Agency business needs to recapture the spark

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BBDO Worldwide Vice Chairman-Creative Phil Dusenberry took office as 2000-01 chairman of the American Association of Advertising Agencies last week. The following was adapted by Mr. Dusenberry from his inaugural address to the Four A's annual management meeting in Bermuda on May 13.

In her remarks as incoming chairman last year, Shelly Lazarus identified a number of key issues that she hoped the Four A's would address. Chief among them was the ever-widening and ever-worrisome shortage of talent that our business has been facing for more than a decade. We should have filed this under "missing persons" because the bright, young, creative-minded and marketing-minded kids who used to flock to our doors are simply not showing up.

They're missing in such numbers that we've lost a whole generation along the way. That's a whole generation of could've been, would've been, should've been creative stars and agency leaders. Not to mention natural-born wizards of the Web. As a career option, advertising seemed not to be a blip on their radar screens.

The young in our agencies are the hopes of our agencies. We know we teach downward to them, but I know they teach upward to us. They teach us to fear technology less, to be cool, to be daring and to keep our senses of humor on full alert. What a lesson. What a loss.

DEEPENING DEFICIT

I guess it's obvious that our talent deficit deepened during the awesome expansion of the Internet and the corresponding explosion of dot-coms and IPOs. So I guess we can all say we were just outbid by the shadowy guys standing in doorways with giant wads of venture capitalist cash, whispering "Psst . . . hey kid, wanna be a multimillionaire?"

Of course, that also presumes the talented young people we're looking for are all believers in Michael Douglas' famous Wall Street mantra "Greed is good."

Somehow I can't bring myself to totally accept that. But what I think all of us have to accept is that everybody in the whole booming communications industry -- broadcasting, publishing, promotions, Hollywood, the World Wide Web (bigger now than the Milky Way), all dot-coms both coming and going, newspapers and trade magazines and show business -- everybody is after the same smart, talented young people we're after.

Even when some of our most faithful clients wander through the hallways nodding and smiling, trust me -- they're shopping. The fact is, I think we all might agree with yet another mantra or axiom of our business which goes: "Advertising can sell anything but itself."

Even our portrayals in movies, books and sitcoms reveal us -- or maybe I should say revile us -- as garrulous hustlers or nervous, twitchy hucksters. Notice, there's no advertising version of "The West Wing."

I have no plot or plan today on how to restore advertising's image in the hearts and minds of college or postgraduate prospects. I just feel that what they know of us is what we put on their TV screens or on their radios or in their magazines.

My only scheme for landing great talents is for agencies to do work so brilliant, so startling, so witty, so creative that the kids we want will come to us out of sheer envy of the people who are paid good money to have such fun.

IT'S ALL GOOD

Maybe we should shout our own mantras to the young people we want: Fun is good. Pride is good. Challenge is good. Training is good. Competition is good. Big league is good. Fame is good. Success is good. Career is good. Teamwork is good. Security is good. Being in a Four A's agency is as damn good as it gets.

And, by the way, I hope somehow that the designation "Four A's agency" can come to mean something more meaningful not only in the recruitment of talent, but in holding on to the very talent we have. Shouldn't every employee in a Four A's agency have the sense or even the proof -- a membership card, maybe -- that he or she is playing in the majors -- a whole different level of ball?

I don't want to bend the metaphor too far, but Four A's agencies are not unlike major league franchises. Some are huge and very rich. Some are small and just rich. But the level of play is the best in the world. My team is BBDO, but my thrill is playing in the bigs.

LITTLE NOISE

Last year, I had the pleasure of chairing the Four A's Creative Conference, and addressing several hundred or more of advertising's certified creative geniuses. What I said to those superstars was that there wasn't a lot of noise or jumping up and down in the corridors of American ad agencies about this fantastic campaign or that knockout commercial.

I mentioned that the "short lists" for creative awards were shorter than ever. In fact, they were new heights of shortness.

When all of us are stunned with creative brilliance -- like Nike's Tiger Woods spots last year and the "Got Milk" campaign -- the buzz gets around in a hurry. And, to my way of thinking, little genuine brilliance was getting around, even at a slow trot.

Maybe -- just maybe -- just this once, our high-pressure, hard-nose, fiercely competitive, major league business had awarded itself a timeout -- a seventh-inning stretch.

And why not? The goods were rolling off the shelves. Jobs were going begging, but nobody else was. Upstart dot-coms were flooding our business. So why not bank our creative fires for just a little while?

Presumably, I have 12 months to think about that question. But I think I'll answer it now before everybody else does.

It's simple: Major League Baseball has the freedom -- not the desire, the freedom -- to bore its customers to death. Major league advertising -- Four A's advertising -- does not. We are a business that customers don't watch or read or remember because they like us but because we prove conclusively and interestingly and unfailingly that we like them.

Day after day, boom times or bum times, we've learned to catch their attention before they mute us or boot us. We've learned that humor humors them and that intelligent sell honors them and that talk, talk, talk . . . product, product, product irks the patience out of them -- and runs down the batteries in their remotes.

The truth is that entertaining advertising stands out in that clutter -- stands out in bundles and pods where commercials are crammed back-to-back, almost looking like someone's reel. It's a miracle, a moment of magic even to be noticed at all.

And we all know, if we're not seen, we're not selling. Period.

WHAT WE'RE BORN TO DO

The happy fact is that when we are on a creative high -- firing ideas back and forth, daring each other to top this if you can -- we're doing what we were born to do: to stop consumers with advertising that they'd not only like to see again but actually shout to their families, "Hey, that great commercial is on again!" That's the joy of this wonderful league.

I'd like to go one-on-one -- or one-on-10,000 -- with the kids, especially the creative kids, who chose other outlets for their talents. They don't know the unbounded pleasure of creating work the whole world will see and enjoy. The thrill of making movies, telling stories, of writing and designing advertising that becomes legendary stuff and moves mountains -- and people -- like nothing else on Earth.

For as long as I can remember, the Four A's has been viewed as an account guy's club. And we've put the business of advertising higher on the rung than advertising itself.

Now I have absolutely no complaint about our former focus on financials, or government interference with our freedom of speech or our squabbles with consultants. But if we're ever to win back the ones we've lost in the past and may lose in the future, I believe we have to make creativity -- and a younger outlook -- a more central focus of the mission of the Four A's.

That's what I'm committing myself, and my term as this year's chairman, to.

I'm committing myself to establish higher creative standards for acceptance of new agencies.

I hope to form a creative directors' review board to press for more creative presence in meetings and conventions along with more executive and staff interest in creative issues: That is complaints and restraints and censorship of our work. Because even the smallest activist groups can blow away some of our best work -- at terrifying costs and embarrassment.

UPPING THE ANTE

Our Four A's creative awards seem less significant to press and industry than they deserve. Let's up the ante. Bigger money, more pride, more publicity, more client representation at awards events. Let's make it the Nobel Prize of advertising.

I look forward to serving as the Four A's chairman in the year ahead -- and to working with our new vice chairman, Interpublic Group of Cos.' John Dooner. I can't say how much we'll get done. I can say I'm going to have fun working for all of you. Imagine my resume: "He worked for every agency in the Four A's."

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