Jon Goulding of Atomic: what happens when advertising loses its swagger

For all the nostalgia, no one working in advertising today really wants to return to the Mad Men days. It’s always tempting to take a rose-tinted view of the past: after all, it’s the only real comparison we have to the present. But that said, you have to admit it: in generations gone by, the industry we occupy had a kind of self-assurance which is starkly absent today. Creative directors were good at what they did and didn’t mind who knew about it. Ads were iconic and original and certainly gave some of the programming a run for its money on the entertainment front.

So what changed? The New York Times furnishes us with a suggestion: ‘People hate ads,’ ran a recent headline. ‘Many consumers, especially the affluent young people prized by advertisers, hate ads so much that they are paying to avoid them,’ it read. This may well be true. But since when did people not hate ads?

In the 1980s it wasn’t really that different. Let’s not pretend that people genuinely liked the concept of an ad break; the industry was just better at filling them with entertaining, likeable content. The truth is that advertising suffers, as it always has and always will, from the same image problem that blights marketing, PR and anything else that loosely comes under ‘comms.’

But in its heyday, the industry didn’t care: advertising creative people knew their worth and that was enough for them. Now, a staggering number of advertising execs are looking nervously for the nearest exit. The numbers vary, but some put the number of those thinking about leaving the industry entirely as high as 70 per cent.

What is undeniable is that the media landscape has changed, and creative advertising has been its victim. As the media has evolved there has been a perceptible decline in the quality of the creative work produced by advertising agencies. With the rapid proliferation of different channels, clients want to hedge their bets. But great emotionally-led advertising ideas cost money, and so quality comes under pressure – and the great conceptual thinkers who once filled the industry abandon it for the content-creators of Silicon Valley.

There’s no point pretending that advertising today attracts the same calibre of new creative talent as it did 20 or 30 years ago. High-rolling, high-end content-creators such as Apple, Google, Netflix and Amazon are definitely draining the pool of emotional and entertaining creative talents.

But it seems that the world of advertising has taken the public’s view of ads generally to heart in a way that it never did before. There’s something withdrawn and conservative about the modern advertising industry, and these are luxuries it can’t afford. In any creative agency, the people essentially make up the entire product, and so the health of the industry reflects the mental state of those that work within it. In other words, great advertising comes from a place of self-belief, and great advertising is likeable advertising. This gives advertisers confidence, which informs their work, and so on and so forth in an upward spiral.

If advertisers can’t be confident in who they are and what they do they simply won’t produce the kind of work they need to produce to reverse a damaging trend. They won’t notice or take the opportunities that the new media landscape presents, or use technology in a way that enhances their work, rather than replaces it with something that only has value in the short term.

Ad agency folk, then, need to rediscover the charisma and bravado that defined the industry in decades past. If they do, they can produce the kinds of campaigns that entertain, inform and, ultimately, inspire a creative revolution that reminds everyone — including themselves—of just how brilliant and engaging great advertising can be.

Jon Goulding is CEO of Atomic London.


  1. Jon opens up with the statement that no one working in advertising today really wants to return to the Mad Men days. (Which by the way were the 60’s and early 70’s, not the 80’s) He then wraps up with … “Ad agency folk, then, need to rediscover the charisma and bravado that defined the industry in decades past.” Make up your mind Jon. And, don’t forget that whilst drinking, smoking and shagging our brains out, we produced some pretty good stuff compared to most of the less than inspiring rubbish created today. Time fort my breakfast martini. Cheers/George

  2. Ffteen years ago in London at least a good freelance copywriter or art director (remember them … ?) could expect to command a day rate of 800 to 1,000 gbp to create ‘creative work’. Today they can expect to be offered ‘a maximum of 250’ to produce ‘content’ The rest, I’m afraid, now goes to facebook and Google who simply sucked all the value from the value chain simply by rebranding ‘creativie work’ as ‘content’. First they came for the journalists, then they came for the musicians, then they came for the admen, then they came for the directors … It’s hard to have charisma and bravado, John, when what you do has no value.

  3. Jon, a very articulate and extremely well written review of where things seem to be now. I still happen to believe that there will be a renaissance of engaging and entertaining work which can cut through all the noise that seems to be the new normal, both in film and print. A good large-format poster can still hit it out of the park and surely we must continue to think that a really clever TV campaign idea can work cross-media even in today’s multi-channel mess. It’s interesting, TV drama was all but dead until top-quality writing rescued it with series like the Sopranos, Mad Men and Newsroom surfaced. Cinema seems to be going through strangulation by tedious formulaic nonsense. Things do seem to go through cycles. When CDP appeared in the 60s it changed British advertising forever and led the world. Similarly DDB. I do think clients or brands are going to need all the creative support they can get to compete once everybody is drowning in each other’s ‘content’. I did detect a thread of optimism in your piece.

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