That Was the Year That Was

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This year, amid all the dot-com advertising that contributed mightily to ad agencies' bottom line, everyone partied like it was 1999. But at the dawn of a new millennium, not everything is coming up roses. Ad watcher par excellence Anthony Vagnoni looks ahead -- and explores the highlights of the past year.

If you listen to all-news radio, you've heard him. Overheated, chewing the scenery with every line reading, ready to go where no celebrity endorser has gone before, it's William Shatner for Priceline.com. "I knew it!" he exclaims. "Priceline dot-com is going to be big, really big!"

And it is. Now, thanks to the wonders of e-commerce, you can name your own price for groceries. That's right, groceries. "Hello, Priceline? Yeah, I'll give you a $1.69 for the 10-slice pack of Kraft individually wrapped singles."

Now, how do you sell that unique proposition?

Well, if you work in an ad agency, this will be your challenge at the start of the new millennium: convincing people to buy just about anything online, from Mercury's oversized new SUV (have you heard about it? They're calling it the Hindenburg) to Fresh-Scent Saniflush.

No longer will you be charged with coming up with the clear product difference between, let's say, the Hindenburg and its GMC rival, the Lusitania LSR. Nah, you'll leave all that product info for the Website, where those poor bastards toil who specialize in relationship marketing. All you need to do is make people hip to the fact that you can visit just one little Web address and simultaneously take your driver's test, apply for liability and comprehensive insurance, select your Hindenburg, have it delivered to your house in under 24 hours, and hire a contractor to kick out the side of your garage so the damn thing will fit inside.

Yes, new media hold great promise for society. But it's going to be hell on the advertising and marketing community.

Just think about the turmoil the industry has suffered this year, and weigh that against its relatively meager success stories.

Sure, everyone is busy getting rich off the whole e-commerce explosion, at least if you run an ad agency. But haven't you noticed that formerly wild and crazy dot-com ads are starting to look and feel like regular old package goods ads? No more gerbil artillery practice these days -- look for schmaltzy vignette spots, or maybe hidden-camera testimonials.

Complicating the conundrum is the view that, if the real mission of an agency now is to convince buyers to accept the process of e-commerce, not merely the potential, than who's to say that Grey can't do that as well as Goodby? No longer does the strategy lie in the product itself. Hell, the product hardly matters anymore. What matters is that you can get it online. Suddenly, almost surreptitiously, the rules have changed. And while a brand used to stand for a certain product or service, now it stands for a transaction -- which will ultimately reduce most e-commerce sites to mere brokers, since they don't really make anything.

Meanwhile, the industry's soul-searching continues. Web topics dominate seminars and conferences. Everyone's wondering the same thing: What's our future going to be like? Where will we fit in? And when will Donny Deutsch sell?

It's been a year of startling transitions. We've lost some true giants this year, and a few pretenders as well. David Ogilvy. Carl Ally. Dick, Creative Superstar. Mr. Jenkins. Michael Jordan. In their place we've got -- well, um, gee, I'd have to say Michael Dweck and the Jukka Brothers.

Ninety-nine will be remembered (if at all) as the year we got to watch Fallon gamely defend its controversial Miller campaign, win the review and then crank out some of the lamest advertising ever to come out of its Minneapolis office. Wieden & Kennedy got knocked around by Microsoft and Miller, but began pulling itself back with great Nike work (winning back the whole US account in November), and a smooth move into dot-com advertising --this from an agency with no apparent affinity for the Web itself.

It's the year that O&M attempted to rewrite the rules of freelance engagement with The Syndicate (cue opening strains of The Untouchables here, please). Almost a year after its announcement, however, we've yet to see them pull off a single hoist.

Ninety-nine is the year that Lowe & Partners was rewarded for doing great work by losing the Mercedes account -- giving the lie to the belief that the old-boy-country-club-it's-not-what-you-know-but-who-you-know mentality is dead and buried.

It's the year that advertising continued to nibble at the pop culture steam table. Nibble? It positively gorged itself, as though everything on the menu was made with Olean. Pro wrestlers? Let's put 'em in soft drink commercials! Austin Powers? Groovy, baby, he can endorse Tucks! Hendrix tunes? Hell, they'll work nice over this montage of aging boomers yakking on cell phones.

It was the year that gross-out humor and generally boorish behavior in ads became the subject of newspaper stories and magazine show segments. Puking bears (Budget), guys dropping their cel phones into urinals (AltaVista), rectal probes and fetal pigs (C-Net), driving school instructors throwing donuts at old geezers (Top Driver) and kids flipping the bird (Duncan yo-yos) were all deemed OK stuff to show on TV, not to mention that Adidas print ad where a guy blows snot out of his nostrils. And let's not forget Nike's "Beautiful" spot; Picabo Street's stitches never looked so good.

It was also a year of lovable retreads -- and why not? The sorry state of originality forces Holly-wood to turn bad '60s TV shows into bad '90s movies and the TV networks to resuscitate that '50s programming cadaver, the quiz show. So it's no surprise to see Charlie the Tuna yet again, and the Jolly Green Giant and Mr. Whipple.

As the year ends, the daunting bigness of the business is the real story. Agencies' stock prices are trading at all-time highs, global networks are being moved around like pawns on a chess board, and tiny dot-com clients are throwing around sums of money that would have caused jaws to drop just a few year ago.

A $20 million account feels like chump change these days, and the cash floating around the industry has made everyone and everything for sale. For agencies, you're either part of a network or you're marooned. Even production companies are being acquired by publicly traded conglomerates. Consider this: Somewhere out there, an agency CD who's not an internationally recognized star will make a million dollars in 2000, and he or she (most probably he) won't be alone. That's a million bucks base, not counting options and bonus.

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