The romance and unhappiness of advertising.

“The moment you doubt whether you can fly, you cease for ever to be able to do it.”
J.M Barrie, Peter Pan

If you are not fond of romance and unsubstantiated belief you should probably stop reading now.

This week I have started to notice a wave of articles on how people in advertising are unhappy. I have also recently read an article where Sir John Hegarty said that we as an industry have lost our courage.

Now, every article I read attributes this to less time and how busy we are. They also mention costs being slashed, integrated campaigns and the sheer complexity of advertising today. And I am sure it is all true. And if we go back ten years I bet we would find articles just like it.

However, while I was reading these articles I began to think it might be happening because of something else.

Hegarty spoke about losing courage. Courage doesn’t just appear or disappear. It comes from belief. A belief that perhaps you can surpass yourself. That you can do it. This belief is invisible. It is not on a balance sheet. It is a strange kind of inspiration that comes from within. It allows you to do more than you think you are capable of. An agency only reaches beyond itself when this spark is inside its people. It is also the secret fuel that keeps agencies alive.

Courage and bravery only exist though, if there is a quest or cause you believe in.

So, as much as I agree advertising has become more complex, what strikes me when I talk to creatives around the world is this weariness they have. It’s like a soldier at the front who isn’t sure who or what they are fighting for anymore.

The strange thing about this is that ideas have never been more important. Everybody wants them and needs them. Yet, the people that have them right around the globe are writing blogs about feeling defeated and unhappy. A bit odd don’t you think?

So what is going on? My view is that many creatives don’t know why they are doing what they are doing every day.

Now the bean counters may say the answers a pay cheque. Of course.

However, the reality is that if you want somebody to surpass themselves, work weekends and into the night, to push and to care, do the impossible or create something that nobody has ever thought of, they have to have belief. And courage, will only occur if that person believes in themselves, or at the very least, the flag above their heads.

Look at any great agency. Speak to anybody that worked there. They will tell you they believed in something bigger than themselves. They can’t always explain it or articulate what it was but this belief drove them on. For me, it has always been the agency had a truth at its core. I realise you may be laughing at this. I mean truth in advertising. That’s crazy shit. However, if you are a creative you will know what I mean.

The first place I ever truly experienced this belief was an advertising agency called TBWA Hunt Lascaris in South Africa. It is hard to explain because I worked there at the worst of times and the best of times. Yet, while I was there I always believed I could surpass what I had done anywhere else. For almost 30 years it has produced creatives who have gone around the world and done great things. And I would venture way beyond anything they thought they could do.

It was like our DNA was injected with courage and belief while we were there. My only explanation is there was this deep commitment to the work. And I don’t mean in a poster on a wall kind of way. The whole place had your back. You felt like you could go to the edge. Once this code is in your DNA it allows you to feel if an agency has a creative truth you can believe in the moment you walk through the door.

This creative centre or truth is the strange ingredient I think many agencies are losing. It has no inherent value apart from being priceless. Not understanding its worth has created many agencies that are now just factories or depots.

A creative director phoned me the other day from overseas to talk because he was fed up.This is the line he said that stuck in my mind. My agency wants me to believe, even when it doesn’t.

This is what is happening. It would seem creatives are losing their belief. And when that happens, why would they have any courage.

Many might read this and think it is rubbish or won’t make a difference. I think you are wrong. Advertising is obsessed with all the threats outside of itself. Yet, the biggest threat it is ignoring, is that it may have simply stopped believing in itself.

We have to change this. Being resigned to an imagined future with a large dollop of word weary cynicism will not fix this. We need to believe again. We need to believe in our stories, our strange quests and most importantly ourselves. We need to love ideas and put on our armour and fight for them. We need to be brave again. We need to believe we can fly again.

Published by dbs81270

Chief Creative Officer The Monkeys New Zealand

13 thoughts on “The romance and unhappiness of advertising.

  1. Great article, and so true. I love the line from Peter Pan because that is what drives greatness is belief. TBWA Hunt Lascaris is a special place and I think it will always be my favourite place to have worked.

  2. Thanks, good post. Made me think. Much of advertising has become highly complex and pretty pedestrian. One feels like a rather small cog in a very large machine that has many dispersed parts which are churned out by different disciplines and are supposed to come together under the banner of a campaign idea, subordinated to an advertising idea that is tied into a brand idea. Already exhausted by writing that description, which proves your point about weariness. Then the rise of the consumer conversation allows two-way communication, which increases the risk of criticism, and no client, being human, wants to take on risk; perish the thought! So we end up with much lip service and effort in the name of ideas, but very little breakthrough ones and hardly enough time to establish one before the next silly and marginally improved innovation has to be heralded as the new Second Coming. No wonder people are tired!

