Adscam’s George Parker: new-style advertising, same old identity crisis

Advertising’s been berry, berry good to me.

Having worked for virtually every ad agency in Christendom on both sides of the Atlantic, either on staff or as a freelancer, I think I’m pretty well qualified to say one thing: every agency I’ve ever been hired by, fired by and escorted off the premises of has been dysfunctional – and a wonderful example of how to go about running a business into the ground. But, only after the principals have liposuctioned every available dollar out of the place.

And heaven forbid you should ever be crazy enough to own stock in one. Although in the interests of full disclosure, I must say, I am the owner of five shares of WPP stock which, because I was freelance, I received many years ago in lieu of the $10,000 prize staff members enjoyed for winning the David Ogilvy Award at Ogilvy & Mather. Now don’t get me wrong, I’ve enjoyed a very nice, sybaritic living for 40 or more years, swanning around the world at agency/client expense because I was crafty enough to write the first frame of every TV spot as… “Open on palm-fringed desert island surrounded by a blue Caribbean Sea.” Or, something equally exotic.

To paraphrase a long-forgotten TV character whose name escapes my deadline-numbed brain, “Advertising’s been berry, berry good to me.” (I think it was Yogi Berra) But at the end of the day, I have to ask myself if life should have more meaning than abusing my Molybdenum AmEx card on the $120 sushi plate no one ever eats at “Shutters on the Beach.” Or, instead of discussing with then ace director, Kinka Usher, whether a gofer should fly to Tokyo to pick up genuine Omo Dishi paper fans rather than the 20-cent faux Korean Imi Doshu ones that no one will actually see in our future titanium Lion spot for lavatory bowl cleaners, perhaps I should be more concerned about the shrinking polar ice cap. But then, as Zippy the Pinhead would say, “Nahh!” … because in the ad biz, life is good. What the hell, I’ll do mimosas at a friend’s place on Mulholland Drive before the limo drops me off at LAX for the flight back to the salt mines of Madison Avenue.

So what’s my point here? Simply, as I’ve said many times in my various blogs and writings, agencies are populated by people who are supposedly in the business of communicating with audiences they have absolutely no understanding of, let alone sympathy with.

Many a time I’ve sweated through a $200 working dinner at Nobu discussing how best to sell a $5 frozen pizza to an unwed mother of three living in a Louisiana trailer park. And how often do we read the weighty thoughts of agency CEOs at ad conferences in Tahiti, Monaco and Rio (Why are they never in Newark?) as they tell us we need to reinvent the agency model to escape the stranglehold of the 30-second TV spot and find new ways of combating the consumers disinterest in everything we say.

Then they jet back to their BDAs (Big Dumb Agencies) and churn out more 30-second TV spots, similar to the one I just saw for a supposed nasal congestion cure, with the see-through head and hammers pounding away above the blocked-up plumbing pipes! Done with the miracle of CGI, but an exact “homage” — it’s much better in French — what Rosser Reeves ground out 50 years ago. As are the many masculine toiletries campaigns that are merely expensive copies of the dreadful Old Spice stuff of my youth.

Still, why am I surprised by the current state of the business, when the global creative director of a major BDA was reported saying that the reason it had won the account of the world’s largest retailer was because “we offered a better ROI”?

Strange, I would have expected that kind of statement from the CFO rather than the global CD. But maybe I’m just a retrograde old fart in the mould of Bill, Jay, David and Howard. I should take a leaf out of J. Walter Thompson’s book when they renamed themselves JWT (which is what everyone called it, anyway). They declared they were no longer advertisers and should now be considered cultural anthropologists! Mmmm, why not plumbers, or second-hand car salespeople?

After all, that’s where we usually end up on the “most respected occupation” surveys the business press love to conduct. But, it’s all moot if you consider two-thirds of WPP’s income now comes from non-advertising activities, and by the time consumer-generated content, social networking and Google have taken over all of the known universe, we can all become anthropologists — or plumbers. But, I have to confess, I shall miss those working dinners at Nobu.

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