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August 27, 2015
Drinking the Kool-Aid in Advertising’s Cult of Personality
How did keeping track of everyone in our business get to be everyone's business?

Last week, it was announced that a very talented and well-accomplished CEO of a famed ad agency was relieved of his duties. In one trade publication story, the people who did the relieving were quoted in a way that sounded extremely harsh, dismissing this person like yesterday’s trash. Quite a lot of people took notice and commented in various websites and blogs.

Now when it’s the CEO of a well-known agency, it’s big news throughout the industry if you follow such items. Which I admit I do. But it still amazes me that advertising professionals, whether they’re in the middle of their careers or in the leadership of an agency, are discussed, praised, criticized, and dismissed by people who’ve never met them or know little about them. More than that, the routine comings and goings of people fuel many industry publications.

Does our industry’s cult of personality have a positive or negative effect? Is it truly worth our time or energy to care about people we don’t know?

That we all know the intricacies of who works at which agencies, and on which accounts, is somewhat bizarre. It’s another reason the advertising business is a mystery to most people who aren’t in it. Our age of never-ending listicles has spawned even more of this fanfare. We regularly see lists such as “The 50 Advertising People You Should Know,” “The 30 Best Ad Creatives Under 30,” and even “The 40 Sexiest People in the Ad Business.”

I’m not important (or sexy) enough to make these lists. So for me, as well as most people in advertising, keeping up with the industry’s cult of personality remains a spectator sport.

Do other industries do this as often or as intensely as advertising and marketing? Is there a list of The 30 Sexiest Architects? Top 30 Truckers Under 30? 100 Funeral Directors You Should Know?

In a business where perception is often reality, there’s a certain perverseness to all of this. Our imperative to self-promotion seems just as important as the work we create to promote our clients (Did I mention you should buy my new book?) It’s the way our industry encourages individuals to advance their careers. Recognition, in the form of press mentions, fame or awards, makes you disproportionately well-known. In other words, a higher profile equals higher potential. Taking credit equals getting more cash.

I suppose all of this reflects our society’s obsession with fame and personalities. Which, of course, our business is partially responsible for. After all, we’re the ones that decided anything, or anyone, could be a “brand.” People pursue fame in order to burnish their “brand.” Even ideas, political parties, and ideological movements have a “brand.”

So perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised that people in advertising, not the work, are often the focus of news. And as industries go, advertising is a rather small and incestuous one. If you stay in the business long enough and do a little networking, job-hopping, or cross-country moving, you’ll probably find yourself only one or two degrees removed from almost anyone else in the business.

And in advertising, loudness and extroversion often win over quiet introspection. So there’s a constant need for outsized personalities to make news. Still, there are always people who don’t play this game. You can do good work, make good money, have a good family life, and have a long career without getting on the cover of Adweek. 

When it comes to putting yourself out there for public scrutiny, there’s no single answer that’s right for every person. Maybe you’ll succumb to the industry Kool-Aid and work to make yourself known, or pour a little whiskey to drown the sorrows of toiling in anonymity. But either way, my advice to you is to start drinking heavily.

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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. 

Visit his copywriting websitesee his LinkedIn profile or follow him on Twitter.

And please, buy his book for 99 cents.


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