When I Knew Advertising Had Completely Changed

Othmer Recounts His Realization in This Edited Excerpt From His Book 'Adland'

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During the year-and-a-half I spent researching and writing Adland, I was often asked, usually by people who knew me in my past life, "What are you doing here? Didn't you write a novel? Didn't you gleefully leave this world behind?"

The simple answer was that I was writing another book. Not another novel but, ironically, a book about the past, present and future of the world I had supposedly, gleefully, left behind. Many who worked with me found this curious and funny, and not just because of the irony, but because really, who the hell am I to write a book about advertising?

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Got a tale to tell about when you realized that marketing would never be the same? We'd like to hear it. James Othmer, author of 'Adland: Searching for the Meaning of Life on a Branded Planet,' will choose 10 favorites to run in AdAge.com, and reward winners with a signed copy. Send submissions by March 1 to jpothmer@yahoo.com.
What does Othmer, he of the workmanlike creative career and creeping cynicism, know about the perpetually changing landscape of adland?

After all, I never had my name on the door of an agency. Never ran a big agency creative department. The trades never published a picture of me dressed in black, with a ponytail and sunglasses, beneath the headline "Hot Commodity." I never reaped an IPO windfall, created a famous Super Bowl spot, cracked the digital code or wrote a phrase that would become part of the vernacular, like "Just Do It" or "Think Different" or "Where's the Beef?"

But, for more than 20 years I made ads. One out of 50 probably ever made it out of the agency. Maybe one out of 500 ever made it on the air. But some were smart or funny or surprising enough to make bad meetings good. Others made clients with one $300 million foot out the door step back inside to reconsider. Sometimes I sold the proverbial big idea. Sometimes all I did was say something that made someone else's big idea seem even bigger.

And sometimes I was simply a halfway reasonable, adult mind in an industry that wasn't always.

Here's what happened: In 20 years I went from earnest, wide-eyed junior copywriter to big agency golden boy to disillusioned, bitter, corporate burnout, then, briefly, back to golden boy, then to capable veteran and finally back to corporate burnout, but this time without the bitterness or disillusionment. Because really, there is no reason for a rational adult to be disillusioned with advertising. With medicine, or art, or the Peace Corps, maybe. But saying you're disillusioned with advertising is like saying you're disillusioned with politics or the porn industry.

What did we expect, fulfillment?

During my career I survived some 14 rounds of layoffs, downturns in the industry and the economy, takeover threats, IPOs, 16 creative directors, 13 CEOs, the demise of one great agency and the ongoing collapse of another.

For this I was given more money than I ever would have made in my father's well-intentioned career of choice for me: mason's laborer and, if I played my cards right, bricklayer.

Because of advertising, I got to travel the world and meet many smart, talented and powerful people, from CEOs and artists to four-star generals and Carrot Top.

Because of advertising, I got to follow and occasionally lead and make hundreds of friends for life.

When I left advertising a few months before my novel was published, I was indeed ready for a change. But it is important to note that I never hated advertising or felt that I was above it (in fact I was often humbled and awed by the superior ad talent of others). I had just felt for the first time in my life that I ought to be doing something else, something I wanted and needed to do more.

Then, while doing press for my novel, a funny thing happened. While some questions were about the book, most were about advertising. Why was it such a huge part of our culture? Was it responsible for globalization? The downfall of our youth? What's the most despicable ad you ever made? The most despicable thing you ever saw?

My answers surprised me. Rather than rattling off witty renunciations of my past and the industry that had employed me, I found myself publicly defending advertising, and then, later, privately thinking about its role in my life and our culture more deliberately and sincerely than I had in the previous 20 years.

I worked during an amazing time in adland. I started out working for remnants of the Draper era and left during its most profound change since the invention of TV. As a novelist and journalist who happened to have spent two decades making ads, I thought I could tell a version of advertising's story you wouldn't find in a CEO memoir or from an outsider.

The simple answer to my friends in advertising is that I had come back to the scene of the crime because I was writing a book. A guy's got to make a living, right? The real answer, of course, is much more complicated, and if I had an answer for their questions I probably wouldn't have been interviewing them to begin with.

