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May 18, 2015
We've Made a Mess of Advertising and We're Leaving It for You to Fix
“Man, you’ve really ‘screwed’ yourself up this time!”

Many years ago, these were the “encouraging” words from my best friend, Erwin, to me as I laid next to the triple-jump runway, writhing in pure agony. I had just torn my knee apart, and this was what he had for me...

“Man, you’ve really ‘screwed’ (he used a more colorful word but I’m watching my language) yourself up this time.” You’ve got to love friends.

Oddly enough, we still laugh about that moment. (Yeah, we aren’t right in the head, but we are friends.) There on the track, he understood that, as my friend, he had to tell me the truth.

I respect that.

So, in the same vein, I would like to say to many young advertising professionals and students, “Our bad. We’ve f**ked up advertising royally! Lord knows, we’re leaving you a mess to clean up.”



We broke advertising good. Not completely, but we’ve done a real hatchet job on it, and I’m not sure we have enough time left in our lives to fix the mess we’ve made. It is going to be up to you to make things right.

Good luck.

What? You don’t think advertising is broken? I can see that.

It’s been broken so long that many of us have forgotten what the advertising industry looked like before we broke it. Heck, I’m going to get pushback from some of the people who believe advertising has never looked better. Those people need to pee in the cup, because they are on some serious stuff.

We’ve broken advertising good!

When my friends and I first started in advertising, agencies used to:
  1. Have structured training for new hires, not no-pay or low-pay internships
  2. Have strong and stable relationships with clients, not the “booty call”–style thing you see today; real, long-lasting relationships where agencies were more like trusted partners than mere “vendors,” (I wish you could feel my contempt for that word) and we felt privileged to be trusted by a client to help build and nurture a brand
  3. Be "teams," (sort of) staffed fully to serve the client, not to make the bottom line look great; there were willing and able talented people at all levels in various functions who could and would come together to capture the prize (now there are a lot of virtual talents fighting to get a piece of the pie when they ought to be working together to bake a bigger pie that would feed a lot more people)
  4. Be creative-driven to produce solutions for clients that stood out and got them noticed
  5. Have leaders (managers) who were committed to quality and helping clients, understood what it took to do the job, and respected those who created the work — this included all disciplines!
  6. Have leaders who could resign a bad account, not because it was unprofitable, but because it was a bad account
  7. Have creatives who really thought differently, and could embrace “consider painting their trucks” or “singing the strategy”
  8. Have creatives who could recognize a great idea when it was someone else’s
  9. Have media pros who knew that every ad wasn’t a Super Bowl :60 spot, and could make head-turning impressions with fractional space, package inserts, and outdoor teasers
  10. Have account service staffs who were so much more than order takers (my God, account service people used to know how to tell a client “no” to protect their brand)
  11. Feel nothing like accounting firms — their offices were alive with ideas and creativity; there was an energy, a personality, that made creating fun; the management of one shop prided itself on not being like other agencies
  12. Value originality and creativity in all aspects of their business; risk was our friend, “sameness” our enemy, and no one wanted to be seen to be doing what everyone else was doing — everyone strived to carve out their own path to success
(I’m not going to talk about the rise of the holding companies and their contribution to the condition of advertising today. Not because it isn’t important, but because the only time you will have to consider this is when you own or run an agency, and you might have to decide to sell the shop to a holding company. Choose carefully; very carefully.)

Oh, we broke advertising good.

About now, some of you are thinking that I’m another old, jaded, angry creative near the end of his career who is lashing out because the world has passed him by.


But maybe not.

Let’s see where I am headed before you pass final judgment. And after reading everything, if you think I am that guy — then that is your right.

I love advertising. It was so easy to fall in love with Lady Advertising. She was a sexy and mysterious creature. Every day, you woke up not knowing what she was going to do or where she might take you. Creating became our drug of choice; we chased the mythical “perfect idea.”

What happened?

We forgot to “stay gold.”

“Stay gold, Ponyboy… stay gold…”

The quote comes from the book and movie The Outsiders. I highly recommend checking out one or both of them. Anyway, the quote is from a dying character, Johnny, to his gang member, Ponyboy. He is asking him not to lose his youthful innocence and zeal for life.

