Anyone who knows me knows I don’t care what celebrities wear. I have a hard enough time taking interest in my own couture. As to awards season, I suppose I could have written such a headline anytime between January and December and still not miss the mark since giving out awards for one thing or another is always in season. The Hollywood and actor variety is among the most prolific bestower of awards as there are so many of them: Oscars, SAG, BAFTA, Golden Globe, Emmy Awards, etc. Hollywood and its kin love recognizing their own, almost as much as they like making movies about movies, actors, and celebrities in general. But they’re no different from any other industry from what I can tell. Take advertising. Most prominent in this category of self-love and promotion are the Clios, Cannes Lion, Addy, Andy, Communication Arts, One Club, Effie, D&Ds, Edwards, Epica, and Webby awards. There are oodles of others in the ad and marketing category; pharma advertising alone has its own subset of a dozen or so. Every market in America, and I suppose any region that gainfully employs commercial artists has its own, albeit smaller stakes, award shows.
The need to stand above the hoi polloi and one’s colleagues goes back a long way, a need whose origin can be traced to the ever-evolving classification habit inherent to our species and other species as well. Pecking orders serve both the modern and ancient desire to find the best mate, to win by outrunning the pack as the wolves approach, and to evade the HR manager looking to trim staff. In our species, it’s also designed to challenge, raise bars, and crush accepted notions of what’s possible. UCLA Bruins Coach Henry Russel famously said, and Vince Lombardi heartily agreed, “winning isn’t everything, it’s the only thing.” However, in athletic contests, the goal is to be the undisputed best — and the best can be found. The Olympics Games offer a widely accepted way to determine the best at whatever game is being played. The World Series, World Cup, and Super Bowl do much the same. Some awards are tiered, Gold, Silver, Bronze, etc. Yet it’s the gold that matters.
Unlike athletic competition, however, advertising awards have a bustling set of award types and subcategories with their own winners, runner ups, and close but no cigar smokers. There is no agreed-upon best ad or spot or tweet or tagline or whatever else is winning awards these days. This is to be expected because there is no demonstrable way of measuring what the best is. Oh, some will say, it’s the advertising that sells the most stuff. Other’s will say it’s what sells the most stuff based on dollars spent. Unable with objective certainty to separate the best from the rest, ad people talk lots about creativity. This term is the most heralded adjective thrown about in advertising circles—an abstraction that can’t be measured in any objective way. Yet more interesting is who decides who’s best and what creative is? Why practitioners of advertising, of course—other creatives, typically folks who have won the award in the past. Who better to decide? This seems a bit fishy though, a bit incestuous, not unlike the members of the “Academy” deciding which actors and movies are the best. But like advertising, the movie business is at the mercy of what the hoi polloi think and do. And despite being neglected, a great movie — like a great ad — can do its work without acclaim beyond selling tickets or package goods or soda. James Joyce, arguably the greatest and most influential author of the 20th century, never won a Nobel Prize for Literature. Mean Streets, The Shining, Paths of Glory, Breathless, Bringing Up Baby, and The Big Lebowski are among several great films that didn’t receive even ONE Oscar nomination—in ANY category.
Since advertising is subjective, and honest practitioners will admit that no one knows what is going to work, it often lauds work that is outré or rule-breaking or risky or any other number of noisy dicta familiar to the ad tribe. But in the end, among the most inspired, cleverest, and most memorable ads are extraordinarily simple — Where’s the Beef, Wassup, and Think Small, to name three. The first two of these though don’t have the legs advertisers look for. Think Small, on the other hand, was the first in a series from DDB in the 60s that revolutionized the practice of advertising, and to this day has not been superseded. Time, it seems, provides the only formidable method of measuring real value in the ad business, or almost any human endeavor for that matter.
Have I won any awards? A few, though no One Show Pencils or Silver Lions decorate my shelves. Do I care? Not really. So how, you ask, do you know if you were really great at advertising? I don’t. More to the point for me though is that I can’t take awards for commercial art very seriously. What I did — and do — take seriously is helping a client sell something, a client who paid me (often generously) to do what I’m good at. Commercial art is art only insofar as it calls for some artistic sense and sensibility. Basically, I don’t take subjective awards of any kind seriously. In my mind, the only award that matters to me is the one I give by paying to see a movie or buying a concert ticket or ordering a computer that’s easy as hell to use and minimizes the grief I experience in having to have one in the first place. I don’t watch award shows. I do peruse ad annuals to see what’s passing for great work, and sometimes I see an ad and say, gee, that’s clever, I wish I had thought of that. But I know that come 10 or 25 or 50 years from now, there will be new cool kids on the block doing breakthrough work and will have followers and imitators galore. And today’s heralded ad nobility will be forgotten, their metal lions and pencils gathering dust in attics or on display at yard-sale tables labeled name your price. But Mr Joyce and maybe even the Dude will still find a ready audience and admirers as the decades roll on. Now that’s an award worth having.
