Do you have to be in the best ad cities to do the best ad work?
I once judged the ADDY awards in a small market with only a few agencies of moderate size. From the moment I arrived, it was clear that the awards, and the subsequent show evening, were taken very seriously. Contrasted with some major markets I’ve seen where the ad community isn’t all that cooperative or collaborative, it was a quite a surprise. They displayed a pride in their small city’s creative output, a trait missing in so many others.
Advertising agencies are everywhere. But can you do truly great advertising from anywhere? Is geography destiny?
Indeed, the Internet has made it easier to do work anywhere. You can work for clients you never meet. You can collaborate with multiple people without ever sharing a conference room. Yet there are still cities where there are concentrations of great agencies, and cities where the advertising market isn’t prominent. This year, The Rosey Awards in Portland created a promotional website that poked fun of the creative cultures in other cities. All in jest, but there’s a stinging nugget of truth in how the cities are portrayed.
In the lifecycle of cities, our new connect-from-anywhere-to-anyone way of working is only beginning to make an impact. Richard Florida, the author of “The Rise of the Creative Class,” has made a career out of studying why some cities attract creative people and why others don’t. I always get a wide-eyed reaction when I meet someone who’s not from the Midwest, or not in advertising, and I tell them that Minneapolis is one of the best ad markets in the country. Because they don’t understand why talent gets concentrated in one city like that, and the power of a truly connected creative community.
Despite the rise of chain restaurants and strip malls, America is not as homogenous as you might think. I got reminded of that on a recent trip to the other side of the country. Regionalism still plays a large role in defining our culture. And even if the ad agencies in a smaller market have their tentacles out far and wide for new business, many clients still display a provincialism in their outlook that can creep into the advertising they seek from their agencies.
Outside the transient nature of the ad industry, where people move constantly, many people are perfectly content to live and work in or near the cities they grew up in. So there will always be regional agencies who have a deep knowledge of the businesses, cultures, and idiosyncrasies of their part of the country. They can, in many cases, deliver better, more effective work than an agency 1,000 miles away could.
The ad industry in some cities certainly has a lure. Walking the streets of Manhattan has a rhythm all its own. It’s true you can’t always replicate the culture of a dynamic big city, but if cities like New York and San Francisco become priced so far out of reach of 20-somethings, and advertising salaries fail to keep pace, you may see more great agencies (much like Crispin did) move to affordable college towns and make the culture come to them.
As advertising people, we can’t lose our connection to the cities we live and work in. It’s very easy to connect with other advertising people around the world through sites like LinkedIn and Twitter, but that doesn’t mean we should ignore the personal connections we can make through local ad clubs or other organizations. And we can’t simply work from behind screens in our apartments or alone in the corner of a coffee shop.
In any city, the advertising community needs to stick together, bring people together, and work together. There’s often a lot of natural, healthy competition among agencies, but unless the industry promotes itself and its value in its own market, the city’s other business leaders won’t care. I believe the more an ad community is united, the better the work can be. Working collectively, a city can raise its creative bar or keep it low.
I always find it worthwhile to attend ad club or other industry-related events, and I’ve done that in the many cities I’ve lived in. And I recommend others also get involved. Even if you’re in a small town or small ad market that’s not known for great advertising, you can find like-minded creative professionals. Because that’s the great thing about this business: you can concept by yourself, work by yourself, and drink by yourself, but in advertising, they’re always more fun with other people.