Imagine a college graduate told you he didn’t have a job and didn’t know what to do. And imagine you asked him “What do you like to do? What are you good at?” as if these were somehow the same thing. And imagine he said to you, “I really like putting my fingers into people’s mouths. And I think I’m pretty good at it.” And imagine you said, “Well, have you considered dentistry?” “I’m not really interested in teeth” says this imaginary college graduate. “Or gums. Or fillings. Or any of that stuff.” And imagine you said, “Well, I don’t know what the hell you’re going to do with that skill.” And imagine the college graduate said to you, “Okay, I guess I’ll be a dentist”.
This is what the advertising industry is like.
I would guess that 90% of the people in the industry are not really interested in advertising. They have no passion for it, no interest in it, and frankly, no real understanding of it. They like to write. They like to draw. They like to code. They like to make funny little movies with their friends. They like to go to lunch. They like to play with spreadsheets. They like to sit in meetings. They like to do some other damn thing.
But advertising? Like Bartleby, they would prefer not to. But either they can’t figure out how to make a living doing what they would rather do, or there actually isn’t any way to make a living doing what they would rather do, or they are too frightened to find out that they don’t really have the talent to do what they’d rather do. So they go into advertising, where they can at least use the skill or talent they have, if not for the purpose they like to use it. And certainly not for the purpose advertising needs it.
In other words, they have found a career that will pay them to put their fingers into people’s mouths without having to fix people’s teeth.
This occurred to me as I read Eric Jay Sonnenschein’s Ad Nomad, which follows the trials of Dane Bacchus, a writer who, as the novel opens, learns that his position as a university instructor will not be renewed and who, since he’s the husband, father and sole breadwinner in the family, decides to embark on a career in advertising. Why advertising? Mostly because he likes to write, and, um, that’s about it.
The rest of the novel – the rest of the 600 pages of the novel – deals with his efforts to get a job in the industry and then maintain that job – or rather those jobs. Because this is advertising, after all, and as we all know, radical massive turnover is the way of all flesh. Along the way, Dane encounters all manner of challenge and obstacle as he slowly rises from outsider to junior copywriter to associate copy supervisor at a string of pharmaceutical advertising agencies in the greater New York metro area.
And the fact is that just as Dane stumbles into advertising from academia with neither training, nor skill, nor affection for it, the halls of real agencies are filled with thousands of people who similarly wandered into this business, with similar resumes and for similar reasons.
Why is that?
Why does this industry so lightly value it’s own, well, value? Why do we fill our org charts with people who’d much rather kick us in the eye? How can this be even remotely good for the product?
Just because you’re a good writer doesn’t mean you’re any good at advertising. Any more than just being good at drawing or coding or chatting up people in an elevator does. Indeed it almost precludes it – because if your real interest is in doing something other than advertising, every fiber of your being will strive towards doing that, towards getting satisfaction from that, generally at the expense of creating advertising that is meaningful, compelling, innovative or even worth the money some poor slob’s paying for it.
And it’s only going to get worse.
Because while advertising used to be a rare refuge for the “hopelessly creative”, now there are infinitely more options for them.
Which means we’re going to start getting advertising created by not even the first tier of people who don’t know how to make it.
People who aren’t even nomads; people who are just lost.