NEW YORK (AdAge.com) -- In the hothouse environment of the ad world, ad critics are reviled or adored according to how positively or negatively they reviewed your latest campaign. If the review skewed positive, resulting in client and management praise, promotion, awards and a raise, then you might be inclined toward adoration (or at least respect).
But if you think your work was maliciously trampled upon, its contents flayed alive and sprinkled with vitriol, resulting in ridicule, client wrath and possibly even -- gasp -- a lost account, then you might lean toward revulsion.
For over two decades, such views have summed up the ad industry's reactions to Ad Age's Bob Garfield. And while any critic wants to create waves, Garfield's impact was more tsunami-like, so much so that many industry names refused to comment on this story.
The rise of the Ad Age ad critic coincided with the rise of the blockbuster TV commercial. Often created for the Super Bowl, invariably produced by ad agency BBDO for long-time client Pepsi, the form featured a glittering array of celebs named Michael or Cindy or Madonna. These Joe Pytka or Bob Giraldi-directed extravaganzas became media events in their own right.
At the time, Garfield, recruited from USA Today, was roaming the country musing about state fairs in Iowa, among other things. Ad Age's then-editor, Fred Danzig, remembered, "By the mid-'80s, TV commercials were finally getting their due. There was great anticipation over Michael Jackson's Pepsi commercials, and we were trying to figure out what to do. . . . Suddenly it hit me, 'Have Bob review them!' There was fierce competition between Adweek and us, and he was our answer to Barbara Lippert."
Thus was born the Ad Age Ad Review, holding a mirror up to the good, the bad and the ugly of advertising. "In many ways advertising was the art of the masses, and so Garfield was an art critic in that sense," said Keith Reinhard, chairman emeritus of DDB.
Paul Cappelli, CEO of The Adstore, pointed out: "Every art form needs a critic. Advertising is the art of selling, and if you don't have people who criticize that art, we become an industry that just puts out catalogues."
On the receiving end
Of course, it's easy to be high-minded about critics in the abstract. It's not so easy when the critic pans your work.
As Steffan Postaer, chairman and chief creative officer of Euro RSCG Chicago, summarized: "It's fun to be criticized favorably, and it hurts to be criticized negatively. You'd be a liar if you said otherwise."
Eric Silver, chief creative officer at DDB, New York, says that Garfield drove creatives crazy. "I had my fair share of work lambasted by the man. I always let him know how I felt, and he always had a prompt rebuttal. I think our record was a 10-page e-mail exchange over some Snickers work."
Others took it less seriously. "It was his opinion, he either liked something or he didn't, but I didn't change the way I did things based on what he said," said Gerry Graf, chief creative officer of Saatchi & Saatchi, New York.
Featured frequently in Garfield's reviews was BBDO with its mega-watt accounts for Pepsi, GE and too many others to mention. "I got good and bad reviews from him," said director Joe Pytka. "I did a Pepsi commercial with Michael Jackson for Europe. Garfield said it was probably the worst thing he'd ever seen in his life. For years afterwards, when I gave speeches, I would read the review . . . and then I'd show the commercial, which usually got applauded. I guess people liked it more than he did. But I used it to make the point about not taking criticism, either good or bad, too seriously."
Garfield, who later described Pytka as a "genius," quickly established himself as an equal-opportunity offender, sparing no one. Protests appeared in the Ad Age letters pages referring to "disgust" over "gratuitous, flippant, personal attacks." The complaints took the shape of rhetorical questions: "Has Bob Garfield never worked a day in his life?"; "Mr. Garfield, have you looked in the mirror recently?"
To agencies, the impact on clients proved paramount. Accounts were lost. "His review of our Saturn work -- when we introduced the Aura a few years ago -- probably lost us the account," explained Jeff Goodby, CEO of Goodby, Silverstein & Partners. "He wasn't directly responsible, but his vicious panning of our spots got upper management at Saturn so paranoid that they started wanting to return to the Hal Riney Saturn advertising of the early 1990s. When we presented what I thought was a pretty good updating of that approach, they fired us nonetheless."
Others had more positive experiences. Graf of Saatchi said, "He gave a rave review to a campaign I did for Snickers that meant a lot to the agency and the M&M/Mars client."
Some took their hits with equanimity. "In 2000, during a SAG actors strike, we introduced a JCPenney campaign, which was difficult to produce and cast," said Reinhard. "We thought we did a good job. So did the client. . . . But Bob trashed it and said horrible things. Nevertheless, the campaign continued very successfully for over six years with a very satisfied client."
The twilight of the 'authoritative' voice
Traditionally, a critic's power lay in his authoritative opinion delivered via an equally authoritative medium. But the rise of the internet and the growth of the blogosphere, with everyone a critic, changed the balance. It also highlighted a growing generation gap. As Postaer points out: "The internet pretty much made [Garfield] irrelevant for kids. But everyone over 30 still cherished and reviled him, depending on the review. So when a generation and a technology gap starts to be the story in our industry, it becomes evidenced through Garfield's readership. Everyone under 30 looks at blogs. Everyone over 30 is suspicious of them."
Jeff Goodby, of Goodby & Silverstein, agreed. "There's an age divide for anything printed on paper. Garfield's association with the paper edition of Ad Age is indelible. I can see his picture in my mind's eye, graying as we speak. It's sad, but it makes a bigger point: Thoughtful, witty critics like Bob are lost in the internet democracy of commentary and blogging."
So with the whole world a critic, do we still need an official one? "Our industry is so insular," said headhunter Susan Friedman. "Everyone is blogging. Everyone has something to say. But critics hold themselves apart. Garfield was never vicious or sarcastic for the sake of making himself look good. He had nothing personal involved."
And skepticism is always healthy. "Bob took great delight in poking fun at our pretensions and letting the air out of our overstuffed egos," said Reinhard. "He once wrote about the pretentiousness of Cannes. . . . He captured the sense and mentality of us creatives. It's good to have an irreverent take."
Said Silver of DDB, "Love him or hate him, he cared. Hell, he'll always care. And that's getting harder and harder to find today."