When the students I teach ask me what it’s really like at an advertising agency, I tell them to read Randall Rothenberg’s “Where the Suckers Moon”. From my experience both in the business and having grown up in it, it’s the most gut-wrenchingly accurate description of the good, the bad and the jaw-droppingly idiotic of this business that I have ever read.
In 1991, Rothenberg was granted the kind of unfettered access to the development of an advertising campaign that we are incredibly fortunate to have but that will leave PR people scratching their heads.
He saw it all – from the initial search for an agency to the winner’s ultimate dismissal after a year of pain. And he saw it from all sides – from the clients’ side, from the agencies’ sides. From the perspective of the corporations and from points of views of the individual human beings involved. It’s a comprehensive tale, artfully told. Really, it’s incredible.
He starts at the beginning. The real beginning. Those awkward “tell me about your agency” meetings that are always the first incomprehensible hurdle. Rothenberg sits in with Subaru’s VP of Marketing as he trucks up and down Madison Avenue with prospective agencies, back when that’s where the agencies were.
And then Rothenberg pauses – as he will throughout the narrative – to give you some perspective, some context. About Advertising, about Subaru, about the people you’ll be spending the next 450 pages with. Because this isn’t about just sandbagging you with facts and figures. This is about making you feel the pain, the confusion, the tedium – really understanding what’s going on and at what human cost.
So when he describes the diverse lot of agencies that have won the honor of killing themselves for the next few weeks to win the Subaru account, you see them not as a slew of indistinguishable and interchangeable names, but as a collection of people with real stories and with a lot at stake. Like Levine, Huntley, Vick & Beaver – the incumbent agency who really didn’t want to lose the account; Warwick, Baker & Fiore – famous at the time for their “Get Met” campaign for Met Life; WB Doner – desperately trying to be known as more than “a great retail agency”; Jordan, McGrath, Case & Taylor – creators of “Delta is ready when you are” and “Zestfully clean!”; DCA – the U.S. arm of the enormous Japanese mega-agency Dentsu; and a little shop in Portland called Wieden & Kennedy that was known only for some work it had done on Nike.
I won’t tell you who won or what the repercussions were for those who lost, but for anyone who’s been through this grist mill, you’ll feel that same acid churning in your stomach as you felt when it happened to you.
And, as you know from when it happened to you, when you win, that’s not the end of the game. There’s no rest for the weary. Your new client just made a big decision – now you have to deliver the goods and prove to his bosses that he’s not an idiot for choosing you.
So we’re introduced to the creatives and the account team. We’re with them as they come up with ideas and discard ideas. As they argue. As they argue with directors. As they cast. As they shoot. As they reshoot. As they present. We’re introduced to further layers of the client, and to the politics that grow as quickly and deadly as kudzu around any agency-client relationship.
We see the battle lines drawn. We see the strategy attacked. We see focus groups. We see hail marys. We see agency people fighting amongst themselves. We hear the clock ticking. We watch the goalposts move. We see them fight with the client and start the whole process over again. We learn who holds the real power. And then we see the agency get fired.
Been there? Yeah, me too.
“Suckers Moon” is so good that if you’re in advertising, you will find yourself squirming uncomfortably through scenes that you have lived through. You will identify with behaviour that seemed logical and obvious at the time but which now is somewhat incomprehensible. You will find yourself remembering the good times, the bad times and the stunningly boring times, that make up what we do.
You will find yourself handing this book to your friends and family and saying “You want to know why am I the way I am?”
“Read this book.”
Where the Suckers Moon: The Life and Death of an Advertising Campaign by Randall Rothenberg was published by Vintage on 10/31/95 – order it from Amazon here or from Barnes & Noble here – or pick it up at your local bookseller (find one here).