Right. Let’s sort this fucking thing out once and for all.

I don’t know how it happened, but this blog is often thought to be a bad-tempered whinge about the things that aren’t quite tickety-boo in the world of advertising.

Well, yes, I suppose that is sometimes the case, but I get the impression that my motives may be somewhat unclear.

For the avoidance of doubt, it might be worth pointing out that, in theory, I love advertising. Anyone in the industry who knows me well will tell you that I’m a massive ad geek, a nerdy twat with a depressingly encyclopedic knowledge of the best work of the last twenty years and beyond.

So when I write about the state of the industry in negative terms, it’s not because I’ve always thought advertising to be a soulless and superficial way to spend your career, or because I want the industry to come to an end. I just think it’s sliding off in the wrong direction, heading for a big old swimming pool of the runs.

I would dearly love there to be a brilliant ad made every day. If that were the case I would put it up and rim it senseless. You might be surprised to know that I actually lean in the direction of being more positive than I really feel, but that’s because the good stuff needs all the support it can get. However, there’s no point talking up the bad stuff, the results of advertising’s turn for the worse. That would only help (in a tiny way) to legitimise the direction in which things are going.

And I am 100% certain they are going in the wrong direction (apologies if you’ve heard any of this before, but I’m still fucked off because things still aren’t getting any better):

Ads are worse than they used to be: 2010 is the third straight year without a truly great ad from any UK agency. The UK has yet to produce a piece of digital or integrated work for a commercial client to match the great stuff produced by agencies from USA, Sweden, New Zealand, Australia or many other countries around the world. The UK hasn’t won a TV advertising Pencil since 2008 and has never won a Titanium or integrated Grand Prix. The facts speak for themselves, so you can feel free to disagree, but you will be pissing into quite a strong wind.

The love of money is the root of all shite: the efficient use of every single pound appears to be the sole motivator for practically everything produced by this industry. Yes, I am fully aware that advertising is a business, but it is a business that makes a product which is difficult to fully quantify. Does your ad need a helicopter shot or a cherry-picker? Three days of editing or four? A shoot in Morocco or Prague? When the pound is king, the cheaper choice will be made, whether or not it is the best or most appropriate solution. This extends to the employment of creatives: why hire a good, experienced senior team when you can get three mediocre junior teams for the same price? Most clients and agency management neither know nor care about the difference between good and great, and they certainly don’t want to pay for it. And that’s not to say that ads have to be expensive to be good, but they have to be creative, and that can involve a tricky sell, one that might strain the client relationship, jeopardising that kick-back to the holding company. I know of at least one massive UK agency where the account management department are explicitly instructed to sell the easy route and not the one which might require greater client persuasion. That way the agency makes more money and the client relationship stays nice and smooth, but the work is unlikely to be anything other than blah, and that’s been proven time and time again.

Which kind of leads to some sort of point about the overall motivation of the industry: if anything has made its shit-steaming, vomit-scented presence felt over the last ten years, it’s the influence of the holding company. Almost all the significant UK agencies are owned by a much larger company that likes profits – lots and lots of profits – and in these straitened times that financial imperative is even greater because these companies are owned by shareholders and the only thing any of them want is more money. Whether a massive pension group or your granny, almost everyone who invests in a business does so to increase the amount of their investment. Further down their list of priorities comes employee happiness and much, much further than that, a decent showing at Cannes. So the buck stops with people whose only motivation is a buck, and it is extremely unlikely that anyone in the chain of power is motivated by anything else (yes, I realise that this is a somewhat grey area with a few exceptions – we’re not toiling in sweatshops with no toilet breaks just yet – but the generalisation holds). Then we have the start-ups, none of which claims to have great creativity as their raison d’etre. Even if they believed they would put great ads before anything else they would never be so dumb as to say that publicly; after all, it might put off a client who would like some motherfucking ROI, thank you very much.

Then there’s the other money factor, which dictates that companies much squeeze as much work as possible out of the lowest number of employees. I can’t remember when this crept up on us, but in many agencies, if you agree to work for them, you agree to do so during whichever late nights and weekends they believe they require. It makes perfect sense: why pay for another employee when you can get another 20 hours a week out of your current workforce for nothing? Now, don’t get me wrong: I have nothing against working long hours to improve the creative work – most good creatives will want to put in long hours just to make sure their work is as good as it can be – but all too often it’s a grim exercise in generating quantity to make sure the client gets enough routes to choose from. I think there’s a simple test: if the creatives want to do the extra work, the work is good; if they are dragged in moaning, the work is shit, or worse – mediocre.

