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August 18, 2004
Justifying Your Livelihood - Part 1 of 2

You make ads for a living. It can be rewarding and fun, but it is a job. It's often hard work. The hours are long. There's little job security. Clients are frequently thankless, occasionally downright abusive. And the bar at Belly in LA is often so crammed with beautiful people that you can't hear yourself drool.

Okay, we in the ad business know it's not as glamorous as all those sitcoms make it out to be. But we also know it's a whole lot more exciting than most any other career this side of rock stardom. Besides, advertising plays a pretty important role in our society. You could say it's the grease of the free enterprise system. It's the reason magazines don't cost $200 an issue. It's why radio is free. Thanks to advertising a ticket to a ball game is only $75. (Only $75? Did I mention this business pays pretty well?)

So why is it that we so often have to defend our career choice to others. The uncle who's a lifer at "the plant." The smart ass at the class reunion. Our parents and spouses.

You've been asked: "why do you do t-h-a-t for a living?" Accused of "making people buy things they don't need!"

The latter, I love. "No, I don't make people buy things they don't need. If I could do that I'd be earning zillions and not moaning so much about the long hours and thankless clients."

A variation on the above is my favorite put down, "You make people spend their food stamps on things they don't need." WRONG! "Those who choose to spend their food stamps irresponsibly are spending them on lottery tickets SO WE CAN SELL THEM MILLOINS OF DOLLARS WORTH OF THINGS THEY DON'T NEED!"

Besides, kids don't need food. Have you seen the obesity statistics lately? Yes, we ad folk have been called hustlers, snake oil salesmen and subliminal manipulators of the subconscious mind. And sometimes just when I want to scream some sanity into the heads of the accusers I think of all the less than stellar ads out there and I have to shut my mouth. Because I agree.

A great majority of advertising today stinks. Is it 95%? 65%? Who cares.

Actually, I believe there is more "good" advertising today that just a few short decades ago. I credit the ad schools, I suppose, for better preparing today's ad crafters than any generation before. I credit the books and the reels, and the web sites, like the one you're visiting, and the whole global village environment we all live in. Ad people are better informed than ever before of what is being done in distant cities and in distant categories. The Mac has helped propel the design revolution in advertising. And TV commercials are no longer just,... well,... TV commercials. They are now "films," with "sound design" and catering.

Yes, advertising is better these days. But most is still not particularly great. Where years ago I think you had Bernbach and his few followers, then a huge gap to the rest of the pack. Today you have this year's hot agencies and creative teams out ahead, but the pack's not too far back.

Then why do we still have to defend our existence so?

Mark Silveria, in his book Ordinary Advertising. And how to avoid it like the plague. writes "while (ordinary) might be perfectly fine for some things,... it's not okay for advertising. Because only extraordinary advertising attracts attention, makes a firm connection with its audience and returns great value..."

It was that early French advertising giant Voltaire who said "Good is the enemy of great." I believe that, today, the reason most ad people don't do great ads is because they do good ads.

But what's the big difference here anyway? People still think we're lower on the professional food chain than used car salesman. In part because we're an easy target. If we do anything but brilliant work we measure our professional embarrassment in households calculated by gross rating points.

Besides, even if we create a great ad, it's still interrupting their ball game or sitcom or reality divorce show.

How do you defend that? Stay tuned for part 2 next week.

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Tom Monahan is the man many people turn to for a creativity booster shot. He's the author of "The Do-It-Yourself Lobotomy" which he preaches at seminars conducted for ad clubs, agencies, and marketers. He founded the award-winning shop Leonard/Monahan in Providence and has written for Communication Arts since 1990.

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