    I second your point on belief. It is tantamount to faith, and is what moves people, if not necessarily mountains, which is best left to erosion. The best advertising has come from people with a firm belief in themselves, who broke away from established agencies because they believed they could do better work and possibly make themselves happier. DDB started that way, WRG did too. I’m sure Hunt and Lascaris both started somewhere else, then summed up the courage to found their own shop. Much like Droga did recently. And because they had so much faith in their own vision, they attracted followers, who wanted to believe.

    This doesn’t necessarily mean that great work only comes out of breakaway shops. Every once in a while something good comes out of the established shops. Like Mastercard at McCanns. But I’m sure it took a great dose of courage and sweat and time to get to it, all backed by a CD who had someone’s back.

    So we come back to belief and courage. The belief that we can do better and the courage to fight for it. Unfortunately, the latter is often in short supply.

  3. The secret to belief is a vision. A code. A North Star that people can believe in and work towards. What it takes is leaders who are prepared to put their heads above the parapet, place a stake in the ground and call on people to join. This takes courage. It takes courage to put yourself out there to risk failure, scrutiny and your career. The great ones do because they believe in themselves and their people. They see only success and that success is infectious.

  4. Something I’ve noticed personally, is most departments seem to make it the creative’s problem.

    Planners need to do a media plan? Get the creative department to map that out.
    Suits can’t put a rationale together to sell this to the client? Ask the creatives.
    Client doesn’t buy something after the 5th round? Must be the creatives.

    Add to that pressure the fact that creative teams don’t come up with the ‘big idea’ then brief it out to several teams, Art Directors spend more time on the tools because we can’t brief it to a different cost centre and there’s your reason for most creatives looking for a way out of the industry.

    Oh, and the obligatory weekend work.

  5. Damon

    Good starting point for a broader discussion.

    However, the bigger question is one of belief. What exactly are you trying to believe in? Advertising, at its heart, is really just coming up with ways to sell things to people they don’t really need. There’s no courage or soul in that. The cynicism coming from other creatives is as a result of making this realization. Great ideas are extracted from the minds of a creative, for a fee, and used to sell nappies / cars / insurance. It’s capitalism not some mystical process. There’s nothing romantic about it and there never will be. The greatest trick the Ad Execs ever pulled is making creatives think that what they’re doing is somehow meaningful. That may sound crass, but it’s the truth.

    1. Meaning will never come from them. Meaning comes from making. Meaning comes from you. You could apply your argument to almost any creative endeavour. A chef, a baker etc. Read what Victor Frankl says about meaning. In the end if you are 100 percent correct and I am only 20 percent correct about finding meaning in what they do which one of us is happier?

  6. Probably one of the best written commentaries on the creative mind I’ve read in a long time. I needed to read it and feel like I should make a billboard of the entire piece to hang outside my agency.

  7. Thank you for the article. We never met Damon, but I got a real thrill reading your article.
    Kind of a “rejoicing at having met a kindred spirit” feeling and the thrill of reading the article of someone else who worked at the same agency.
    I worked at Hunt Lascaris for about amazing 8 years.
    I call it my “when I grew up in advertising” and while I had worked in ad agencies before this, and obviously already had a passion for the ad world, it is where I developed my deep love for ideas, developed my creative cheekiness and of having a point-of-view.
    I was guided and castigated by some of the best mentors any person (never mind creative person) could get schooled by.
    In those years I was shown how to stretch myself as a person, taught how to weave a bold mantle, was shown how few boundaries there can be and how much fun this business is.
    And I miss it so.
    Not the bricks and mortar agency (although it will always be my “formative years in advertising”, and happy place), but really I miss the spirit, the feistiness, the courage, the experimentation, the rawness and the sheer, selfish thrill of producing work that would kick arse.

    A heartfelt thank you to John, and a heartfelt thank you to Tony.
    After all these years I still cherish those times.

    1. Thanks for this Eric. It means a lot. It’s a special place because unlike most agencies it has a feeling. It’s a little like Africa, you always carry it with you. And it’s very difficult to explain to somebody else. Thanks once again. Damon.

  8. The philosophy of article could apply for all the industries which need creativity during the working, Even the smallest person can change the course of the future, but you need dream for biggest goal then walk forward with endless confidence.

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