The Big Short

Technically, I suppose, Michael Lewis’s “The Big Short” is not a business book. But we believe that advertising is broader than business, is in fact where business and culture and art come together. Thus reviews of business books, but also books that talk about the culture that business is a part of.

And who among us can say that the events that led to the collapse of Lehman Brothers in 2008 and the subsequent financial meltdowns that reverberated around the world, are not a part of our day-to-day culture? The stuff we (and by “we” I mean marketers and those marketed to) think about all the time. That have literally changed what we do every day. For those reasons alone “The Big Short” is worth discussing here.

But let’s stop beating around the bush. “The Big Short” is a great book. It takes an incredibly complicated and fairly arcane story and explains it in terms that are not only understandable, but for which there is drama, humour and insight. That’s a rare feat in any book. In one about Credit Default Swaps and Collateralized Debt Obligations, it’s well-nigh a miracle.

Which is probably why it spent 28 weeks on the New York Times Bestseller list. Why it was shortlisted for the Financial Times best business book of 2010, and why noted financial blogger Felix Salmon called it “probably the single best piece of financial journalism ever written” (you can read all of his review here: http://bnreview.barnesandnoble.com/t5/Reviews-Essays/The-Big-Short/ba-p/2298)

But why should you read it? You, who are ostensibly not a banker or member of the financial community. You, who are probably sitting in advertising agency or marketing department, about a thousand spiritual miles from Goldman Sachs and the other masters of the universe? Who went into this business just so you didn’t have to spend your time thinking about interest rates and bonds and all that crap?

How about this: It is imperative that anyone intending to conduct business today understand how we got here because the modern economy is so interconnected that when a banker on a trading desk in London sneezes, we all catch a cold. And this is even more true today in 2012, because so many of the attitudes, forms, processes, presumptions and arrogances that led to the collapse of 2008 are still, more or less, in place.

Now, it doesn’t take some sort of MBA-toting, CNBC-watching, Brooks Brothers-wearing wonk to understand that money drives our – or any – business. Or our clients’ businesses. That’s obvious to even the most hipsterific junior art director.

What’s different now is how money drives the decisions of the multi-national corporations that own our clients. And how it drives the decisions of the holding companies that own the agencies we work for. Holding companies that are, by the way, all connected to each other in complicated financial ways that would make Bernbach, Ogilvy, Burnett and probably even Marion Harper throw up.

Decisions that we are all, frankly, pretty powerless to effect. Because it doesn’t matter how brilliant your ad campaign is or how smart your strategy was if the balance sheet for the multi-national that signs your check (or your client’s check) is showing a loss for the quarter. Changes are gonna be made. How many of us have seen budgets slashed after we’ve sold in great work? How many of us have watched co-workers clean out their desks for reasons that had more to do with the fluctuation of carrying charges than it did with how well their brand was doing?

But if it’s all out of our hands, what’s the point? Why learn how it happened if there’s nothing we can do to make it not happen again? Here’s why: because you should always know the game you’re playing. To act like this is not the reality we live and work in is a dangerous form of foolishness. How you avoid that foolishness is by reading this book.

Plus, what’s the alternative? Not knowing what’s going on isn’t going to help you. So you might as well know.

The good news is, as I said, that “The Big Short” is a really really good book. Lewis has a sense of plotting, of character development, of pacing, and of scene that would do a novelist proud. It’s understandable, compelling, fascinating and even funny.

Funny “ha-ha”, funny “strange” or funny in a “I can’t believe how totally screwed we are” way?

Unfortunately, yes.

The Big Short: Inside the Doomsday Machine by Michael Lewis was published by W.W. Norton on 3/15/10 – order it from Amazon here or from Barnes & Noble here – or pick it up at your local bookseller (find one here). 

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