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IHAVEANIDEA.ORG > articles >  Do We Have The Reputation We Deserve?


Do We Have The Reputation We Deserve?

Posted on December 6, 2011 and read 2,018 times

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nick smile Do We Have The Reputation We Deserve?Nick Bailey
ECD
AKQA Amsterdam

I’ve just spent the last week surrounded by advertising folks at the Eurobest festival. And as always at these shindigs, I’m struck by the contrast of how genuine, likeable, interesting, smart and inspiring the individuals that I meet are, versus the appearance of shallowness, selfishness and narcissism we as an industry present to the outside world.

It’s ironic that as communications experts we fail so completely to communicate much that’s positive about ourselves. We’re obviously not saying the right things. But in a world where every action is potentially public, are we doing the right things either?

The contrast between the advertising world and the one everybody else inhabits has been particularly stark over the last couple of years. The global economy teetered on the brink – and, while I’m not trivializing the very real hardship of those people in our industry who lost their jobs in the ’08 crisis – we’ve done very little to change the way work, or the way we measure success.  A few agencies might have downgraded their accommodation at Cannes in ’09 but by  2010 the party was back in full swing.

Eurobest took place in Lisbon – a beautiful city which made us all incredibly welcome – but I couldn’t help feeling a little uncomfortable when, coming from the jury room or seminars, I would chat to Portuguese people who see only hardship ahead – who see themselves as victims of market forces they had no control over and for the excesses of which they must now pay for years to come.

The world has changed – irrevocably – and yet as an industry I’m afraid we’re too content to abdicate responsibility; if our clients have CSR policies, great – but in the end, we’re just the messengers. It suits us to take credit for the successes of the businesses on whose behalf we work, but to abdicate responsibility for their failures.

Early in my career, I worked for a number of retail banks, at the time when the UK’s personal debt mountain was being accumulated. I even toured a call-centre once, to help me better understand the product – and remember being told, conspiratorially, that it wasn’t really the loans that turned the profit, it was the payment protection insurance that went along with them – which is why their salespeople were under such pressure to package them up.

I went back to the agency, and duly worked to the best of my ability, on behalf of my client, to sell those policies. Years later, when the banks were censured for mis-selling just these products, and were forced to re-imburse customers to the tune of billions, I took the side of the customer; and when the sub-prime crisis hit, and irresponsible retail lending became the collapsing keystone that brought the entire global financial system to the edge, I shared in the general public’s outrage at the recklessness of the demon bankers. It took an effort of will to remember my role, small as it was – to recall that I was a cog in the wheel.

I cannot, without being a hypocrite, apologize for doing my job at the time. I have chosen to devote my creative efforts to the commercial persuasion business. It’s my job to do the best possible work I can for my clients. I may have my principles: I won’t work for tobacco companies, for example – but it’s not my place to make moral judgments about the way my clients’ businesses or their role in the world.

And here’s me thinking I was a nice guy.

This is, I think, where our image problem lies. The world sees the truth of this – that we want to have our cake and eat it. We want to share in the gains, but retain our ‘independence.’ We try to associate ourselves with art, rather than commerce – hence the festivals and the awards. It’s easier to believe this while the world’s making hay. But when your neighbours are wondering where the next meal is coming from, it’s time to take a look in the mirror and ask ourselves if we really like what we see.

As we know from the work we do, image is not just about presentation. It’s about behaviour. And what is behaviour if not a sum of individual acts? Which is why I’m not talking about changing the way agencies work, or the way we work with our clients, because I don’t believe that’s where the problem lies. I’m wondering whether we as individual creatives, account people, producers, coders, can do more to share the positive potential of the work we do more widely with the world.

The potential is already there. Whenever I come to events like Eurobest I never fail to be inspired by individuals’ personal enthusiasm, talent and expertise. Their passion goes way beyond the call of duty as an agency employee. They burn hours and days of personal time learning, experimenting and pushing the boundaries – often on personal projects as well as commercial ones.

This potential has been amplified by the developments that technology has delivered over the last decade; our new ability to reach millions of people in new ways, through engagement, with minimal paid media, more efficiently and effectively. Technology has changed the way we work, too: I can now review work delivered remotely to my phone that I would once had to have biked to an edit suite.  So it strikes me that we, as creative individuals, have an as-yet unexploited ability to contribute our creativity and experience in ways that just weren’t possible before.

Maybe I’m being a hopelessly fluffy idealist – so I’m posing this as a question, rather than a proposal. Shoot me down if you think I’m crazy. But what if creatives around the world collaborated outside of agency life to make a positive impact on our communities? Whether it’s public health messages, or education, or drug abuse – or any of the problems that threaten our communities and would genuinely benefit from our experience, insight – and expertise.

There already exists a global network of digitally connected creatives. We’re all part of it. Why not use that network democratically to select pro-bono briefs; to crowd-source ideas and production in the time we’d otherwise be using to make that short film or write that novel? In a world where financial resources are scarcer and scarcer, we have at our disposal the world’s only inexhaustible resource: ideas and creativity. Is it perhaps time we shared it?






  • Mike Bayfield

    Sometimes it seems as if the advertising industry is almost on par with the banking in the popularity stakes. According to George Monbiot in The Guardian in the UK a couple of weeks back, we’re actually far worse.

    Although I don’t agree with his polemic, his article and yours both contain some home truths. But, like you, my experience of most people in our industry is that they’re not shallow cold-hearted cynics. They are decent caring talented people, many of whom would welcome the opportunity to make a positive social contribution. Many of them already do, either through their jobs or voluntarily.

    A friend of mine does pro bono creative work for an organisation in the UK called the Churches Advertising Network, and has helped create some great campaigns. Religion might not be everybody’s bag, but there’s no shortage of other causes to choose from. There’ll always be one close to somebody’s heart, and I’d be happy to get involved with an initiative that could bring people together to use our talents for social good. Just needs someone to get the ball rolling and IHAI is a great forum on which to do so.

    But, stepping back a little further into your piece, you say that although you wouldn’t work on tobacco “it’s not my place to make moral judgments about the way my clients’ businesses or their role in the world.” I’m not sure I completely agree with that. Not on any ethical grounds, purely business ones.

    Whatever our private views, few of us can afford to openly criticise the way our clients do business. They pay our wages. However, in our increasingly transparent world, we surely have a commercial responsibility to advise clients on how they are perceived, to protect and strengthen their brand. That’s what they’re paying our wages for.

    We could create the most brilliant campaign for them but if what we are saying doesn’t square with the reality, everyone’s going to find out pretty soon. The client will have wasted an awful lot of money, and will have to spend a huge amount more trying to overcome negative publicity.

    Where we see practices as not exactly squeaky clean, we can advise them – purely in business terms – how damaging that might be to the brand we are trying to build for them.

    Where our clients are doing the right thing, we can use that to differentiate them from their competitors, so putting pressure on those businesses to improve their behaviour. Organisations won’t change overnight, but we can surely give them a few gentle nudges.

    By doing both this where we can and joining together independently to make a social contribution there’s so much we could achieve – not least improving our own image. But now maybe I’m just being fluffy and idealistic.

    Great thought-provoking article. Thanks.

  • http://twitter.com/jackoatmon Thomas Smith

    “Shallowness, selfishness and narcissism.” 

    Sounds like a dead-on description of advertising people to me. I mean, I love a lot of people I work with, but let’s face it – it’s an industry that attracts the most self-involved people I’ve encountered. And I’m not saying I’m such a wonderful guy.

    If anything I think advertising people get an overly positive reputation of being “creative” and “cool”.

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