Giles Keeble: but don’t put your daughter into advertising Mrs Worthington…

I am sometimes asked by friends if I will talk to their children about a job in advertising. I assume this is because they do not want to be doctors, teachers, lawyers or go into the City, and they think it might be an attractive job. The first question is, of course, what kind of job in advertising: account management, planning, media, or creative?

The next question is why they might be interested. Although I do not interview them, I may save them some trouble or embarrassment if they don’t know why, and haven’t done any background reading. The preliminaries out of the way, what advice would I give now?

The business has changed but this is not an old fart’s nostalgia for a golden age.(Campaign’s list of top agencies of the last 50 years gives a picture of what it was like, good and bad, the characters and the quality of the business at its best.)

Advertising still aims to promote brands in the long term as well as the short term. Overall, I think it employs bright young people; and whether a person stays in it or not, it gives he or she a good general idea of different businesses in different markets, and what it takes to have a successful product or service and brand.

Nevertheless, things are different from ‘my day’. There are more channels in which ads can appear; and there are more kinds of ads because of digital possibilities. While this means there are also different kinds of jobs, it has also had an effect on the kinds of creative solution. Also clients today have more power: since they pay for it all, this might be understandable if we could be confident that they know what constitutes great advertising and how to achieve it. (I used to co-run a course developed by Jan Gooding and Kathy Oldridge to help clients know when to lead and when to let go – a sort of don’t hire a dog and then bark yourself workshop.)

Agencies have lost their position as advisors in the boardroom, agencies are on tighter margins and/or earn-outs, and any fundamental challenges to a client about what it takes to get great work seem to be ducked. This might also explain why agencies are working longer hours and – anecdotally- aren’t as much fun. (We always worked hard, with long hours when necessary, but not as a matter of course.) In creative businesses, people need to get away in order to have ideas and to think. (See James Webb Young’s classic ‘A Technique for Producing Ideas’.)

Long hours without great work at the end of it all are a poor return. I have also heard that agencies may no longer attract the brightest and best. Bright graduates want to go into start-ups, Google etc. Maybe – like the guy in this video they all hope to be millionaires by the time they’re thirty. Unless they own an agency that a multinational is buying, I’m not sure advertising pays particularly well any more.

My overall advice at present would be to go into advertising with your eyes open, to keep asking questions (particularly ‘why are we advertising at all? Who to? And what do we need them to take out?’), and above all, to work in an agency that cares, and tries to do great work. You don’t want to be justifying terrible work by saying ‘but it works!’ (even if it does, in what way?). Nobody wants, or likes patronising, boring, strident, humourless, or repetitive advertising, in whatever medium.

So yes, advertising still has its rewards. But what of it’s future? I thought about this (again) after reading a long article by a business school professor who advocates tearing the schools down and starting again. He asks how business schools can be less focused on greed and the short term in order to produce leaders of businesses that will survive and prosper in a changing world. (As an aside on MBAs, see this FedEx TVC.)

As a thought experiment, what should the agency of the future be like? Advertising is not the only business facing the challenges of AI, and perhaps if it can champion creativity it may survive. I have previously joked that many ads would not be any worse if they were created by AI (as is some music), based, for example, on algorithms of the seven basic plots. But I think and hope that great advertising isn’t simply based on a formula but adds some insight and humanity a robot cannot (or not yet) manage. The 4Cs of future learning are critical thinking, communication, collaboration and creativity. These are areas the best people in advertising can deliver, but the way in which advertising agencies are organised, what these creative places will do, how it will be delivered and to what purposes remains to be seen.

My glass is half full but I need a top up. Cheers!

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