©2020 John Hofmeister. All rights reserved. Forward at will but please identify the author, ie, me. Thanks for reading the mouse type.
The Madmen series probably drove a lot of interest in careers in advertising. Its hero, if you could call him that, is Don Draper, who dons a variety of drapes to conceal his intentions and proclivities from his wives, colleagues, and himself. But he’s a cool, sharp cookie, drinking hard liquor before noon and sucking Lucky Strikes, ostensibly because they’re toasted, doing chicks on the side, and picking up a French bride because his first one was either too beautiful or called him out for being a cad and lying in general or for other reasons I can’t recall. No matter.
As an advertising creative hopeful, you might be enrolled in an ad program somewhere or hoping to break your way into the business as a copywriter or art director. You peruse the awesome creative to be found in One Show Annuals or CA Ad annuals, and think, wow, I want to do that. You see ads on TV, most of which are awful, and you think, I could do better than that. And I’m sure you could with some training and a decent creative brief and a creative director and an account team who care about creative. And while many agencies do care about creative, many don’t. While they may be in the ad business but they are in the end businesses. And many of them today are part of holding companies run by people who don’t give a fig for creativity unless it brings in money. Sometimes it does, but it’s a lot easier to acquiesce to a client’s moronic ideas and bill the crap out them and call it a day. And heaven forbid you recommend that they don’t need a TV spot or paid post or whatever because those would just be a waste of their money. The account team would gag at the thought of not doing something that would earn the agency money, regardless of ridiculousness the ask. But I digress.
Advertising can be rewarding, fun, and very remunerative. But it can be a crashing bore, relentlessly tedious, and drain you of a personal life, especially when you’re starting out, paying your dues as they say and putting in 60 to 80 hours a week. But if you survive time in the trenches and advance or simply continue being exceedingly good at what you do, sooner or later, there will be a younger version of yourself, eager to do what you do, for half of what you worked your way to earning with practice, diligence, and the usual politicking that comes with any job. Case in point: an agency with which I am somewhat familiar just lost a big account, and through no fault of the creatives, it needed to shed some FTEs, the polite acronym for full-time equivalent, you know actual employees with salaries and benefits. You’d think the shedding would start with the newer hires, those just learning the ropes. But you’d be wrong. Since advertising and creative output are terribly subjective endeavors, no one knows what really works. It’s a big fucking guess whether that clever ad or guerilla tactic will drive sales or build brand equity, whatever the fuck that is. So, the bean counters are like, what the hell. Let those folks who’ve been around and have gotten a steady increase in salary over the years (however modest) go and keep their juniors at half the cost or more. The agency can still claim to provide what clients want, insist they are crazily creative, etc. Of course, doing this is fundamentally stupid, as the seasoned veterans can generate more ideas, more quickly, and arrive at feasible solutions to marketing problems without pursuing ideas that their experience tells them would be a waste of time. Life at the agency goes on, however miserably. Clients continue to get ideas, however mediocre. And a dozen or so people find themselves looking for work. Now you might imagine that when business picked up, those skilled practitioners who were “let go” (like they were kites or something) would be asked to return to the agency they worked hard for, some for many years. But you’d be wrong again. That never happens. Never.
So, my advice is to approach this career choice carefully. The creative part of the business is being overtaken by data whoremongers, so getting products to be sold in front of people who ALREADY have an interest in buying those products. So, the need to stand out, to present attention-getting ideas recedes and just presenting the gizmo and offering a coupon will suffice. A small handful of boutique agencies will continue to do wonderful work. Then they grow, get bought, the principals retire at 50, and the whole business starts again. If you enter the business, plan your second career as you go, you know, the one to fall back on when your agency loses that big account and has to let you go, leaving you to drift in the wind.
This long lament might be true for any number of careers, where older, better paid, yet seasoned professionals find themselves looking for work at age 45 or 50 or later. Somewhere along the way, the relationships between employers and employees became nothing but transactional. A company’s devotion to its people and community and citizenry at large has become a quaint and decidedly nostalgic bit of whimsy laid to rest at the altar of increasing shareholder value, delivering wealth to shareholders who don’t give a flying fart for anything but their returns. McDonald’s is always hiring.
©2020 John Hofmeister. Feel free to forward with appropriate recognition of the guy who wrote this: me.
For other articles in this vein, see https://www.jhofmeister.com/musings/considering-a-career-in-advertising-a-few-warnings
When I'm not writing for clients, I write about things that interest me.