I’ve had a love hate relationship with advertising for as long as I can remember. Growing up, I was convinced that this is what I wanted to do for a living. Working alongside creative minds to help scale world class companies seemed like a worthy endeavour. So I indulged, under the belief that such a smart group of folks could quite literally help build systems (companies & products) that made the world a better place. While that overarching belief remains (we can and have helped great companies scale) I’ve become ashamed at the shear volume of rubbish that passes as acceptable work and my esteem for this industry’s current understanding of creativity has hit an all time low.
Somewhere along the way, somewhere in the last 60 years, I think we got confused and forgot what we were in for. We convinced ourselves that we were in the business of storytelling and have been hunting that bandwagon ever since. From newspapers to radio and television to the web, we’ve been asking some of the world’s finest artists and wordsmiths to craft varyingly delightful narratives about our clients’ products and brands.
This worked for a long time because our stories had an automatic audience. We dumped them in environments that had millions of aggregated ears and eyeballs and then bragged about how many folks had seen our stuff – which made clients come back for more. But truth is, our work survived not because it was sought out or desired, but because attention was an inherent component of the system. Attention in fact, was the system. Consumers didn’t have a choice.
When the web came along and fragmented our beloved audiences by becoming the mode of carriage for all other media, we blindly continued pushing the same craft and peddling the same stories. And just like monkeys trying to figure out how to prop up a rigged stick, we’ve been asking ourselves why our shit hasn’t been working since. You see, the problem is: our shit was never designed to work. It was never designed to earn it’s own attention. It was a mere byproduct of the vectors of transmission of the 20th century. We pushed stories onto audiences, that audiences didn’t request, and had little vested interest in engaging with.
I hate to break it to you, but advertising was never actually about storytelling. Stories were a means to an end, not an end in itself. Our end was, and is, to nudge consumer behaviour to the benefit of our clients brands. And it appears that we’ve forgotten this – both as agencies and as clients. We’ve let a means become our end and our end become that means.
Now don’t get me wrong, there will always be a need to disseminate new information thus telling the world about the existence of formerly unknown things, but our mission, our industry’s mission, depends on so much more than that. Stories are a tool, but it would be overtly stupid to assume that they are the only tool we have to fulfill our purpose.
If propagating new behaviour is what we’re trying to accomplish, then it seems like we’re really in the business of getting people to do things. In my lifetime, I’ve found that there are essentially three ways for this to happen:
1- You can tell a person to do something (what we’ve been doing).
2- You can make it easier for them to do that thing.
3- Or you can make it more rewarding for them to do that thing.
Out of these three distinct principles, we’ve really only been living up to one (and arguably the least efficient and the least rewarding of all). That’s my contention. When we could have been working alongside our clients to help them turn their companies into vehicles of success, we chose to stop at storytelling.
There’s a fine line between making people want stuff and making stuff people want. We’ve been riding an exclusive side of that spectrum for far too long. It’s been detrimental to our revenues, to our work and to our industry’s esteem. There’s more to this job than insights, briefs and nifty copy. There’s more to this job than information and stories. There’s amazing companies that are waiting to grow. Companies that are waiting for a shot at making a dent in the universe - and the great news is that it’s our job to help them. With their blessing, we get to turn their companies into systems that people want to engage with. Systems that people choose to engage with - because we’ve made it easier, better and more rewarding for them.
We haven’t lived up to that yet. We’ve failed ourselves and it breaks my heart to see so much creative potential trapped in the confines of an overly defined box. It’s time we move on with the things we said we’d do. It’s time we live up to all those manifestos we wrote – about purpose – our purpose – and our clients’ purpose. Because god are we good at writing manifestos.
As an industry, when we wake up in the morning, let’s remember that we have one of the coolest jobs in the world. We get to go out and build things. Things that bend the arc of history by altering how people spend their time. Their energy. Their heartbeats. And with this kind of power we have a responsibility. A responsibility to think deeply about how we spend our waking hours (and by proxy how other people will spend theirs). Because at the end of the day we get to choose. We get to choose the shape of the companies that populate our world. We get to choose bold ideas, unique ideas, business ideas with design integrity. Ideas that will shape the brands that surround us - and by extension, ideas that we hope, will make the world – our world - a slightly better place.
I've been weaving in and out of this industry for close to 6 years now, but I'm here, writing this piece today, because I know we can do better. Let’s look ourselves in the mirror and finally set out to live up to our collective capacities. Let’s make it easy and commonplace for our clients to request the type of work that brings us further and that brings them further. Let’s hold ourselves to higher standards and demand more from our creativity. Because at the end of the day, we can make advertising and the brands that fuel it, an industry that’s worthy of people’s heartbeats.
And I say that sincerely.
I cross posted this piece to medium