When is too young to write a memoir? David Ogilvy wrote Confessions of an Advertising Man when he was 52. Patricia Tierney wrote Ladies of the Avenue when she was 45. Mary Wells Lawrence wrote A Big Life when she was 74. At what point do you think anyone really cares enough about what you have to say about what you’ve done to buy it?
Mat Zucker was, if our calculations are correct, not quite 50 when he wrote his own look back, Bronze Seeks Silver. It is, in a sense, really three books. First, there is a book of advice about life, the universe and advertising that Mr. Zucker picked up along the way or passes along simply so others won’t make similar mistakes. Second, is his account of his nearly thirty years in the business – from his efforts to break into it as a fresh-faced college graduate in the 1990s through a succession of agencies. And third is a book about how digital advertising rose from an afterthought in the marketing world to its current status as dollar-consuming behemoth. Let’s discuss them in reverse order.
It’s a little mind-boggling that one has to remind one’s self that there was a time when digital advertising wasn’t really considered a part of advertising at all. When marketers treated it as a peculiar peripheral side show freak that, in their eyes, was just trying to keep itself funded by whatever means available, advertising being one possible option. And, because it didn’t fit neatly into the spreadsheets and budgets of marketers or agencies, no one cared about it. Well, no one “important”. Hard to believe, yes, but we were there at the time and Mr. Zucker does a terrific job of bringing those harrowing days back to life for us. Reminding us of the newness of the medium, to be sure, but also the sense that those of us working in it were like mad scientists building an airplane we flew under cover of darkness, developing something that either was going to be amazing or ridiculous. A conviction that was not helped by how big companies were embracing it, for as Mr. Zucker writes:
While technology firms such as IBM, Cisco and Intel had brochure-like outposts on the World Wide Web with their product information, most consumer-facing companies didn’t yet have sites, especially packaged goods companies like our client Nabisco Foods.
And one of the fascinating things about this is how closely it echoes how agencies and marketers embraced – or rather, failed to embrace – television a generation earlier. How the old technology prestige work was gobbled up by the senior and established personnel leaving the new technology to the youngsters. Youngsters who soon became the successful and “important” advertising people as that technology became the dominant one in the culture. Youngsters who, like Mr. Zucker, rode that wave to the success that he documents here.
As Mr. Zucker tells that story, he also tells the second story – the one about what the advertising industry was like in New York in the 1990s and 2000s. This is different from the one about the rise of digital advertising, though, of course, the Venn diagram overlaps. This story is about a time when every agency wasn’t owned by a holding company, though they were being gobbled up quickly. When Wells Rich Greene and Ammirati & Puris were still things. A time before every portfolio was a URL. When headhunters reviewed books and had relationships with agencies who trusted them as business partners. A pre-Sex and the City, pre-9/11 New York. It is startling how different that New York City advertising world was from the one we inhabit today, and Mr. Zucker does a great job conjuring it up.
The third book evokes the encyclopedia of advice that every advertising person feels qualified to write, but which Mr. Zucker broaches sparingly, opting instead to provide a few real insights that are as useful to those entering the industry for the first time as they are to those hoping to recapture the spark that initially brought them here. Like this one, that treats the old saw that agency people are “crazy” and that the crazier they are, the better:
What I’ve found is that the answer in advertising is not craziness as much as it is courage. The people who go out on a limb for an innovative idea are the ones who can get the most rewarded. Moreover, courage won’t work for you alone; it needs to be shared with a gutsy client.
Counter-intuitive to most corporate leaders, Bob always shifted gears when he and his company were on top. ‘When you’re down,’ he said, explaining his logic, ‘you have to change because you’re desperate. If you change when you’re on top, however, you have resources and options. People think you’re crazy, but you’re not.’
But perhaps the best advice of all comes late in the book when Mr. Zucker is reflecting on the broad strokes of his time in adland, and says of himself:
…a mistake was repeatedly looking at others as the adults in the room when they were no better nor more qualified than I was.
It’s startling because by all accounts, Mr. Zucker has had a successful career. And yet it shouldn’t be surprising at all.
This industry has routinely mistaken bravado for authenticity. Has made an anthem of the expression “Often wrong, never in doubt”. Has an impressive record for ignoring the facts it deems unprofitable, the media it calls irrelevant, and the people it labels inconvenient. Mr. Zucker learned his lesson during a successful career in a once marginalized media – in a New York City adworld he has watched disappear
Marketers of all ages would be wise to learn it before they disappear as well.