I believe that the money factor is the start point of a vicious circle that is causing serious and irreparable damage to the industry.

As I’ve pointed out before, a salary in the low six-figures was not uncommon in the creative departments of the mid-eighties. Fast forward to today, and you’ll find that a similar amount is similarly prevalent and possibly less so. In 2010, one very large UK agency has a department with only one team on over £100,000, and they have serious CD responsibilities. Again, I’ve pointed this out before, but £100,000 could buy you 800% more property in the mid-eighties than it can today, so in effect advertising creatives have had an 800% pay cut.

I’m not asking you to cry for anyone on that wage, not when nurses and teachers are on less than a quarter of that, but the good salary has been a factor in attracting talented people who might otherwise work in other countries or industries. The worse the potential remuneration, the worse the calibre of employee, especially when (see above) they won’t be attracted by the non-existent opportunity to do good work.

By putting itself in this position, the advertising in the UK is killing the goose that laid the golden egg. Ads used to be great, so people liked and respected the industry (to a degree) via its output. If there are fewer people to make that great work, less great work gets made and the industry becomes still less attractive, then the quality of people who want to work in advertising in future will be worse, and so on…and so on…

The way in which the business is now set up, agencies make a lot more money than they used to from behind the scenes bullshit such as strategic audits and research analyses. This is where the Rise of the Planner is gaining momentum at the expense of the Creative. The creative work is both less important and less lucrative, leaving a gap for the planners to have close and constant contact with clients, allowing them to syphon off much client cash for wiffly toss that verges on the completely fucking useless. Of course, the management are keen to encourage this because it keeps the client’s money in the agency, but to the detriment of the end product, which becomes marginalised and forgotten.

But isn’t this just a microcosm of what has happened to the UK since the seventies? During that decade we stopped manufacturing actual physical products and became a country of service industries, of which advertising has been a significant and successful example. But let’s take it a stage further: advertising now produces a lower quality product (and, I believe, a lower quantity product. Have you seen how many old ads are being repeated at the moment?), while the number of internal wankathons increases. Will that not continue to devalue the industry as a whole? Surely someone will eventually turn around and realise we have million-pound strategies producing tuppence ha’penny work.

Is there any other evidence for this malaise? Well, I find it odd that people and organisations that have a cast-iron history of producing brilliance have not done so for a while. Think of your favourite director, creative or agency and name something they’ve done in the last few years that is up there with their best work.

See? Almost impossible. But that can’t be a coincidence. How did so many people lose their mojo at exactly the same time? Are people being given less time? Money? Trust? Respect? Are they having their work scrutinised and picked apart by the bean counters more significantly and regularly? Are the easy-sell scripts leaving the great directors to fight over far less top-drawer material? Is the marginalisation of creatives (and Creative Directors) leaving those post-production battles lost before they’ve even been fought?

Whatever the reasons, and there are probably many, the end results are undeniable. The best people are not allowed to work at their best. You are not being allowed to work at your best and that, ladies and gentlemen, is fucking insane.

But do people really care? I know of a creative team who have gained a D&AD nomination in the both of the last two years, but thay have yet to buy themselves an Annual to see their achievements immortalised. Partly it’s a question of money (couldn’t D&AD give away copies to the nominated people who make an annual possible?), but more than that, it’s a question of giving a fuck. Twenty or thirty years ago, aspiring creatives would live off baked beans to save the money for their Annual. They revered the work and wanted to emulate and surpass it. No longer.

When I was starting out there were many ‘star’ teams, pairs of people who produced award-winning brilliance in various media year after year. Now such people either do not exist or their significance and fame has been greatly reduced. It’s another part of the vicious circle: without shining examples to look up to, the younger generation of creatives are less motivated to be committed to the cause. Yet another benefit (being celebrated for great work) has disappeared, making the job still less attractive. Young creatives are paid less to produce worse work that fewer people care about. How can that lead anywhere except down a spiral to somewhere even worse?

And on that point, if they are less inclined to care, how can we expect them to put in the effort required to be even better? Being a great creative takes a lot of work, but also a lot of self-motivated learning. No one can make you take copywriting and art direction improvement classes; you have to want to do that yourself, but for the reasons above, fewer people want to. And that’s yet another reason why the work will get worse, spinning us round the vicious circle ever faster.

I know, I know, I know that the job is still enjoyable, that it still beats cleaning paraplegics’ genitalia for a living, that it’s relatively well paid versus the work you have to put in. I’m fully aware that it’s a bit of a cushy gig that can, on its good days be awesome, fun, stimulating, exciting and fulfilling.

