My dad worked in advertising in the 1990s which was arguably the industry’s renaissance era. Naturally, his favourite TV series is Mad Men, a show about the advertising industry in 1960s America, the industry’s true Golden Age. When we look back at these eras, adverts often showed as much promise and creativity as feature films of the time. So, what happened and where did this originality go?
Nowadays, every car advert looks the same and every makeup advert sees a bunch of young women amidst the glossy background of a before and after. Clients have become risk-averse, agencies are averse to losing clients, and everyone is hiding behind testing and all the pseudoscience that’s good for covering asses but tragically ineffective at making creative braver, more original and irreverent.
This doesn’t make much sense seeing that in a time where our attention spans last about 3 seconds you’d think agencies would be fighting for originality to grab our gaze. Instead, the motto seems to be “swing for the fences and if you strike out, try again next time you step up to the plate, which will be almost immediately because brands need to stay fresh in a world moving this fast.”
One of the reasons advertising has gotten worse creatively is that agency margins are as thin as a dime, so that brilliant but misanthropic copywriters are too expensive to keep on staff. The mantra across the agency world has been: “Find me someone half the age and half the price to do the same job, because our comp-to-revenue ratio is too damn high.” Exit experience, enter disaster, when someone half the age of the client is put in charge of their business.
When procurement determines that a client should pay for, say, 30% of a mid-level art director, where is the incentive for an agency to keep experienced talent around, let alone borrow creatives or strategists from another account when a big brief hits the agency?
When you consider shortened agency tenure, the cost of new business pitches, and the risk of constantly changing campaigns as each new CMO replaces the one who got whacked, suddenly the real cost of the procurement squeeze on both clients and agencies becomes painfully apparent.
Talent turnover, endless pitching, staff burnout, industry volatility and a pervasive undercurrent of fear have erased the daring from an industry that’s meant to be fearless. There isn’t much exciting, artistic or interesting about that!
Additionally the industry is treating advertising more and more like a science and less like a creative venture with the potential to capture minds with art and feeling.