Matt Williams: it’s not life or death, it’s only advertising

Last week, the deputy editor of Campaign magazine went freelance after more than a decade working at owner Haymarket. As well as being a good drinking companion, he was also a very helpful mentor during my stint working on the magazine.

What always impressed me most – along with a lovely turn of phrase and regular rugby metaphors – was the way he split opinion in the industry in the very best way possible.

Those who liked him liked him because he was honest, forthright with his opinions and not afraid to highlight the issues that were scarring the industry.

And those who didn’t like him, disliked him because he was honest, forthright with his opinions and not afraid to highlight the issues that were scarring the industry – despite them sending him bottles of wine and taking him out for dinner in a bid for more favourable write-ups.

But however matter-of-fact the columns were, what never changed was that deep down, he always had the best interests of the industry at heart. Here was someone who – whether it seemed it or not – loved the industry, who wanted to celebrate the very best that it offered, and wanted to fight for its right to retain a spot at the top table.

That’s what captured my imagination the most, and in truth his writing has gone a long way to shaping my perspective on advertising agencies and the way I approach the wider business.

Sure it’s “only advertising.” And we shouldn’t regard it as life or death. A client not liking an idea or a Powerpoint presentation going wrong in a meeting should not be treated like it’s the end of the world.

And there are a lot of frustrations with the industry at large. There’s a lot of bullshit spoken. A lot of egos massaged. A lot of money wasted. A lot of good work destroyed for seemingly no reason. And a lot of long-term relationships ruined by ruthless procurement.

But while we’re all tempted to moan, let’s not forget that this industry is also full of creative superstars. Advertising may “not be what it once was”, but that doesn’t mean that it’s still not full of innovative thinkers, refreshing enthusiasm and refined craftsmanship.

I bring this up after a week when Canadian agencies went to town on producing navel-gazing films about the advertising industry. Some of them were very funny, like John St.’s ‘Reactvertising’ spot, or Union’s Family film. And some of them were just pretty rubbish, like Zulu Alpha Kilo’s Mad Men parody.

But what all of them did was recognise the flaws, the bluster and the clichés in the industry, and poke fun at them with a very long and very sharp stick.

In a perverse way, these films showed an element of what’s great about the industry. That it actually can be self-aware. That it’s creative. That it has a sense of humour. That it can (sometimes) be rather charming.

So here’s an upbeat piece in amongst all the analysis, all the industry frustrations, all the doom and gloom predictions pieces.

And as we head towards the end of year reviews and take some time out to reflect on another tumultuous year in advertising, let’s make sure the inevitable cynicism is tempered by a realization that, actually, this is a bloody fun industry to be in. With an unfair share of innovative, creative people. Our real challenge then is simply to work out how best we use them.

Now, if only I could think of a rugby metaphor to round this piece off…

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