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January 23, 2007
Of So-Called Rock Stars and Stage-Hogging Poseurs
“Musically, we're more talented than any Bob Dylan or Paul McCartney. Mick Jagger can't produce a sound. I'm the new Elvis." - Rob Pilatus, 1990

I’m not sure if Rob Pilatus was either “Milli” or “Vanilli,” but he clearly thought he was a rock star.

So, are you the Milli of the advertising world? Are you the Vanilli of marketing managers? Or are you more like Mick Jagger? How would you know the difference?

According to one trade magazine, you shouldn’t waste your time answering those questions.

Ad Age recently ran a front-page headline proclaiming “Death of the Rock Star CMO.” Oh wait, excuse me. It read, “DEATH OF THE ROCK STAR CMO.” The all-capital letters mean they’re serious. But you know what the article fails to mention? That the fawning, sycophantic, journalism-free coverage publications like Ad Age bestows upon those people makes everyone think they’re rock stars.

Isn’t it long past time our industry stops referring to marketing and advertising people as "rock stars"? I mean, some people really deserve the moniker.

Bono is a rock star. Mick Jagger is a rock star.

Middle management marketing executives or group creative directors, however, aren't rock stars.

Since I work in advertising, I don’t claim to be a rock star. If you’re reading this column, then I’m your biggest fan, but odds are you’re not a rock star, either.

Now, there’s nothing wrong with saying someone has extraordinary skill or talent. Heck, even an extra helping of charm and good looks can help you succeed in the ad biz. But to elevate someone to “rock star” status is sheer lunacy. In a business where we seek “universal truths,” the embrace of such poseurs is universal bullshit.

What’s even worse, it sets up unrealistic expectations for the person considered to be the rock star. Let’s face it, it only takes a little time spent working for a bureaucratic corporation, dysfunctional agency, or hack Executive Creative Director to kill off that reputation. And in corporate America, where nearly everyone has a leash-like electronic entry badge and a lengthy employee ID number, some things are simply beyond the power of one person to change--no matter how much that person thinks of him or herself as a “change agent.”

But marketing and advertising’s anointed so-called rock stars have bigger problems than inflated egos and pumped-up bios. It’s simply not an illusion that can be sustained for any length of time. Everything a rock star says is said to shatter current paradigms. Every ad they’re involved with is purported to be genius. Which gives such stars a license to be mediocre because no one dares call them on their mediocrity. Therein lies the real danger—they don’t truly improve the profession, they perpetuate the downward slide of it. Perhaps it’s why so many of these stars are shooting stars as far as the press is concerned—and why there’s a new round of stars crowned every year.

Do you buy into the mythmaking? I hope you don’t. By calling someone a rock star, you not only elevate them falsely, you lower yourself in the process. It makes you sound immature. It makes you sound star-struck.

“The hallways in my agency are filled with rock stars.” “She’s a real marketing rock star.” If that’s what you think, then take the metaphor and make it real. You’re a groupie. You might as well take that rock star aside and offer up a tongue bath in the conference room or have him/her autograph your breasts.

It’s OK to admire people. It’s OK to have heroes, although I generally believe someone who’s chosen advertising as a profession isn’t all that heroic. Much like creatives are told never to stop after having their first idea when concepting, don't go bowing down before whoever is on Creativity's cover this month. You have to drill down deeper to find real ad people worthy of admiration.

Unfortunately, reports of the death of rock star CMO’s, along with those on the agency side, are greatly exaggerated. There will be more trumped-up press releases, more marketing managers promoted to demigods, more agencies-of-the-moment and their leaders labeled “hot.” It sells magazines. It gets people talking.

Just don’t take it too seriously. And for God’s sake, if you are or become of one of these stars, don’t take yourself too seriously. All the adulation could disappear tomorrow.

Girl, you know it's true.

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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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