During my time on the road I spoke with hundreds of people at dozens of agencies. Creatives. Planners. Account execs. Digital wizards. CEOs. Consultants. I sat at conference tables, looked at reels and stared into speakerphones as people pitched and bitched, getting excited and frustrated by ideas in real-time. "Embedded" is a word I'd taken to using to impress people, if only because it made me feel Anderson Cooper-ish.

I was fascinated by what they did but more importantly, why they did it. Why do any of us do what we do, and is it a job, a profession or a vocation?

Is it a calling, or a finding?

At first, when I tried to wrap my head around the entire advertising industry, it made my brain hurt. The mere thought of the myriad possible futures for digital advertising or media tended to make me curl up in the fetal position in a dark, brand-free room. I felt under-qualified, inadequate, analog. But when I approached the business one conversation at a time, one campaign or agency visit at a time, it made me feel somewhat better if only because I came to realize that most of us don't have it all figured out yet -- the industry or our vocation -- either.

Is this book comprehensive? Hardly. It is simply an attempt to better understand something that has been such a large part of my life, and our culture, for so long. And by the time you read this, it will have changed all over again.

The Death of Darrin Stephens

Advertising as I knew it began its death rattle in the fall of 2000 in an old, dark, off-off-Broadway theater on the far west side of midtown Manhattan.

Over the years the theater had been the home to world premiere performances of works written by the likes of Arthur Miller, Sam Shepard, Edward Albee and August Wilson. But on this day the theater's modest stage was going to be home to a different kind of performance, a one-day-only world premiere written by a previously unpublished playwright, a nobody.

This performance would definitely contain elements of drama. And almost certainly tragedy. Most involved in the production, and by this time there were dozens of us, were fairly certain of this, but the degree to which it could be classified as tragedy or comedy would ultimately be decided not by the author (me) or the cast (two starving actors), or the producers (the Madison Avenue office of a global ad agency), but the audience, which was expected to total all of five extremely impatient and not particularly happy people (our clients) absolutely predisposed to hate everything they were about to see.

The reason we were in this venerable theater was to make one last desperate pitch that promised a strategically focused, bright, shiny, globally synchronized and brilliantly branded future to our mega-client of several years which, by the way, desperately wanted to fire us.

If pressed to classify the type of production we were about to put on, I would have called it a farce.

Because I knew that even if Russell Crowe, Philip Seymour Hoffman or Sir John Gielgud took the stage that afternoon and had channeled the spirit of David Ogilvy, Jay Chiat and the original Young and Rubicam, our clients still would have hated it, still would have fired us. In their eyes, we were too big, too slow to adapt to a rapidly changing marketing landscape. In their eyes, time had passed us by.

It was my idea to try to sell this non-traditional, digitally-inspired future to a megabrand in this flesh and bone, sub-analog space. If they wanted nimble and out-of-the-box, we'd give it to them live, in a theater, with real actors and stage props and lighting and signed black-and-white head shots of Pulitzer Prize-winners on the lobby walls.

Why a theater? Advertising was entering a new age. Beyond the 30-second TV spot. Beyond print ads in People magazine. Then, of course, there was that thing called the internet. No one in big agency advertising seemed to know what to do with it yet (beyond buying smaller digital shops that were better at pretending they got it), so why should that stop us from pretending that we got it, that we were experts? We chose a theater because we felt that a live performance in an artistic environment was the last thing our clients expected from a dinosaur of an agency like us, and on stage we could dazzle them with the countless unexpected, non-traditional, highly effective ways in which they could connect with their ideal customer.

Plus, all of our previous old-school, "traditional" attempts to save our asses had failed miserably.

Even though it was a daring idea, I knew we were doomed. Mostly because I (as well as, I suspect, almost everyone else in the business at the time) had no idea what the bright, shiny, digital future of advertising was. After all, in 2000, YouTube was years away from its inception, and the guy who invented Facebook was all of 16 years old.

And did I mention that the client hated us?

In fact, if my voice counted in such matters, we wouldn't have been spending insane money, easily several hundred thousand dollars for a two-hour presentation, pitching an account to marketing officers that clearly did not want us anymore. I'd said as much six months earlier after they'd put us on notice. I'd said as much soon after that when they'd put us on double secret probation.

