A few sick advertising agencies die and we act like it’s the plague.

April 14, 2009

Even Death is bored.

First JWT closes down its 100-year old operation in Chicago, and then the much-beleaguered, much-named Enfatico is swept under the WPP rug. And the drumbeats get louder: Advertising is dead. TV is dead. Newspapers are dead. Long live the…

The what? The continuous reporting of death and destruction in Ad Land was inevitable and necessary but isn’t it part of a bigger story, a story that’s ready for part II…or even part III?

Honestly, the beginning of the End started 20 years ago, give or take, with the phenomenon of holding companies taking over the advertising landscape. A decade later the Internet arrived and, while at first aiding and abetting Ad Land, it quickly took on it’s own agenda, sucking advertising revenue from older media and, more crucially, changing how consumers and content relate to one another.

So here we are. In my last post I wrote with optimism about the future of marketing services. If big agencies are truly unified (not posing or fronting) they will prevail. Specialty shops always have a place. But I’m missing a piece, one that is critical.


Who among us will emerge from the chaos poised to reinvent? As current leadership (myself included) goes about playing the cards we have (some far better than others), where are the game changers?

Does marketing have a Michael Jordan or a Tiger Woods? Is marketing even the right word? Granted, unlike sports (where the game hardly changes at all) our world has been turned upside down. But still, we are only transitioning. In order for the ad game to be reinvented we need inventers.

Agencies like Crispin Porter & Bogusky and clients like Apple show us the potential for our industry. They think different and it shows. Alex and Steve are visionaries. My opinion, haters of CP&B are mostly ignorant, jealous or both. This agency is the modern version of Doyle Dane Bernbach. I’m sorry if that’s a hard pill to swallow. In his day, Bill took a lot of shit too. Apple needs no explanation or defense. So strong is their karma it altered not only technology and marketing, it changed the world.

So who’s next and what’s next? Instead of everyone criticizing the old models and their fat cat leaders, why aren’t we seeing any new gurus and game changers? Picking on Martin Sorrel and Howard Draft is so last year. Harping on the death of everything is equally laborious. If you want the definitive text on what went wrong and who’s to blame read The Ubiquitous Persuaders by George Parker.

It’s not a war between advertising and digital. Or direct marketing versus general. They are ALL important. And they are all in trouble. Enough said.

I’m declaring that part of the revolution over. Who among us is capable of delivering the new model for another fifty years, or even twenty? And yes, I’m talking to all the sharp shooters hiding within their cubes or trolling the Internet looking for targets. Put down your water pistols and figure this shit out.


11 Responses to “A few sick advertising agencies die and we act like it’s the plague.”

  1. Sarah said

    Very refreshing! Thanks!

  2. Scott said

    Well said, as usual

  3. David Whitlock said

    In the early 90s, Northwestern consciously evolved its graduate programs from Advertising, PR and Direct silos into its Integrated Marketing Communications curriculum. The professors–some academics, some seasoned agency vets–envisioned that consumer knowledge and insight would contribute to a comprehensive communication strategy on which creatives would deliver compelling, relevant messages–without regard for a specific tactical vehicle (at first). They posited that data and technology would make one-to-one communication more possible than ever before. And, if they were going to remain viable contributors in this updated marketing equation, traditional ad agencies would need to likewise evolve; to change the what they delivered and how they delivered it.

    Is the shuttering of JWT in Chicago 15 years later evidence that Schultz, Tanenbaum, Katz, et al were correct? Perhaps. I certainly don’t have all the information to say that definitively. But looking at how corporate marketing and the agency business has changed/evolved over the past 15 years, it’s safe to say that much of what they offered in the classroom has become reality.

    With so many sources of brand information at consumers’ fingertips and with changing consumer behavior relative to media interaction, the businesses that generate the communication, by necessity, have had to evolve. Agencies started setting up digital, direct and promotional departments which now are being “integrated” into the mainline business.

    The companies I’ve worked for attempted to implement customer-focused approaches to marketing communication. Unfortunately, for these very big organizations, it was nearly impossible to break down the corporate walls. As a result, you continue to have corporate advertising departments that are separate from direct and digital groups. And God forbid if you ever want to invite corporate PR or internal communication to the table.

    The future of marketing services requires both sides of the marketing equation to continue to think differently about their roles. Inventers on the client side have to be advocates for thinking holistically about communicating with their customers–so that all media can work together to deliver a consistent message. They have to continue breaking down the corporate walls.

    And agencies need to continue to embrace their role as the providers of media-neutral communication solutions that help accomplish the clients’ business objectives.

  4. Van Gould said

    Well, now I will go crazy if I don’t read George Parker’s book. This is such an great post. I know I’m guilty of pointing fingers, blaming, and complaining about the past, but we will only be able to blame ourselves if we don’t get out there right now to take care of business.

  5. matt said

    So Parker is the problem and solution?

  6. SRP said

    Parker isn’t trying to run an agency. His blog opens wounds and sometimes overdoes the salt but his right to do so is well-earned. And, as I’ve said, his new book is terrific.

  7. Andy Webb said


    Well said.

    As for George Parker, a shrewd marketer himself who posts provocative attention-getting stuff that brings in the ad types who buy his books. Mind you, I’m complimenting him here. He’s certainly demonstrating one of the new marketing models beautifully — for all to learn from.

  8. SRP said

    In terms of figuring out what the new new thing is in our business everyone is scrambling. Thing is the old fat cats aren’t just sitting around counting their money; they’re spending it too: on all these so-called gurus and pioneers. Now it’s time for them to put up or shut up.

  9. Jason Fox said

    The next “new thing” is almost always a form of media, be it radio, TV, outdoor, DM, interactive or consumer-specific image beamed directly into your brain by the new (in 2018) iPod brain dock. Figuring out how properly exploit each new medium is rarely an easy process – I still don’t we’re there yet with digital by a long shot.

    But how many agencies fail just because they failed to properly execute a certain medium? Perhaps a few. But I’d wager those shops that seem out of touch with today’s media landscape have also lost sight of the basic principles of advertising: entertain as you sell. And sell. And sell some more.

  10. Brook Boley said

    Most agencies get caught up in the medium and forget to keep their eyes on the prize, the message. It’s all about the idea, it always has been. “The medium is the message” is a bogus concept. The “Medium” the the medium and the “Message” is the message. A lot of agencies get entangled by the “Medium” as trend and forget the message. They do what is hip and new within the medium and forget what they’re selling, sometimes even how to sell. It could be a product they’ve been selling for decades and along comes a new medium and they get blurry-eyed at it’s potential and forget how to talk. They forget what their message is. I’ve seen this as a CD in interactive and I’ve seen this as a CD in General and direct groups. Having done advertising in ever medium under the sun, I am rarely impressed by them medium and almost always impressed by the message or idea. It’s time for Ideas to be king again.

  11. I would probably be a lot more freaked if I thought the ad industry’s purpose was to make ads. But I think our purpose is to compellingly demonstrate the role that a brand plays in a consumer’s life.

    We have more tools than ever to accomplish that. This is a great time to be in advertising.

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