If someone were to ask you to describe the ad business in 2018, what would you say?
I’d compare it to New York in the ’70s. That’s the decade the city was on fire—and not just metaphorically.
New York at that time was a terrific place to be, and a terrifying one. There was so much upheaval, and New Yorkers found themselves staring down both barrels at crime, grime, financial ruin, a serial killer on the loose and the Bronx up in flames. But at the same time, the art scene was electrifying, the music was epic and the culture as a whole—including literature, film, fashion, theater, the New York City Ballet—was at an absolute apex. The closer the tinderbox came to exploding, it seemed the more vibrant, the more creative, the more exciting life was.
To me, that’s what the ad business is like right now.
As we are all aware, we are experiencing disruption in our industry that is historic, disorienting and often scary, very much like that tinderbox of the ’70s. But if we would just stop listening to the naysayers—both inside and outside our business—and allow ourselves to be fueled by the blaze rather than burned out and burned up by it, can you imagine the creative renaissance we could realize?
There’s a post-Cold War term that’s come back into vogue in the business world and that certainly applies to our own industry, and it’s VUCA, which stands for volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity. The theory holds that we’d do well to consider these variables and their elements when assessing a particular situation.
There’s another famous expression of wartime that I see as a corollary of VUCA and that equally applies to the current state of our business: snafu. And if you don’t know what that means, you may be in the wrong business.
I don’t know about you, but the business as I’ve always known it has been a hot mess: crazy, chaotic, insane. And because of, not in spite of this, it’s always been beautiful.
There was a time when we saw disruption as a strength rather than something to be frightened of, when we went beyond merely accepting challenges as a daily reality to actively embracing those challenges. A time when a bit of discomfort and intense heat was inspiring not crippling.
As I’ve told others, we must encourage radical collaboration between departments and regions and disciplines and people that are wildly different from one another in order to produce combustible moments of brilliance. No single department or region or discipline or person can survive otherwise. Our differences are what make us stronger and more interesting.
We have signed up, in fact, to work in a business that’s made up of people who think differently, who see the world differently. It forces us to defend our own points of view while gaining a new understanding and appreciation for where others are coming from. We walk into our offices every day with the expectation that ideas and points of view will collide in order to solve problems and create things—and serve our clients and make money while doing it—even though we all come from different places.
We come together in the belief that we need to connect deeply with other people, not just inside our own agencies but everywhere, to put ourselves in the shoes of those who are going to buy what we’re selling. How can we expect to do our jobs otherwise?
We come into the office every day wanting to see and understand the perspective of others, not just our own. It’s only when we see the world as others do that we are able to find ways to connect ideas to those perspectives and those people—and to affect them. We come together as believers in magic and the power of creativity to move people.
I don’t know a lot of other businesses that could be characterized in that same way, that have all that going for them. I certainly don’t believe that the consultancies, the media groups or the pure-play digital shops share that same ethos.
That gives me a lot of comfort—and confidence—about our industry.
Yes, others continue to try to steal our thunder, but we remain the masters of storytelling. That’s why, at the end of the day, I’m not particularly worried about the marketing parvenu. Sure, they can create content, but I don’t believe their product is as exceptional, as emotive or as effective as that for which our industry was specifically built to deliver.
Yes, there is change, there is uncertainty, there is smoke, and there most definitely is fire. However, rather than resign ourselves to the inevitability of industry extinction, let’s embrace this as a golden age of borderless creativity and unimaginable potential.
Despite what you might’ve been led to believe, ours is a business that absolutely still matters, that we should all feel privileged to be a part of. Not in the fantasy days of the Mad Men, but today. I know I do.
Quit your bitching, get your shit together and let’s go.