Are short-term people and thinking the future of an imperiled industry?
In a recent shareholder report highlighting stagnant growth, WPP CEO Sir Martin Sorrell said that due to a number of factors such as procurement, reduced fees, and other liabilities, “Our industry may be in danger of losing the plot.”
I had to chuckle a little. Because originally, his plot involved a hostile takeover of J. Walter Thompson to fuel self-enrichment through world domination. Oops, I meant to say the plot involved creating a massive, global marketing organization to service blue-chip clients with long-term outlooks.
That was 30 years ago. Now, in a world where Amazon sneezes and half of WPP’s clients catch a cold, it’s hard not to think his business could be headed for trouble. And along with it, the rest of the ad industry.
But let’s look at the bigger picture. Immediacy is now the mindset that permeates everything our industry, and its people, are involved in. Because we have to always be ready to pivot. So is there any merit at all for advertising and marketing people to think long-term anymore? Can anyone make a plan for their clients, their company, or their career anymore? Is advertising now part of the gig economy?
Perhaps it’s just my perspective. I’ve been a freelancer for several years now, but I’ve worked in many agencies as a full-time employee. So admittedly there are times I feel out of sync with the agency business. I miss the beer Fridays, although now they can be Dog Park Fridays. Still, I keep an ear out for what’s going on across the industry.
Job-hopping, perpetual account reviews and general listlessness have always been a part of the ad business to some extent. These days, though, lots of ad professionals have decided that full-time employment isn’t for them. And it just seems the rest of the business world has now succumbed to short-term thinking. As a result, an industry known for instability is now meeting an economy where instability seems normal everywhere.
This doesn’t mean the ad business is failing. Don’t be fooled by a bad WPP earnings report. There’s more need for marketing and advertising than ever before. It might be disguised as “content” or “storytelling” or “branded _______” but companies can’t get enough of it. They have an insatiable need to drop their marketing turds all over every inch of the customer journey they’re stalking.
As a result, companies everywhere are hiring. Some are agencies, some are in-house marketing departments. Some for long-term contracts, some for short–term gigs. Not a week goes by that I don’t get a panicked call where I’m needed ASAP (which usually translates to, “it might kick off next week, who knows.”)
The feverish pace of “advertising is dead” clickbait blog posts conveniently overlooks the thousands of ad agencies and marketing firms doing the gritty, unsexy work for businesses all over the world day after day, year after year. Small- and mid-sized agencies are tackling important projects and doing innovative work. And many are doing the nuts and bolts work that’s needed to increase client sales, attract new customers, or change perceptions. Maybe that’s the plot Martin Sorrell’s missing.
But although there’s increasing amount of work, there’s a corresponding level of upheaval. And when you bring it down to a personal, human level, it makes the ad business a tough sell and a hard slog for many people. From my observation (and a casual study of very lengthy LinkedIn profiles filled with short-lasting jobs), more and more folks are headed through the full-time-to-freelance revolving door and back out again. Or embracing full-time jobs that last for only a short while.
Frankly, I don’t see how our business, or many others, can thrive if everyone can’t see past next year. All the folks who spout some version of “people hate advertising” are empowered by the fact that the professionals who make it don’t stick around long enough to reap the benefits of doing it well, nor do they suffer the consequences of doing it badly. It’s increasingly become a business that exists solely to move on to the next “deliverable.”
How do we deal with this? In the end, all anyone can do is focus on their tasks at hand — whether it’s writing, design, strategy, media planning or whatever specialty is needed. And strive to do well at it while keeping Plan B and Plan C in the back pocket. Tomorrow or next year is not guaranteed, even if there’s a PowerPoint deck with future revenue or market share projections.
But until then, advertising’s a pretty good gig — as long as you don’t rely on Martin Sorrell’s plot. Make your own.
Since 2002, Dan Goldgeier has been writing the most provocative advertising columns about advertising and marketing -- over 170 of them, covering every related topic you can think of. Now based in Seattle, Dan is a copywriter and ad school graduate who's worked at shops big and small.
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