Gleaning ad-industry insight from a most unlikely source

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Everything I know about advertising I learned from Robert B. Reich.

To those who know of Mr. Reich and his work, this affirmation will seem odd. He is best known for his service as secretary of labor during the first term of President Bill Clinton, when he was considered among the administration's more reliable voices on the liberal left (a political persuasion still uncommon in Adland). Earlier, as a prominent public intellectual, he was an advocate of government programs in industrial policy and human capital (items not high on the agenda of marketing communicators, and, if not ignored by, then considered antithetical to business interests).

But Mr. Reich, whom I've known for almost 20 years, is also one of the keenest observers of the interplay between business and society, with an uncanny ability to part the waters of information overload and open a path to clarity. He's always courted controversy-but he's generally proved correct.

In the early '80s, he drew the wrath of the business elite by deriding an economy premised more on the financial and legal manipulations of "paper entrepreneurs" than on the works of real entrepreneurs with grand ideas. The collapse of that decade's debt-drenched economy and its replacement by a vibrant, if volatile, New Economy validated his criticism. During the '80s, he also published two books that made the case for a U.S. industrial policy to rationalize government interventions into the economy. Some critics saw that as central government planning, and others as an abandonment of heavy industry in favor of untested high-tech sectors. With a government invention called the Internet now driving a multitrillion-dollar economic transformation, Mr. Reich's old nemeses are now notoriously silent.

His thinking about the communications sectors was similarly advanced. Back in the late '80s, when I was trying to make sense of the first round of megamergers then rocking the advertising industry, it was Mr. Reich who explained, quite calmly, that the midsize agencies that were Madison Avenue's bedrock were doomed to disappear into an industry that would ultimately be dominated by a handful of multinational financial holding companies able to cherry pick from among myriad independent creative contractors. His projection drew a raft of irate responses from across the advertising world. The growth of WPP Group, Omnicom Group and the Interpublic Group of Cos. (not to mention the evaporation of such glorious independents as Deutsch, Jordan McGrath, etc.) proved him right again.

It's Bob Reich's prescience that makes "The Future of Success," his latest book from Knopf, a work to contend with. In it, Mr. Reich-a Dartmouth-, Oxford- and Yale-educated lawyer, who currently teaches public policy at Brandeis University-refers to the current era as "The Age of the Terrific Deal." Technology-driven productivity gains are real and permanent, he says; "symbolic analysis," once a tool for junk-bond mavens who merely shifted wealth from place to place, has turned into an enormously valuable capacity for the creation of new wealth. "Creative workers" have become the power people in today's economy-developing strategies and the executions that offer uncountable new, wonderful choices to us, the consumers.

The problem, as Mr. Reich sees it, is everything that makes our lives better as consumers makes them harder as producers. "It's almost as if we have two lobes in our brain," he told me recently. "There's the consumer and investor mode, and we're doing better and better at that. But the better we do as consumers and investors-the easier it is for us to choose something better, to exit every commercial relationship-the harder we have to work as sellers and producers. One follows from the other."

Hence, the war for talent that saw creativity-based companies (like advertising agencies) ratcheting up salaries for junior creatives last year-then suddenly laying them off, en masse, this year. So too, both the increasing importance and transitory influence of brands, which are no longer merely signposts toward a product or service, but, in Mr. Reich's phrase, "signals of trustworthiness," even "portals" to which we turn to find the best deals. "Oligopolies of trust," he believes, will be to the 21st century what distribution oligopolies were in the 20th century.

Might the future of advertising lie in its ability to find and keep fickle creative workers with real expertise in engendering trust?

Don't scoff. Those who scorned Mr. Reich's prediction of the disappearance of midsize agencies are today looking in vain for them.

Copyright February 2001, Crain Communications Inc.

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