I first met Dan Kennedy when he was turning out brilliant copy for a CD I was working for. Since then he’s gone on to a very successful career doing that for famous agencies across the country – as well as for McSweeney’s, the Moth and GQ. Which would be a reason enough to include Rock On: An Office Power Ballad here, right? Because it’s by an ad guy.
Actually, Rock On… is here because it’s about two things that are extremely relevant to our industry (three if you count the number of creatives who have an unfinished novel of some sort sitting in the bottom drawer of the desk).
First, it’s about being a creative person who gets a job in the heart of a creative industry – for Kennedy it’s as Director of Creative Development at Atlantic Records – and discovers that it’s not even remotely what it should be. That the people there are exactly the same kind of myopic, petty, power-playing morons you’d find if you’d stayed back home and worked at the local carwash. (No offense to car washes intended.)
And who among us has not walked into a job at an agency they admired or had a meeting with a client whose advertising was legendary and thought “Who are these people and why have they been allowed to suck the life out of something that should be thrilling?”
And Dan’s working at Atlantic Freaking Records! The home of Led Zeppelin, Ray Charles, Aretha Franklin, John Coltrane! It’s where Ahmet Ertegun brought soul to white folks! Through these hallowed halls have walked people who have literally redefined American music and thus the culture of the planet. If ever there was a place where the bar was set high – for art, for commerce, for creativity – this was it, right? Dan feels the weight of what past generations did here weighing on him every day.
Now, to be fair, Dan can feel the weight of generations even when he walks into a Stuckeys’, so there’s a lot of him wandering around thinking “what the hell am I doing here?” before he gets to “what the hell are THEY doing here?” These themes, however, seem to meet nicely around page 90 or so when Dan has an epiphany – which is the second thing that makes this book really relevant to the ad industry.
Because Dan was working at Atlantic in the early 2000s. You remember the early 2000s, don’t you? When every news story was about how Napster was killing the music industry (for those of us over 40, this reminded us nicely of how “home recording” was killing the music industry in the 80s, and before that how video games were killing the music industry. Who knew that it was actually the music industry that was killing the music industry?)
Dan’s epiphany is a simple way for the record companies to use digital music to their advantage. It’s not rocket science (or as Dan writes “The idea, I should tell you at this point, is not rocket science.”). But it’s smart and simple and the kind of thing that would cost a record label virtually nothing to try and which could not only save the record industry and the retail record industry but could pump some much needed new music blood into an otherwise DNR system.
So, of course, the idea gets swallowed up in a petty mind-bending political pissing war and dies.
Because the music industry’s problem wasn’t Napster. It was a kind of Neanderthal non-thinking that is incapable of learning how to adapt. Not to the “gadget du jour”, but to what need that gadget is meeting for your customers that you are not. This is a path I am concerned advertising is on. And you can see where it lead the record industry.
Now, if all of this sounds deadly boring and serious, honest, it’s not. It’s crazy funny. Dan Kennedy is a very funny writer. And what’s more, he is that rare writer who can draw you into the story, while at the same time pull you aside and say “hey, can you believe this shit?” – without leaving you bloody and confused. The book is laugh-out-loud funny in parts, insightful and clever throughout, and, thoroughly enjoyable (in an angst-ridden way).
But it’s also a cautionary tale for the advertising industry. Let’s hope we have the brains to learn from it.