This week, 32 years later, I will complete my term as Four A's chairman. I am as grateful today for what the association has meant to me and to our industry as I was grateful when Mr. Crichton helped me begin my career.
Mythology suggests the Four A's is an old boy's network-an exclusive club catering only to the industry elite, particularly at its golf-and-gabfest annual meeting that is declining in both vitality and attendance.
But the facts belie the mythology. In recent years, both during and after difficult economic times that caused tectonic shifts in our business, the Four A's faced up to every challenge confronting the industry. Here are four examples:
The Washington beat: Scratch a Four A's member and the first thing you hear is, "What are you doing to keep Washington off our backs?"
The answer is we're fighting the good (and mostly successful) fight: to withstand frequent federal assaults on advertising deductibility and state attempts to tax advertising; to keep aggressive regulators, political opportunists and pseudo-consumerists from running amok; and to protect commercial free speech rights from erosion by those self-proclaimed "moderates" who would sacrifice the First Amendment on the altar of social expediency (yes, I'm talking about what to some people is an unpopular battle: the right to advertise legal products-like cigarettes, liquor and gaming-in truthful, non-deceptive and age-appropriate ways).
The meeting menu: Membership attendance at annual meetings has been on the rise in the wake of the recent recession, but that's not even half the news. Today, new conferences-for media, creative, financial and account planning executives-are rising in popularity. As a result, total attendance at national meetings reached a record 2,000 in the past year. That doesn't count thousands more at nearly 50 local and regional events. Nor does it include the 200-plus agency CEOs who are active members of 19 Four A's forums where non-competitive agencies of similar size meet several times a year to share knowledge and experiences.
The diversity issue: Just a few years ago, then-Four A's Chairman Ed Wax [chairman-CEO, Saatchi & Saatchi Advertising, New York] chastened the industry and challenged the association to meet the long overdue imperative of providing better opportunities for minorities. We have made progress, with the overall percentage of minorities working in ad agencies and professional positions increasing in the last three years. But we have a long way to go. Later this week, Ralph Rydholm, our incoming chairman, will announce several major initiatives that will ratchet up the quality and impact of our programs.
The value of advertising: Nothing remains more critical to the health and rigor of our business than proving what we all know: that advertising really works; that it works in the ways that are relevant to our clients; that it helps drive American business-the most robust economic engine ever conceived. Oh, sure, we have lots of anecdotal evidence. Our efforts with the Coalition for Brand Equity helped advance the argument. But we still must lock down the equation with airtight evidence. And that's exactly what we propose to do in a multi-year study to be unveiled at our annual meeting.
For 32 years, I have watched this association constantly evolve to meet change head-on, to provide information and guidance, to demonstrate leadership in untangling the complexities of new media and to wrestle with the everyday demands of helping its members make a fair profit.
The Four A's is far from perfect. But to paraphrase Churchill on the subject of democracy: "It may be the worst kind of industry organization except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time."
Mr. Bell is chairman-CEO, Bozell Worldwide, and outgoing chairman of the Four A's.