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May 19, 2009
Same as It Never Was
Your friend, the college history major, may claim the phrase “when the going gets tough, the tough get going” dates to the Watergate-era Nixon White House. But those of us with a keener eye for the grand sweep of the American journey know better. Ask and we’ll happily recite that the 1970s expression – highly relevant to the recessionary here and now - was first coined by the legendary John “Bluto” Blutarsky (aka John Belushi), just after Dean Wormer kicked Delta Tau Chi off the Faber campus. Revenge was satisfyingly swift, taking just a few moments of film time to attain ramming speed - which brings to mind what we’d all like to see happen to the a few of the bright bulbs behind the current mess. But, sadly, that’s off topic, so instead, let’s just open our textbooks to the page that reads “A Thousand Pink Slip Paper Cuts: Thriving Through the Advertising Recession” and, Lucy, let the ‘splaining begin.
We start with three observations virtually guaranteed to make the question marks in your morning bowl of Alpha-Bits float a little higher. First: like it or not, our shared profession is more than a long link or two from being at the top of the economic recovery food chain. A great many client companies will have to regain cash, commitment and courage before Madison Avenue stops being Sad Ave for agencies and employees alike. Second: among its by-products, the recession is only accelerating existing media consumption trends with highly disruptive consequences for the dynamics and structure of the selling arts. Last and not least: mix an extended period of financial chaos with a heaping helping of transformative yeast and you have to conclude that the advertising industry that comes out of the downturn will be very different from the one that went in.
Whether you take this as good or otherwise depends on whether you think the glass is half full, half fullness-challenged or it’s all just a matter of counting the shards. But that matters not – this change isn’t a matter of choice. It’s already here.
Memo to the creative department: while the envy-inducing wonders of the One Show, Cannes and D&AD may be a testament to ingenuity, they’re also nothing more than snapshots of the past. To parse a murky and indeterminate future you need to, in the words of the novelist John le Carré, “follow the money.” That includes understanding that the traditional advertising economy was built on a tripod of how many people you can reach, how many times you can reach them and then, what it is you have to say. This is an efficiency-based model and, before your eyes totally glaze over, let’s just say it worked until someone threw the damned thing under the media fragmentation express. At which point, of course, it was all reduced to splinters.
The recession has only added salt to the fester, by mandating a hypercompetitive stance among formerly cooperative players – creative agencies, brand planners, production companies, media shops – all of whom are fighting for attention in a time when some random Tweeting consumer might have something much more interesting to say in 140-characters than everything you sweated bullets to feature in your million dollar print campaign. No wonder there’s blood dripping from the executive suites down to the mailrooms of shops everywhere. In a time of “do more with less,” less could all too easily be your account, your agency, your future, your job.
Or, it could be just the opportunity you were looking for.
Attention upwardly-striving agencies: this is the moment where the mediocre can get good, the good can get great and they great had better remember that where you sit tomorrow has everything to do with where you stand today. Ask yourself if you’re legitimately positioned for what so predictably lies ahead. Do you have the strategic horsepower? The access to the critical skill sets needed to fully execute in 360 - maybe 720 - degrees? Is your work good enough across all experiential venues to attract interesting new clients and exciting new talent when the cycle inevitably swings north? If not, friend, then you’re in luck because you’re living in an extraordinarily deep and flexible buyers’ market for full time, freelance and project-based help alike.
The same goes for you guys busy swelling the payroll. Today’s snap quiz focuses on the question of whether you think there’s more value in a) creating ads or b) solving creative problems. Check the second box and you’re going to need an expanding set of multi-dimensional skills that go beyond the deft ability to snag a greasy breakfast burrito off the craft services table. Making no claim to paragon-hood, that’s exactly why I’ve sought out assignments in direct response, social networking, documentary film-making, biotechnology and experiential marketing over the past few years.
You see, while we may have left a comfortable and uncomplicated world behind, thriving under emergent advertising conditions starts with the three simple words seen on the Faber founder’s statue as Animal House begins: “Knowledge is good.”

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Jef Loeb is the creative director and senior writer at Brainchild, a creative consultancy providing services directly to clients as well as a range of advertising agencies.His awards include Cannes Gold, CA, One Show, Andys, Archive, Graphis, Athena, Radio Mercury, and Addys. He also has been a frequent writer on advertising and marketing issues with pieces published in AdWeek, Creativity, Shots (UK), the San Francisco Chronicle and many others

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