I also know that this problem is far from exclusive to the advertising industry. Journalism, TV and film production and many other of the media jobs have also been humped dry by the money men, lowering standards and raising disaffection.

But that doesn’t mean it’s OK.

The above couple of thousand words have been said before on this blog. Chances are you’ve read them before. God knows, you might have nodded in reluctant agreement. But nothing’s changed. The work continues on its downward slide. The whinges of ITIABTWC are coming true, day in and day out, in your very office. In America, great creatives are leaving their agencies to start their own shops that they can mould to a form that gives them the chance to scratch that creative itch a little harder, and finally, with Richard Flintham’s departure from Fallon, the same thing is starting to happen here.

I don’t know a single UK creative who is happier with his working circumstances than he was a few years (or a decade) back. On the other hand, I do know more and more who have left their jobs, either to emigrate from the country or the industry. And these are good, clever people. The brain drain is happening right fucking now, and the industry only has itself to blame.

But what can you do about it?

Well, there’s the rub: almost certainly nothing, except find work that satisfies you. That might mean setting up your own place. It might mean finding something different to do. It might mean staying in the industry and doing whatever you can to make sure a beacon of creativity still shines through the fug of mediocrity, hoping that one day things will turn and diamonds are again prized above excrement.

Become the change you want to see in the world (© Mahatma Gandhi). Go, find your smile (© City Slickers).

Or sit in the toilet until it fills up with so much shit that it chokes the life out of you, leaving you an anonymous, ordure-ridden corpse, forever to be forgotten as just another citizen of Planet Earth who let the bastards grind him down.

It’s up to you (smiley face made out of punctuation).

Comments 37

  1. Tim wrote:

    What a thoroughly depressing start to Monday Ben (because what you say is true).

    But still…

    *sigh*

    Posted 28 Nov 2010 at 10:14 pm
  2. ben wrote:

    What’s it like in Oz?

    Posted 28 Nov 2010 at 10:19 pm
  3. Pasadenian wrote:

    Hope you don’t imagine that Charles and Maurice set up on their own in 1970 bcse they had an idealistic ambition to produce brilliant ads for their own sake. Ditto J Walter Thompson, David Ogilvy and Darth Vader (you didn’t know about Vader Advertising Inc?).
    Tell you wot. Why don’t you plough the fabulous profits certain to come from your debut into starting your agency and showing the world how to do it?
    Confuscius say: “piss or get off the pot”.

    Posted 28 Nov 2010 at 10:57 pm
  4. Ciaran McCabe wrote:

    Ben,

    Sad, but true, even from a distance. I’m trying to crack a problem just now, think I’ve done it, but went to look at the CDP book for reassurance (can’t explain). You know, just reading the two Js introduction was enough to make me feel I might be approaching the problem in the right way.
    Anyway, thank you.

    Ciaran

    Posted 29 Nov 2010 at 1:25 am
  5. ben wrote:

    Ogilvy, Charles Saatchi and David Abbott (amongst others) all believed that brilliance in advertising was essential. They knew that without it, they wouldn’t get more business, then more money.

    So it wasn’t for its own sake, but it was a big part of what they did. Quality no longer matters to the extent that it once did, but the greats realised that cranking out shite was no route to success. That’s what made them great.

    To answer your other question, I’ve never met anyone with whom I’d want to start an agency. Otherwise, I’d love to.

    Posted 29 Nov 2010 at 7:49 am
  6. Mike Van De McWhiff wrote:

    I have the answer. You open an agency. You dispense with the lying bit about wanting to do good work, having a symbiotic relationship with the client and that meningless crap about “we believe advertising is about brand fusion, so we fuse brands.”
    No.
    You simply say, “Give us your business Mr. Client and we’ll do everything you say.”
    Voila.
    The client gets what they want and no one at the agency has to pretend they want to do anything creative. The agency wastes less time doing creative stuff that’s going in the binm anywayso just get down to the clienty stuff, you never lose business because the client’s getting what they want, everyone’s happier because they don’t have to spend weekends at work, they get paid more because the agency is bound to be doing bloody well.
    It’s a goddam no brainer. Now I come to mention it, I think I’ll set up this agency. Nobody steal my idea.
    It shall be called something cretinous like Starch or Slice or Jagged Edge or Biffbat. Or maybe something sophisticated like McWhiff’s.