I’m begging you, as advertising professionals, to “stay gold.”

Fanatically hold on to your passion and fire for being creative.

Let yourself enjoy the journey.

Be a sponge; soak up as much as you can.

Never, ever weary of practicing your craft! (Please don’t listen to those who do not think it is a craft; they’re confused.)

On the practical side:

Seek out a mentor, a true mentor, who is invested in helping you grow. This is going to require a lot of searching. You’ve gotta kiss a lot of frogs before you find your prince/princess. Be patient, but keep searching.

“Be ye not unequally yoked…” I love this quote.

Be picky when selecting a mentor. Develop a criteria for what you are looking for from a mentor. Have a set of questions in mind. Research the people you are interested in as a potential mentor. Clearly communicate your expectations. Learn to listen and accept advice and criticism.

A mentor is not a cheerleader.

Understand that you’re entering a partnership with someone who has something you want and need — information and experience. Be respectful of his/her time and effort. Be sincerely thankful. Nothing is as powerful as a heartfelt thank-you.

Check your ego at the door. Yeah, yeah, everyone in your life has told you how creative you are. Well, that’s about to change. You are going to be competing against a lot of great creatives. You’re going to have to earn your accolades.

In the words of Ric Flair, the wrestler, “To be the man, you’ve got to beat the man.”

You can’t do that if you don’t know who the really great creatives are. Study the work of others, be inspired by their creativity, and appreciate their skill level. Learn how to be as good as they are so that you can be better.

Disclaimer time: There’s nothing wrong with having an ego. Believe in yourself! Think that you’re the greatest thing since sliced bread. Just don’t let it go to your head. Don’t rub your “creative genius” in the faces of others. Let your work speak for itself; be a good human being.

Don’t be afraid to experience the world. Embrace learning about different and new things. Study people as much as many of us study tech. Become an avid people-watcher and listener. Our mission as advertising professionals is to speak to humans for our clients. You cannot do this from afar. Immerse yourself in your humanity. That means disconnecting from your devices now and then.

Learn from the traditional agencies. There is more to advertising’s legacy and past than Mad Men. Study the great shops of the past to understand what they did to make them great. Their success was no accident. Everything old is not bad. The brands we admire and chase today were created by the advertising agencies of yesterday.

Challenge the tech. Technology is always a tool, and very, very seldom a solution or an answer. Learn this difference, and never forget it. Learn as much as you can with the intent and purpose of using tech to better connect with your fellow humans. Never become such a fan of tech that you mistake its capabilities for the message it delivers. The more you learn about tech, the more you need demand from it: push it to its limits, and beyond.

Don’t ever fear the “new” and “different” that tech’s constant evolution presents to you. You’re going to see some amazing things, and it will be so tempting to be blinded by the “new.” Regardless, learn to ask the hard questions, and avoid the bandwagon at all costs.

Never forget or ignore the past. Yes, we “older ones” have made some colossal mistakes, but we also had gigantic successes! Learn from both.

I am going to repeat this as often as I need until it sinks in: “The great agencies didn’t get great by accident.” (I know many of my contemporaries have forgotten this, to our detriment.)

Study our industry’s past with an objective eye. Stop looking for differences. Start discovering the common connections between what was done before and what’s being done now. When you can see how today is built upon the actions and decisions of yesterday, you will gain a deeper understanding of this advertising thing we all do.

The end is near… the end of this blog, that is.

Yeah, we “screwed up advertising pretty good,” but I wrote this because I honestly believe the mistakes of the past can be corrected. I have hope that things can get better. It is going to take a lot of hard work and passion to shift how we inside the industry view what we do, and ourselves, but it has to happen.

The work will save us.

Smart, creative advertising will overcome everything. Believe in the power of great work to raise the level of everything else.

Above everything else — have fun! Never grow too old to be creative. Remain close friends with your inner child. Work hard, and play even harder.

Stay gold, Ponyboys and Ponygirls!

Thanks for reading.

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Derek Walker is the janitor, secretary and mailroom person for his tiny agency, brown and browner advertising, out of the big city of Columbia, S.C. He is on Twitter as @dereklwalker
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