The 90s: The Decade That Advertising Got Lost

Some screws.

I've noticed a bit of nostalgia for the good old days amongst ad people recently. And ironically it's the good old days of the 1990's that they seem to be pining for.

It's clear to anyone who pays more than a passing interest to the business that there has been a palpable decline in standards over the last few years. Not only standards of creative output, but of the process in which it's created, and the quality of people you come across in the business. One of the most sad things is to see agencies that bear the names of talented advertising people now turned into bland factories producing bullshit and status reports.
The business is afflicted with fear and self-loathing.

It's easy to blame the current recession and general client belt-tightening over the last few years for the decline in advertising standards.

But I think there's something bigger behind it, something that would be happening even if we weren't in recession.

Advertising is all screwed up.

In the 50s and 60s, advertising exploded as smart people got together to kick start the business and create amazing things for clients. Clients had success, agencies had success. People got rich, and had a great time getting there. Advertising came of age as a business.

In the seventies this continued as advertising grew to become almost like the rock and roll of the business world, a place for people who wouldn't be able to get a real job, and real creative thinkers to sit at the same table as business leaders, and help them become more successful.

The 80's was the decade of consumption and decadence, of business and ambition. This suited advertising down to the ground. In the 80s, even through it's almost comical excesses, advertising was still about being a partner to business, creating ideas and advertising that built business, sold products and made money for its clients. It's maverick ways were tolerated because what it produced was invaluable. Maybe that was only way to get the great work.

But something changed in the 1990s, at least in Britain.
Advertising lost its way.
What happened was that it continued to operate with the same level of excess, in terms of production and lifestyle, but stopped producing the goods. The world became obsessed with 'the brand' and advertising people became more obsessed than anyone. It was the start of a sense of distaste among British ad people at the idea of selling, a feeling that advertising was dirty and somehow beneath them. Advertising stopped being about finding ways to build businesses and sell products. It turned into branding and entertainment.

In a struggling to find a way to feel better about what they did, the advertising people of the day threw out the product, threw out the sell, the reason to buy, the persuasion, and just became entertainers. They made 'branding films'. The 90s must be the decade that has produced the most self-indulgent and meaningless advertising of the 20th century. Agencies were convincing clients to part with more and more money to produce bigger and more indulgent advertising with less and less of a link to their product.

Creatives became obsessed with making work that relegated the product to a bit part, a tack-on. An irritating niggle that spoiled their 'film'. I came into the business late in the 90s, and although I got to work with some very smart, talented people, I can remember noting with wide-eyes the disdain that some creatives had for clients, the product, for anything that 'looked like an ad' or that was too obviously selling something.

And the ad business began to suffer from a generation of people who were 'happy to be there', they quite fancied advertising because it looked easy and fun. They just aped what they saw as being the good ads of the time - one person would do an ad with no product in it - so they all tried to do all of their ads with no products in it. It was the era of amazingly bonkers arguments in board rooms about pack shots and end title lengths. The 90s also marked the rise of planning as an integral part of the advertising process. It separated creatives from the task in hand, and gave agencies a dangerous new stream of income - the peddling of bullshittery, that started to overshadow the actual creation of the advertising.

In the 90s, advertising kept its excesses, but stopped producing the thing that justified them - amazing ideas that sold. Clients always suspected that advertising people spent half of their day staring out of the window or into the midriff of a woman of questionable repute, but the work they produced always justified it. Not in the 90s. Advertising began a perilous slide towards nonsense that it can't seem to recover from.

Today, the business is suffering a two-sided backlash:

One one side, clients have quite understandably lost their trust in the advertising industry. They resent the wasted money, the constant fights to get their product in the work, the seeming indifference of most creative people to the job that are ultimately tasked with, and the money they spend in getting the brief presented back to them on a powerpoint chart by a chap in stupid trousers with a 2.2 in psychology. So naturally clients have become more circumspect with their budgets, and tend to view creative ideas with the reserve of someone who suspects that they're about to be mugged.

On the other side, we have the hangover of the nineties in the industry; creatives who think that it's not their job to worry about whether the ads work or not, who look up to the self-indulgent twaddle that was produced back when 'they were lads' as if it were somehow creative work on a higher plane. Creative directors who made their name in that era who now sit on awards panels or the corner office encouraging this bizarre behavior, unaware that they are the problem. An industry that has disappeared up the quivering rectum of branding, and forgotten how to do its job properly. Agencies that have become economically dependent on the money they earn from selling the 'planning' part of the process to their clients (a bit that used to happen instinctively and naturally between smart account men, clients, and creatives), agencies that now seem to be more about the business of bullshit, presentations and ass covering.

Over the past few years since we started Sell! Sell! we've met client after client who've come to us after being burned by the bullshit of ad agencies, astonished at the indifference shown by most ad creatives at those agencies towards their business aims. They have genuine distrust for the business and feelings of having been hoodwinked. And I can't say that I blame them.

It's a sorry state of affairs. But if anyone wants to pine for better days, why not pine for the days of the 60s, 70s & 80s, when advertising was creative, maverick, sometimes a little bit scary, but always relevant?
Not the 90s: the decade that advertising got lost.


  1. I'm not in the ad industry but I want to be.

    However, this post is one that comes up often. How advertising lost its way, the days when things were done properly and the sun always shone. I'm in no doubt things were better then but I still harbor the idea of helping to get things back on track.