    Posted 29 Nov 2010 at 8:46 am
  7. Sam wrote:

    Awesome! Well if anyone wants to show off how brilliant they are. Stick your book up here: http://thecreativefloor.com

    Posted 29 Nov 2010 at 8:59 am
  8. Sell! Sell! wrote:

    Good post.
    We are but a tiny, inconsequential drop in the advertising ocean, but when we started our sole aim was “to produce great creative work for our clients and have fun doing it” and it still is. Its not always easy and god knows we don’t always manage it, but at least it’s at the heart of everything we do. Makes for happier days.

    Posted 29 Nov 2010 at 9:02 am
  9. Anonymous wrote:

    I think you have bought up a lot of important points in this article. However I don’t think its all doom and gloom. Other factors over the last few years have affected UK’s reflection in D&AD etc. namely the move from these award organisations towards Worldwide advertising – bringing in a strange collection of judges that barely speak Engish and who have a very different point of reference (Skoda Cake didn’t get a pencil because a French juror claimed it was ‘obvious’ and ‘familiar’). Awards are very much about giving credit to other countries over the UK even if that work is shite (just look at the durdge in D&AD annuals now compared to UK only work) to ensure they keep entering (MORE MONEY!). Lots of great UK work fails to get recognised nowadays IMO where a few years ago it would be winning pencils (CADBURY EYEBROWS, WEETABIX HORSE, SKODA…). Also we have been in the worst recession since the war which has affected UK output these last few years. I know this is no excuse ‘creativley’ but unfortunately it has meant cutbacks everywhere and a short term importance on keeping business over creative ‘answers’. WHich is fair enough for an agency in the short term and fair enough for clients all shitting it about going under. I also think students are not being taught properly anymore in ad colleges. The last few years I have noticed a MASSIVE drop in the quality of student books compared to when I left college (where we competed with other teams who had fucking mind blowing strategies we could all quote and feel jealous of). Students are now doing iphone apps and internet layouts without a fucking strategy/idea behind any of it. Its like colleges are panicking about what agencies are looking for now (QUICK. DO AN I PHONE APP) and have forgotten that strategy, no matter how you execute it) is king. NB. I enjoy the agency I’m in and people are doing great stuff there as are other agencies. Its not all doom and gloom!

    Posted 29 Nov 2010 at 9:15 am
  10. Damo wrote:

    If you were in any doubt that this is all true take a look at the last Glazer ad. Actually take a look at the last two Glazer ads.

    Posted 29 Nov 2010 at 10:09 am
  11. Dickhead wrote:

    Ben, with the departure of Simon and Brian from Mccann’s there’s a job opening.

    Interested?

    Maybe it’s your chance to get advertising back on track.

    Posted 29 Nov 2010 at 10:14 am
  12. ben wrote:

    I think that job’s been filled.

    I shed many tears.

    Posted 29 Nov 2010 at 10:19 am
  13. Mick G wrote:

    I read this blog for the swearing and funny television adverts.

    Do it proper or I’m fucking off.

    Posted 29 Nov 2010 at 10:27 am
  14. Flow Bohl wrote:

    Three things heavily affected advertising since the glorious 80′s.

    Money. Going for creativity is risky (but much more rewarding when successful). Since 2008 almost any business is as risk averse as can be

    Quantity. We are exposed to 6000 ads per day on average compared to about 1000 in the 80s. That means advertisers have to spend much more on media space, leaving less for creative.

    Internet. Many creatives struggle to understand the technological implications for ideas. Technology oriented companies have gained business while traditional agencies have lost because ideas DON’T work the same for every channel.

    Posted 29 Nov 2010 at 10:29 am
  15. john w. wrote:

    “The worse the potential remuneration, the worse the calibre of employee”. Ain’t that a money thing again but this time you’ve flipped it? Either money is good or money is bad, make your mind up.
    Thatcher’s children have a lot to answer for.

    Posted 29 Nov 2010 at 10:41 am
  16. Anonymouse wrote:

    lol at MickG

    Posted 29 Nov 2010 at 10:59 am
  17. boot1947 wrote:

    I think that’s a great post (even if I am your mother) and I know it’s true because I was a copywriter in the Golden Age and I wish I could wave my magic wand and make it like that again.

    Posted 29 Nov 2010 at 11:14 am
  18. heroin addict wrote:

    who doth taketh overeth mccanneth?

    Posted 29 Nov 2010 at 11:17 am
  19. Toasty wrote:

    The only way it will get sorted out is if the agencies not owned by holding companies produce the better work and have the principals/balls to say no to clients, to say to them what they will and won’t do, and say fine if you don’t like it go somewhere else and have another agency do that for you.

    But then that’s going to cost them money and mean laying off people if they lose the client and as i think Dave Trott said principal isn’t a principal until it costs you money.

