks, but it’s fast food and everything’s freeze-dried.
The bulk of the work is not about being creative. It’s about making work that looks close to what’s come before. Almost none of the conversations throughout my days are about actual ideas. Even fewer are about solving business, or real-world, problems. This following anecdote highlights the rule rather than the exception.
Recently, I showed up for a freelance gig at a big NYC agency. After being issued my badge and locker (all clutter had to be put in lockers at day’s end to maintain the “clean desk” policy– it was a real creative vibe) I sat in a 3-hour briefing meeting. I was then told the first round of work was due for review at 10am the next day. This signals that quality doesn’t even matter. If it takes almost 3 hours to explain the task, it seems it would take more than 5 to get it done right.
When I pushed back on the timeline, I was asked if I had a problem. I did. I also had a problem that no one else in that room called it out as a problem. This is one of the great tragedies of our business, young creative people are taught to submit to unfair expectations, robbing them of their time and energy.
If this were a job where you went home at 5 or 6 pm and weren’t expected to work weekends, I’d say fine. Instead, you’ll likely put in a 70-hour week for 40 hours pay. I’ve watched people at big agencies tuck their kids into bed via FaceTime because they were staying late making client-mandated tweaks to work no one would notice. I had a friend quit a “hot shop” as a Valentine’s Day gift to his girlfriend because they never saw each other once his coveted gig started. That’s agency “life.”
As far as creative environments go, agencies were wildly more creative places when people had offices with doors. You could go into one writer’s office where literary discussions would be going on, then step into an art director’s office, which felt more like a sports memorabilia museum. Walking around an agency was like scanning through radio stations on a dial. I guess the analogy dates me right there. In the end, agencies were more stimulating when we had private spaces to share ideas.
Today, agencies are usually big open rooms with everyone shoved together. The “open plan” office was thrust upon us promising “spontaneous collaboration.” Instead, everyone puts on headphones so they can concentrate. The resulting rooms are quiet and lifeless, lighting up for brief periods when it’s pasta night at the office.
I’m turning 50 in a few weeks, so forgive this little “back in my day” thing, but–
When I got into the business, all you needed was a portfolio of print ads. Good creative directors could tell your abilities through your print work. You couldn’t hide behind music or editing. You needed a clear thought. Today, young creative people entering the profession are pushed to fill portfolios with “case studies” and executions across multiple mediums. While it’s wonderful to see the slickness of it all, the majority don’t contain a single interesting idea or point of view.
When I started out, advertising was something many creative people fell, or failed, into. They aimed to be writers, photographers, film editors, or artists and saw advertising as a way to hone adjacent skills while developing their craft. Creative departments were filled with intellectually curious, artistically driven people with strong points of view. Now, they’re mostly filled with ad school graduates who think like marketers instead of human beings.
Judging by the portfolios I see lately, you’d likely create better ads if you studied Greek mythology, philosophy, or art, rather than what is learned at ad schools.
I only took two night classes in advertising, and I managed to cultivate a career decent enough to be asked to write about it. I feel young people (and agencies and clients) would be better served if people developed their ability to think, write, design, paint, film, whatever–and then augmented those pursuits with internships. But these expensive ad schools keep kids connected to the agencies, so the job placement numbers hit and the tuition keeps flowing.
Look, anyone who could be dissuaded from pursuing a creative career in advertising simply because of this piece wouldn’t have made it very far in the business anyway. For those of you who see this as a challenge, rather than a warning, and still choose to get into the business, here’s a piece of advice:
Advertising is a great industry to steal from. Steal talented people to collaborate with on outside projects. Steal strategies on how to harness media attention. Steal everything you can learn about manipulating words, images, and emotions. Steal it all. And take it with you on your journey towards something more worthwhile.