In my last column here, I cribbed about cribbers and reflected upon the mirror as a starting point to solve some of the ad industry’s problems.
I’m diving deeper into the morass this time.
Because the possible kickstarters for hubris in the advertising business are many.
Over in a not-so-unknown-anymore corner of Substack, the strategist Zoe Scaman’s scathing unshrouding of the ad industry’s worst, and worst-kept, secret may perhaps finally unearth the solution to the invisibility cloak that misogynists in the business have worn forever. Its equally powerful derivative is the #NoMore Declaration, co-created by multiple women in the ad business.
Misogyny, like fascism (yes, I did put the two together in the same sentence) relies on the emboldened many singling out their victims, humiliating and threatening them with dire consequences—and not always only covertly. Scaman’s trigger-pull may be the opportunity to turn the tables and have the perpetrators singled out while the victims coalesce, denying the former the cover of anonymity and institutional pusillanimity.
I started in this business as a fairly fresh-eyed trainee in 1994. I have been foolish more than I have been wise in all these years. I have encountered incredibly kind and generous people over the years, across multiple geographies. And I have also interacted with many incredibly selfish, insecure, unscrupulous and hypocritical people, with an outsized image of themselves, and unfortunately, an outsized influence beyond themselves too.
Many of the people in the latter category continue to thrive in this business because too many of the kind ones prefer to put their heads down and focus on the work. They thrive because there are places where leadership puts profits before people (despite all that is put out in thought leadership pieces and DEI initiatives). They thrive because there are places where the people who are right mistake confrontation for aggression and back down, and because the people who are wrong give two hoots about being seen as aggressive and combine it with false entitlement. They thrive because insecurity is a bigger driver of decisive (if patently wrong) actions than fear is. They thrive because the chain of connections that runs the “system” ultimately overwhelms the individual. They thrive because power corrupts in ways most of us don’t understand.
I’ve tried to use my foolishness—my naivete if you will—to confront those in the wrong. I ended up leaving four of the seven places I’ve worked in across my career because I couldn’t change what I couldn’t stand, even when I took a stand. But not taking a stand is not an option, not for me, not for any of us. As I’ve said, it hasn’t brought me great success. But I’m pretty sure I would have been an even bigger failure than I am if I never took a stand.
And then there’s the whole notion of the big, bad, relentless agency network holding company juggernaut, focused only on maximising share prices and lining up the retirement funds and post-retirement “thought leadership” and “future published author” profiles of its top honchos.
The notion includes the thinking (also the reality to some extent) that it precludes the real purpose of the advertising business—to apply creativity to drive commerce, by shaping culture, by pushing human ingenuity and imagination forward, data and technology only being its latest allies in this cause.
It’s the most stated reason why top creative and strategy people leave the networks to set up shops of their own—that the business of management stifles the pursuit of creativity. That it’s no longer fun. That too much time and effort (and money) go into managing egos, processes, hierarchies, reports, compliance, meetings, into projecting outwardly what we may not be inside. Of course, these people also leave because there’s only so much room for growth (monetarily or creatively) after a point. And it can get lonely and crowded at the top very fast.
I see a problem and an opportunity in that.
When the people who care about the work leave a company in the hands of those that they believe only care about the money, that only leaves the industry as a whole weaker. That’s the problem.
It’s also the opportunity. For the people who care about the work to also care about the money—about how it’s made, about how it’s managed, about how it’s invested (back into the people who care about creating the work). And to get bloody good at it.
And it’s the opportunity for those who care about the money to remember where they came from—as bright-eyed, bushy-tailed novices who believed in the power of creativity (their own, and the industry’s) and that was what they cared most about.
Because most of us in the business are not in leadership positions. And can only create the work.
But those of us in leadership positions have the opportunity to influence the shape of that work.
I have a feeling that I now talk a lot more about the work than actually help create the work. However tenuously, staying connected with the work by actually creating the work is one thing I hold on to feverishly.
I have learnt to find fun in the tasks of managing people and egos. But there’s nothing more fun than creating the work that can influence culture and the future of brands and businesses.
To repeat a Jerry Della Femina quote I’ve used many times, advertising is the most fun you can have with your clothes on.
We’ll do well to heed both parts of that excellent, timeless advice:
Have fun. And keep our clothes on (especially us men, unless there’s something consensual and mutual and nothing to do with advertising going on between two interested parties).
Narayan Devanathan is CEO, dentsu Solutions India/head of strategy and consulting, dentsu Creative Apac. Opinions expressed here are his own but as always, he hopes more people think similarly.
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