While Maurice Lévy called 2014 an "annus horribilus" for Publicis Groupe, life for most agency leaders was a bit merrier this holiday season – but not by much. As Steward Elliot wrote in one of his last columns for the New York Times: "’the situation is hopeless but not serious’ seems to sum up what several Madison Avenue thought leaders believe lies in store for the industry next year."
There’s not much certainty for us these days. The ad agency business can be described in tectonic terms: Giant forces and trends scrape each other while triggered by small yet reverberating disruptions that place it on the cusp of a cataclysmic release.
Holding companies get bigger, but nimble independents are winning more. Digital is eating everyone’s lunch, but TV is eating up more budgets. Top talent is deserting for greener tech and startup pastures, while agencies themselves are getting in the business of making stuff, launching products and investing in brands.
We are rooted in creativity but stuck in passe structures. We tout collaboration but reward connivance. We believe in a thing called loyalty but hardly ever practice it. Those of us reading this publication are all a part of a very paradoxical industry indeed.
This is no indictment, just an intentional and interested observance. After co-founding and launching a new agency at the tail end of 2013, I’ve had the privilege to learn from and lean on some incredibly talented, committed and entrepreneurial titans of this industry. And although the going will be tough for us in 2015, at a tepid 4.6 percent growth rate — according to the latest estimates — we’re still all in it together.
So in this context, allow me to share a few more observances in looking back over this year, and in doing so add to the prognostications of the year to come.
There is a dearth of honor in advertising, and that shit needs to change.
No one ever told anyone that this is an "honorable" profession. We’ve all had to somehow minutely (or not) apologize at a dinner party to someone or other for being in advertising. For years, advertising has been the third-least-trusted profession in this country, behind lawyers and car salesmen. And yet our industry is instrumental — dare I say irreplaceable — to commerce and culture.
So let’s act like it.
We need to hold ourselves up higher. We need to elevate the business to match the ideals and expectations that our audience has for the products we help sell. We need to be more optimistic, intentional and open. If you say you are going to do something, do it. If you see the need to help, jump right in. Stop squeezing clients for more money and your people for more hours. Win graciously and lose with grace. Never post anonymously on Agency Spy.
Following in the steps of the brands that are setting the tone for more transparency, authenticity and purpose, let’s be more meaningful in our work. Let’s nurture new talent rather than poach old ones. Let’s stop proving the industry adage that "the day you win a client is the day you start losing them."
Let’s lose the term "co-opetition" and instead pursue true collaboration among diverse agencies without ever looking over our shoulders. Seriously, if this industry is to continue to attract and retain talent and expertise, we desperately need a more honorable approach to the business in which we find ourselves.
We need more people with "fire in their eyes."
Shortly before I launched School with Project: WorldWide, I received a piece of invaluable advice from IDEO’s Paul Bennett: Work with people who "have fire in their eyes."
This phrase has stubbornly stuck with me and continues to be a north star in the way we approach our work and partner relationships at the agency. We seek out the innovators, the iconoclasts, the makers and doers who truly believe that they can dent the world for the better and have the seniority, talent or expertise actually to do it.
This easy filter applies to brand leaders with whom we work, to people who we want to work at School, to our holding-company partners, to our vendors, to our colleagues and our interns. We yearn to work with people who give a shit ... and not just talk it.
Our industry is being reshaped and reinvigorated by leaders such as Converse’s Geoff Cottrill, Unilever’s Keith Weed and North American Brewing’s Kris Sirchio, who only recently repositioned the flagship beer brand to be triple-bottom-line focused. That’s fire, indeed!
Our work is being inspired by creative voices such as Alex Bogusky and Lee Clow, who wrote in Campaign that "we, and the brands we work with, will have to innovate — ideas, mediums and storytelling — to exist in a world where social impact will matter more than we can ever imagine today."
This industry is wide open for questioning, self-examination and analysis, with ex-agency honchos such as Cindy Gallop and David Jones promulgating a more purposeful approach to our expertise and skillsets.
They all have fire in their eyes.
It’s too easy to find cynicism amongst ourselves. It’s hardly a surprise when our colleagues bounce around from one clone-like agency to another. In this environment, fire in the eyes is hard to find. It is therefore even more imperative that we attract and retain talent that does — people who are passionate about advertising but want to disrupt it, reformulate it and use it to create new forms of communication and human connection beyond consumerism.
We must find, mentor and elevate these people because the future our entire industry may just rest in their hands.
Purposeful work is a big deal but still unproven.
I should have suspected this year in advertising would be sullied when "Sorry, I Spent It on Myself" was declared the best work in the world by our peers. No offense to the great talents and storytellers at Adam&EveDDB — the agency’s craftsmanship and Harvey Nichols’ sales results are beyond reproach — I just expected something more from ourselves. After the massive outpouring of purposeful work that won at the 2013 Cannes Lions, we seemed to have reverted back to schtick and schlock to woo the public.
There may be reason for this detour. Despite the fact that most ad insiders grudgingly accept that purposeful agencies are growing in number and share of voice, clients still seem to be (optimistically) ambivalent or (cynically) totally bereft of purpose for their brands. They’d rather stick to the tried-and-true approaches to selling their wares.
That’s fine. Agencies are supposed to be ahead of the curve, are expected to be the sherpas who lead their clients into the immediate future, are demanded to know the next big trend. So it’s no surprise that our industry is well-advanced when it comes to understanding the newfound importance of purpose in culture and commerce, if even our clients are not yet ready to face the future.
Flush with statistics that show purpose-based companies — and the marketing they do — far outperform their non-purposeful competition, some agencies and CMOs (with fire in their eyes) are trying to do better by doing good. The creative work that is coming out of this intention has been stellar, inspiring, goosebump-inducing and tear-jerkingly good. Campaigns like Droga5’s "This Is Wholesome" for Honey Maid, a Coke app that connects causes with volunteers, Ogilvy’s Dove work, the Ice Bucket Challenge, KLM’s "#HappyToHelp" campaign from DDB — all these great pieces of creativity pushed purpose into the discussion of what we can accomplish together as an industry.
Purpose-based work is certainly helping change culture, but I’ve yet to definitively conclude that it is helping change profits. This statement may seem out of place coming from the co-founder of a purposeful creative shop, but in effect is an optimistic auguring for 2015. This is the year when the proof for purpose in our work is delivered.
I expect great things from purposeful brands, and even greater things from agencies using purpose for their insight and inspiration. It will drive our ethos, our integrity and our success. Purpose is the new digital, and next year will signal its significance. See you on the other side.
This post first appeared on Campaign on December 30, 2014.