SADLY, AD WORLD CEDES ITS MAGIC WHEN IT PLAYS IT SAFE FOR CLIENT

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There is a creative crisis in advertising right now-and nothing better showcases it or shows the way out of it-than a little monster of a film called "The Blair Witch Project."

The movie is the kind of cinematic phenomenon that comes along once in a generation. A psychological tour de terror, it purports to be the remnants of documentary footage shot by three young filmmakers who went into the Burkitsville, Md., woods to track the truth beneath a 200-year-old local legend. One by one, the documentarians disappear, leaving their compatriots, and the audience, terrified.

Without blood, guts or special effects, this $60,000 movie made by a few Florida neophytes already has broken box-office records in more than two dozen cities. It's an epochal film; at a dinner the other night, a famous graphic designer at my table called "Blair Witch" the " 'Easy Rider' of this era." What does this have to do with advertising? Everything. Mostly because advertising, as a cultural form and business tool, has come to nothing.

In the 1980s, during advertising's second Creative Revolution, a new dogma seemed to hatch every second month. Some were technique driven-remember the "shakycam"?-and some were theory derived (such as the postmodern, "Reeboks lets UBU" style of irony).

But from the boffo extravaganzas of Phil Dusenberry's BBDO to the starkly hysterical headlines atop Fallon McElligott's print ads to the homespun Americanism of Hal Riney, the ferment underscored a basic fact: advertising was a hotbed of communications experimentation that passionately engaged both its creators and the audience.

Today, advertising is moribund. The multiple mantras of the 1980s have been replaced by a single theme line: Nothing's going on. I've stopped counting the number of times I've heard this phrase from adfolk during the past year. And it's not just the trash talk typical of the agency business. When was the last time you heard anyone get excited or exercised by an ad, let alone an entire campaign? When was the last time you heard a writer or designer or strategist say, "I gotta get to that agency-they're hot?"

Like Claude Raines' Capt. Renault in "Casablanca," we can trot out the usual suspects for the malaise. The hungry kids are bypassing Madison Avenue for Wall Street; creative kids are sidestepping advertising for the Internet; smart kids are writing code, not slogans.

But the fact is, it's not the innate superiority of these new alternatives that's set advertising in a tailspin. It's the ad industry's own failure to excite. You can see the crisis clearly in the profusion of dot-com advertising engulfing the mainstream media. This is one of those once-a-decade categories that sends agency revenues soaring. It's also a premium advertising showcase, replete with unknown brands and commodity products desperately in need of proprietary positioning.

But unlike personal computers (which gave us memorable Apple and IBM ads from Chiat/Day and Lord Geller Federico Einstein) and overnight delivery services (the source of Carl Ally's hysterically historic FedEx campaign), Internet advertising in old media has been singularly devoid of interest. Why?

As it did in the 1970s, after the end of the first Creative Revolution, the ad industry has become centered on keeping clients content, not on producing enticing communications. It has become obsessed with its own bureaucratic prerogatives, not on promoting originality or novelty.

As with the Hollywood studios, the agency business is still run largely by the same group of aging white men who want to do things the same way they did it 10 or 20 or 30 years ago, when they were revolutionaries. But yesterday's rebellion is today's Muzak, as the tepid reception to James Brown at Woodstock III showed.

"Blair Witch" is a reminder of one of advertising's eternal, if forgotten, verities: Creativity bubbles up from the bottom. Only by opening itself up to experimentation, innovation and, yes, failure, will the agency business recapture the excitement that attracts society's most inventive men and women. "Blair Witch" also shows that type of excitement needn't cost a fortune or require spectacular new technologies: the promise of an audience-and the freedom to appeal to it-is often quite enough.

Instead of bemoaning the torpor, agencies should be scouting the silicon trail for innovators eager to assay the Old Media. They should find ways to provide young creatives time to incubate their own projects.

Most of all, they should remember that-whether in film, print, TV or the Net-a big, fat, original idea has the power of witchcraft.

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