    Posted 29 Nov 2010 at 12:02 pm
  20. Mister Gash wrote:

    Welcome back Ben! Good to see that a two week stay in the US has had a mellowing affect. Were you just as cross when you were on holiday?

    Posted 29 Nov 2010 at 12:25 pm
  21. ben wrote:

    Very mellowing. It was coming back that made it all go wrong (smiley face etc.)

    Posted 29 Nov 2010 at 12:29 pm
  22. Mike Van De McWhiff wrote:

    I think I’ll call it Babcock’s.

    Posted 29 Nov 2010 at 1:13 pm
  23. john w. wrote:

    …and on that note http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rkRIbUT6u7Q

    Posted 29 Nov 2010 at 1:13 pm
  24. Matt & Dan wrote:

    Fuckin hell, might have to print this out and read over a few days.

    Posted 29 Nov 2010 at 1:22 pm
  25. Ihatetoast wrote:

    “But then that‚Äôs going to cost them money and mean laying off people if they lose the client and as i think Dave Trott said principal isn‚Äôt a principal until it costs you money.”

    #1 learn to spell.
    #2 it was Bill Bernbach.

    Posted 29 Nov 2010 at 2:59 pm
  26. GOUT-LEGS wrote:

    remember the last recession?

    the same things were written.

    death of creativity ect…..

    yet coming out of the back of that some of the best ever work.

    we now live in a time of change the likes of which make the industrial revolution look like a three minute wank. and you think this is a time to shout doom and gloom?

    now is the time, if ever there was, for the creative and entrepreneurial to shine.

    think dotcom boom but with fixie bikes.

    Posted 29 Nov 2010 at 3:52 pm
  27. Dickhead wrote:

    @Gout Legs. ‘Dotcom boom but with fixie bikes.’

    You’re a genius wordsmith Gouty me old China.

    Posted 29 Nov 2010 at 4:29 pm
  28. Pasadenian wrote:

    Correction: My comment should have read “Why don‚Äôt you plough the fabulous profits certain to come from your debut NOVEL into starting your agency and showing the world how to do it?”

    Posted 29 Nov 2010 at 4:47 pm
  29. Mike Van De McWhiff wrote:

    Hello Babcock’s how may I help you?

    Oooh it’s got a nice ring to it hasn’t it. I’m going to be rich! Ha ha ha. See you in The Ivy wankers!

    Posted 29 Nov 2010 at 5:45 pm
  30. anonymous wrote:

    nice work.

    Posted 29 Nov 2010 at 9:35 pm
  31. Unklebacon wrote:

    Oh god the planners. Someone please stop the fucking planning. Stop them killing ideas, coming up with ideas, selling pond water to clients, stop them trying to make it all logical, stop them now.

    And to most UK agencies, hurry the fuck up and integrate properly. One creative department with all teams sitting next to each other. NO separate profit and loss between the digital and traditional bits of your agency. Just like Goodby Silverstein’s do it, and do they make better work consistently
    than anyone in the UK? Too fucking right they do. So why do we think we know better?

    Posted 30 Nov 2010 at 12:01 am
  32. A. Writer wrote:

    Unklebacon, I also dislike the influence that planners are having on advertising in general, but I hate to break it to you that almost all great advertising ideas have their root in logic.

    Posted 30 Nov 2010 at 12:20 pm
  33. Eddie Haydock wrote:

    “Most clients and agency management neither know nor care about the difference between good and great.” What?
    Most of them don’t know or care about the difference between shit and great.

    Posted 30 Nov 2010 at 3:01 pm
  34. Max wrote:

    Another contributing factor in this decline in good ads is the rise of the procurement monkeys. I’ve recently been on the wrong end of a financial beating with a procurement dept that included production costs. All they have done is made us write ideas that have to be achieved for a cost determined by a dept who have no concept of creativity or production costs. That is not how good ads are made.

    Posted 30 Nov 2010 at 6:45 pm
  35. Unklebacon wrote:

    @A. Writer

    True. But after a planner has brought the pieces together in a logical and easily understood way and put it into the brief, it’s time to back the fuck off.

    The best campaigns required a final illogical leap based on the instincts of creatives.

    Posted 30 Nov 2010 at 9:41 pm
  36. A. Writer wrote:

    Unklebacon, we shall agree to disagree on ‘illogical’ leap.

    Posted 01 Dec 2010 at 10:58 am
  37. thickcunt wrote:

    had to google tuppence ha’penny.

    Posted 03 Dec 2010 at 2:37 pm

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