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.