We begin each project with a curious cocktail of optimism and cynicism. A new brief is a fresh opportunity to do something that will not simply excite us, but will actually excite humans we will never meet. That will get them to act. To think. To buy. Each brief is a new challenge, to see if we can burrow into the soul of whatever our clients do and find that thing, that ineffable element rich in the product’s own thinginess that will result in us making something that, at the end of the day, the week, the month, the year – at the end of our bloody lives – will allow us to say “well, that didn’t suck.”
And yet, manacled to that optimism like the chests and chains that encumbered old Marley as he pleaded with Scrooge, is the burning belief that this time will be no different from any other. We will aim for mediocrity and miss even that muddy mark. Whether because we don’t have the talent, or because the client doesn’t have the budget, or because the agency lacks the resources, or just because the planets and stars refuse – once again! – to align for us the way they do for all those bastards who get to prance across the stage at Cannes every year, we will end up with something that will, if not actually suck, have a distinct gravitational pull that the less educated, the less nuanced, the less subtle, the less brilliant, might mistake for, um, sucking.
Is it comforting, then, to know that others, in other cultures with other languages and other clients, have been basically floundering on the same way? Fighting those same damn battles in Cairo and Paris and Sydney and Rio and Milan? Struggling with the same leaky briefs and meagre resources and arbitrary clients? Yes, weirdly, it is. And this is one of the great appeals of Mark Tungate’s global history of advertising, Adland. But why?
It’s not because the stories of other’s successes, struggles, triumphs and tribulations are inspiring. Yes, there are anecdotes that are fascinating and enlightening. Stories of how David Abbott thought about copywriting. Of how Jacques Séguéla distinguished British, French and American advertising. Of what made Armando Testa so different. But we are hardened and grizzled old advertising people, too cynical for something as pedestrian as “inspiration”, right?
And it’s not because a global history of advertising would actually be a useful tool in world of global advertising agencies. When my father trod the sidewalks of Madison Avenue, he barely knew the names of shops in Philadelphia, let alone Dubai. But today? When we’re all owned by holding companies whose CEOs jet from continent to continent buying, selling and shuttering agencies faster than a meme loses its currency? It would make sense to understand what was revolutionary about TBWA. Or how Dentsu started. Or what Maurice Levy did before he ran Publicis. And it does, actually. But only for the kind of arcane adwonks who write reviews about this stuff in obscure corners of the internet. Not for real humans.
No, ultimately, Adland is useful because we tend to think that what we are doing, because it is so closely connected to culture, is somehow therefore unique to the culture we are swimming in. I think in some weird corner of our brains, we don’t believe in advertising in other cultures the same way we believe in our own. Or at least we don’t believe the copywriters and art directors are arguing with each other in Paris the way they are arguing here. Or that account people in Tokyo are rolling their eyes on the phone like they are here. Or that CDs have skipped another strategy meeting in Sao Paulo in exactly the same way mine just blew one off (bastard). Indeed, one is reminded of the John Updike quotation about New Yorkers – that the true New Yorker secretly believes that people living anywhere else have to be, in some sense, kidding. For while we know that there is other advertising being created in other cities in other alphabets, using other symbols and tropes and references (we see it in the annuals and on twitter posts, right?) – I think we secretly believe that it’s all, somehow, kidding.
And thus Adland reminds us that it’s not, and that therefore, we’re not alone. That the battle you are fighting is an ongoing battle. A global battle. And has been for decades. Which is comforting because it lifts the battle from the purely personal (your ACD is a jerk. Or you are), to something fundamental to the friction of this business. Or said another way, it’s not you, it’s us. So don’t despair that your Account Sup is a moron; there’s probably one in Johannesburg that’s just as stupid. Doesn’t that make you feel better? Somehow?
And that makes Adland valuable, despite its shortcomings. Like that there’s too much time spent on Europe, and too little real analysis of South America and Asia. That large sections feel like magazine articles – good starts and better than the alternative (which is nothing) but lacking real depth and insight. That coverage of Chinese advertising is almost non-existent – though there’s a terrific quotation from former Premier Wan-Li about the role of advertising that should be writ large across the foyers of every agency in the land: “Advertising links production and consumption. It is an important part of the economic activities of modern society. It has become an indispensable element in the promotion of economic prosperity.” Pretty good for a government worker, right?
Because despite these gaps you are reminded of the fundamental struggle of this business – to make work that leaps gaps to connect. Despite differences of language, culture and law. To figure out ways to use our creativity to break through the distractions and make the right connection to the right person, the right way.
Or said another way, to make work that doesn’t suck.