Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Right here, right now.

I wrote this piece for the May 18 edition of Marketing Magazine, and it is reproduced here with their kind permission.

I came to the whole Mad Men thing late, I’ll confess. I have a snotty aversion to anything the cool kids do, and tend to sit sullenly in the bleachers until the mania has passed. But as soon as everybody stopped telling me I just had to watch this series, I rented the first season and got myself caught up. And for all the series’ craft and cultural punch, one brief scene left a particular impression on me: The snarky – and vaguely uneasy - mocking of a Volkswagen ad by the good men of Sterling Cooper. It happens in Episode 3, it doesn’t take very long, and it doesn’t even seem to end up being very important to the plot.

I’m not sure what the “Lemon” scene meant to the average viewer, but I imagine it had something to do with the great iceberg of modernity looming ahead of these guys. For me, though, and probably for any student of our business, it recalled the moment in advertising’s history when everything was about to become awesome. Advertising would become a full participant in popular culture, with all the glory and duty that implies. The consumer would be acknowledged as intelligent and powerful and worth the trouble of understanding. What we do would matter, and the best imaginable time to be in this business was about to begin: The Creative Revolution. In those exuberant few years, the business we’ve all grown up in was invented, made up on the fly by people with the guts to be excited by the sound of conventions being shattered rather than fearing it.

On the surface, I guess the contrast between that moment and this one seems pretty extreme. With the econolypse spreading like a plague, anxiety seems more sensible than excitement does. Something seems to be about to expire here, and it would be easy to argue that the ad biz is a candidate. Our track record as an industry doesn’t offer much encouragement: The last time we faced a serious recession, agencies cut costs by, as Hugo Powell famously put it at the time, “firing the handlers”. They downsized themselves by delayering, forgetting that the whole system had been built on apprenticeship. The predictable result was a meager crop of well-trained, well-mentored people a few years later, and a devastating loss of credibility. So, no, we don’t always deal with crisis wisely.

But look around. Just as in 1960, new distribution technologies are exploding the business of media. Channels to the consumer are opening up faster than we can count them, to the point where countless millions of dollars are being invested in them without even knowing how they’ll be monetized. The power of consumers and the need and means to understand them, in the meantime, have taken a quantum leap. Brand building has gone from something we did to consumers, to something we did for them, to something they’re complicit in. And a society reeling from the consequences of mindless consumption is asking itself how to be more principled about the way it buys things. At this moment, there is infinite possibility for us, and there are no rules. Everything could be about to become awesome again.

So will it? The answer, it seems to me, is tied to a more basic question: What’s our purpose? If it’s to make ads, then no. Strap on your lifejacket and brace for that iceberg. YouTube will not save you. But if it’s to keep this great conversation between consumers and commerce going, if it’s to keep the meaning and value in brands by whatever means necessary, then hell yes. It obviously won’t be easy. We’ll have to fearlessly throw anything overboard that’s not useful, even if that means our structures, our processes, our definitions of ‘great’, as well as our parochialism and the cynics who are just along for the ride. But whatever price we’re asked to pay, it will seem pretty paltry in hindsight if we can say that we did it again. Reinvented what we do and made it matter. Started another revolution.

Me, I think this is an exhilarating time to be doing this work. Somewhere out there, new Bernbachs and Ogilvys and Lois’ and Allys are waiting to happen. There’s no other place I’d rather be. Yet, not so many months ago, I sat across from a senior staffer with my own firm at the time, while they petulantly declared that they “didn’t have time to learn the internet.” I can’t imagine that the next Creative Revolution is anything but terrifying to them. So, you see, it’s a choice. Right now, only two things are certain: That our current troubles will pass, and that the future will not be very much like the present. Beyond that, it’s up to us.

While you’re thinking it over, by the way, you might be amused to know that you can follow the characters of Mad Men on Twitter.

And you thought irony was dead.


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Philip Stern said...

Hi Bruce,
Your argument makes great sense. The Cultural Revolution was an integral aspect the era that was the 1960s.

Thank G-d for the '60s Generation.