    I couldn't help but notice in your post there were few suggestions about the way forward. There was, however, some serious distain towards the planning side and visions of smoldering clients (a bad day perhaps?).

    It would be great to have your view on what you think the way forward is, do you see a brighter future? Other than yourselves are there agencies out there that you admire for pushing out great ideas and having good relationships with the clients?
    Thoughts much appreciated. I don't want to join an industry that seems more focussed on its past than the potential of the future.

  2. Hello anonymous commenter.
    What we're doing here is doing advertising exactly as we think it should be done, from how we work to the kind of work - that was the whole point of setting up the company. If you want find out any more about that read some of the other posts or drop us a line at doubles [at]
    We have the pleasure of working with smart clients, I think because they've become a bit pissed off with the agencies they've worked with and come to us because they like the work we do and the no bullshit way that we work.

  3. Great post. And one that i totally agree with.
    I'm currently in the process of doing a campaign for a car brand and even i'm having trouble getting the client to say things in their advertising about their own product. Because they see themselves as a premium car (read expensive) they feel that they shouldn't be doing the 'sell' tactic, that its almost beneath them. But trying to point out that unless they give people a reason to spend that extra dollar on their car people just won't be willing to. Its hard enough to convince the other people in my agency that we should be doing work that 'works hard' for the brand and not just 'entertainment', without having the client also going the same way.
    Its not often nowadays that i come away from reading a print, ad, watching a tv ad, interacting with some online special etc with the feeling that i have been informed about anything! As i sit here now i can think of the last few ads i saw...
    one for specsavers...
    A print ad for budwieser...
    And some burger king online thing...
    Each piece of communication i can wholeheartedly say that i do remember, what i can't seem to remember is what they were telling me.

  4. We were always told (and still believe) that you have to find the truth in the brand, that's how you get a good ad that does it's job properly. This process seems to have been lost.

    We were talking the other day about this. There was a print ad, a fair while ago for Peugot 307 GTi. It was on race track next to something like a Lambo & Ferrari etc. The line simply read "Slowest in its class".

    Fucking brilliant, and true.

  5. BRAVO!

    Absolutely spot-on. However, I take issue with the idea that in the 90s advertising became about 'branding and entertainment'.

    I think the 90s is when the entertainment went out of advertising. The ads of the 70s and 80s were genuinely populist pieces of entertainment that were solely based around the product, the product, the product.

    In the 90s, that died (though there are some exceptions - Guiness, for instance). I remember going to school and talking about great ads. Now they go to school and talk about crap ads (Calm down, dear). The straight-jacketing effects of branding and planning have been behind that, in my opinion.

    And your point on disinterested creatives is SO right. I met a young creative from a London agency recently, and ALL he talked about was getting awards (mainly with iPhone apps), and talked about the major supermarket client he 'had to' work on with utter disdain. I was blown away. It was horrifying.

  6. Shame that the most common response to many ads these days is not "I must check out that product/service", but "What was that ad all about?". Since when has obscurity been a valuable aid to selling?

    Also, let us not forget the rising influence of graphic design companies (or brand consultancies as many now prefer to be called) in the demise of advertising. For some strange reason clients seem to think that people who can design a logo, know the Pantone Formula Guide backwards, and spend days pouring through Getty Images and fiddling with type, are the ideal people to design and produce their ads.

  7. Great post. Dunno if I agree (maybe I do but don't want to admit it). And my next post is planned to be on a theme that picks up on the alternative revenue streams business you mention.

    Anyway, you're probably right about the nineties. I look back at them fondly because that's when I started and I think people often have a fondness for that misty-eyed time, whenever it may be.

    I'd love some evidence to the contrary but I can't help feeling that advertising is on an unstoppable slide in the wrong direction. The emphasis has been taken off the work/end product and put on the kind of behind-the-scenes bullshit that will not tempt anyone good to get involved, thus perpetuating the slide.

    I absolutely agree that the clients got fed up paying for the useless excess. It feels like they're now saying 'you've been taking the piss for too long. We're only going to pay for gruel now.' And the internet/recession gives them the perfect excuse to do that.

    I'd write more but I have to stop rambling and save some for my post.

  8. Thanks for this thought provoking post. I totally agree with your point that this industy has lost its plot.
    I think the biggest difference between now and then is that nowadays the client and even the agency seems to think that work can be churned in superfast broadband speed.
    That might be true for production. But creatives still need time to brew good ideas.
    I'm a young creative. And because I'm suppose to be in touch with the lastest cool things, I'll be given really vague briefs like 'do something really amazing with some latest amazing thing (well what they often mean is viral, facebook, iphone app, flash whatever etc) there to tell people that our product is really amazing. BTW we've got very little budget and vey little time and we want xxx,xxxx hits'.
    Then I'm told that people have very little attention span nowadays so that leaves me thinking that I must either do something that's very entertaining/attention grabbing or something that is very straight.
    So sorry I have to admit that I'm also responsible for polluting the world out there with crap communications, I really don't want to but I'm really left with no choice.

  9. I agree to some extent and think the industry is just in a transitional stage. (10 years on and we'll all wanting to be working in the 00's)

    Rather than the conventional TV/Viral/Poster the options open to us are soooo vast now that we don't really know which approach is best and so tentatively try and do a bit of everything rather than craft 1 thing exceptionally well.

    As well as this - it seems everyman and his dog is now in the industry in some way shape or form has an opinion on every very simple, iconic and stand out idea that is initially presented.


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