And I said it again on the day of our last presentation two months ago, another do-or-die last-chance meeting during which we prostrated ourselves before them in another lavishly appointed conference room filled with motivational videos, PowerPoint decks and stacks and stacks of foam-core storyboards, dozens of creatively inspired, insight-driven campaigns from the New York office's finest as well as from our network around the world -- London, check! Hong Kong, check! India, check! Australia, g'day!

One of the reasons we had gotten the account in the first place is that global capabilities had been the big thing in the merger-crazed 1990s (now, apparently, it's small and nimble, but that could change by the time you finish this paragraph). A far-reaching global network had become an absolute must for monster brands, and our network was so bloody global that there were times we could have used United Nations interpreters to have a simple strategic conference call among regional creative directors, which in retrospect probably wasn't a good thing.

Anyway, the result of the last meeting, which we had sworn would be our final attempt to salvage the business, is that they were not impressed. They were going to put the account up for review. This was a not particularly subtle way of telling us that we were history.

Being put up for review is akin to having your spouse announce in front of everyone you know that he or she no longer loves you and for the next several months he or she will be seeing other people -- dozens of smarter, younger, cooler people, many of whom, by the way, you know quite well -- and then having all sorts of kinky, experimental sex with the most interesting and promising of them, probably no more than six, often doing many of the things that you may have once suggested but were never allowed to.

Sometimes during this process your spouse will describe his or her ongoing antics in excruciating detail for you. Sometimes you'll simply read a steamy, anonymous, insider's account of it in the press. And then, after up to six months of this, six months of holding your tongue and continuing to do all of the dishes and dirty laundry and seeing to the upkeep of the home you once shared, the children that mean so much to you, you will finally get your chance to say -- after I've given you every ounce of my energy and passion for the last xx years, after trying to rekindle better times with romantic weekends and couple's counseling, after he or she has slept or flirted with just about every one of your friends and neighbors, not to mention several total strangers -- "Here's how I've changed, sweetheart, here's why and the extent to which I'm willing to publicly humiliate myself to win you back."

At that point, if you were the client (or spouse) would you want to take you back?

Sometimes, in a rare instance, a client will put an account up for review to light a fire under its agency, secretly hoping that the agency will snap out of its complacency and produce brilliant, winning work. But this clearly was not one of those instances.

At that point, if our client was to light a fire under us, it would not have been with a match. It would have been with a flamethrower, and we would have been lashed to a stake, neck deep in dead storyboard kindling.

In part, this is because the people who hired us -- old-school, big-time money people -- were no longer there. They had been replaced on almost every level, most notably by a pair of young, progressive, meticulously dressed, ambitious marketing executives who clearly wanted nothing to do with the likes of us -- an old, stodgy advertising behemoth whose upper management was bloated on recent IPO cash and had taken its collective eye off the ball.

What this new regime wanted was what every smart brand steward wanted in 2000: a smart, nimble, young, hip, hungry shop that had some kind of handle on the world of digital, a.k.a. new media a.k.a. "non-traditional" advertising.

"We absolutely should not participate in the review," I told my creative director six weeks before the pitch. "They despise us. They sneer at our global network. They detest our musty, 1950s-décor offices. They can't stomach our -- okay, my -- bad fashion choices. We embarrass them. We could show them the most innovative, strategically brilliant work possible right now, and they would not buy it."

What I didn't say is that I didn't blame them because we really didn't know the first thing about "non-traditional" advertising. At the time, asking an agency like ours to do non-traditional advertising was like asking Dick Cheney to be a contestant on -- and win --"Dancing With the Stars."

We were at the time a 77-year-old institution, famous for building brands through solid, sometimes outstanding work, yes, but also through relationships (cocktails, favors, expensive dinners). We were the kings of the $2 million commercial shoot. We had offices in every corner of the world and profit centers, I mean subsidiaries, on top of subsidiaries. And of course, we could fill a football field-sized conference room with earnest, interested-looking suits and high-priced, jaded, arrogant creative talent like no one else.

The internet? ... Non-traditional? ... That was beneath us.

"Don't worry," said my creative director. "We just had a meeting. And we're totally not gonna pitch."

Two weeks before the presentation, I was put in charge of the pitch that we swore we would not do.

Thirteen days before the presentation that we swore we would not do, my creative director went on vacation. The next morning, a Friday, I decided, with apologies to Mickey Rooney and MGM, to put on a show.

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