Yearn to Learn from the Mad Men? Take a Trip to 'Adland'

Mark Tungate's Look at the Past Might Teach You a Thing or Two About the Future

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The trajectory of business over time might be undulating -- booms and busts, mergers and breakups, flotations and privatizations -- but is it really cyclical? Capitalism dictates growth, and the biggest companies have, in the telescopic view at least, grown bigger and more powerful and taken greater shares of their global markets.

That's why I'm not a big fan of the history-repeats-itself clich├ęs. There is new stuff under the sun, what's old isn't always new again, and no, you haven't seen this all before. But none of this precludes the fact that great minds and great principles from history can still inform today's marketer. In fact, as much of the ad world appears to be in a headlong rush to espouse new tools simply because they are new, it's worth pausing to ask what we can learn from those who came before.

The answers can be found in "Adland: A Global History of Advertising," a new book from Paris-based journo Mark Tungate. Full disclosure: Mark is a former colleague and friend, but what else would've possessed me to put aside the Cormac McCarthy to read a marketing tome, the bulk of which sit around our office in stacked shrines to admen's sense of self and self-promotion?

Writing an entire history of advertising around the world is clearly an ambitious project. Tungate pulls it off and has published a rare beast: a highly readable yarn that would also make a good textbook for aspiring ad folk.

Notably, almost all the campaigns that make it into this global history exhibited courage and honesty. Talking about the father of creative ads, John E. Powers, Tungate references an ad he wrote in the 1890s for a Pittsburgh company that was on the verge of bankruptcy: "This announcement will bring our creditors down our necks. But if you come and buy tomorrow, we'll have the money to meet them. If not, we will go to the wall." Either impressed by the honesty or at least spotting a bargain, customers flocked to the store. Later on, we meet Walter P. Chrysler, whose launch ad for the 1932 Plymouth read: "Look at All Three," encouraging consumers to check out Ford and GM, too.

It's also telling how often the true greats made it their business to change more than advertising. We discover how Leo Burnett won the Corn Flakes account not because of his shop's ads, but because of the packaging-design changes he oversaw for Rice Krispies.

Similarly, Tungate serves up a reminder that Mary Wells' contribution went beyond her commercial "razzamattaz." When she repositioned Alka-Seltzer, she recommended the two-tablet foil packs for magazine stands and bars; sales quickly doubled. Most of the greats' agencies were founded as "integrated" shops, to use the modern parlance, and simply did whatever it took -- a trait Tungate also ascribes to Naked, London, the closest thing he uncovers to an "agency of the future" as he brings us up to the present.

Perhaps the most important lesson one can learn from "Adland" is the value of perseverance. For every eureka moment Tungate relates, there is an equally fascinating tale of people going above and beyond. Take Raymond Rubicam's break, which came after nine days sitting in the lobby waiting to be interviewed, or the tale of Maurice Levy, then a computer programmer at Publicis, breaking into the still-smoldering wreckage of his agency after a major fire to rescue computer disks and half-burned papers. Would Levy still be CEO of a huge holding company today if he hadn't played IT hero? Maybe, but it was a pretty valuable display of initiative.

"Adland" is full of such moments, which makes it a good read. And it's a timely reminder that however rapidly the world in which we work evolves, solid principles, smarts and great character still count.
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