If I Could Do It All Again

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It's quite possible that my PC will be one of those untold thousands that think next year is 1900. In fact, the greatest gift from the computer industry may well be that so-called glitch that could give us a chance to do the whole 20th century over again.

If we could rewind the tape of our century and edit out the bad parts, what would it look like? What would we do differently? Maybe this time we can get it right: no wars, no famine, no hating people who aren't exactly like us.

And what about advertising? I, for one, would take back every occasion in which I compromised my creative principles, my creative judgment, just to make a client happy. I can't think of a greater regret. After all, advertising is our product. We design it. We build it. We have every right to fight for it, take pride in it, and secure its integrity.

Yet, as an industry, our short lists of breathtaking television advertising and captivating print are getting shorter these days. There seems to be a kind of holding back, a faint hint of complacency, a slight cooling of our creative ardor. We seem to be playing it a little safe.

If I had to do it all over again, I'd still pick most of my clients and their accounts. Merely because they gave us the freedom to knock the walls down. And I know there are other clients like them. Treasure these people. They are equal heroes of great work.

And speaking of that -- if I had the century to do over again, I'd still care most about three things: the work, the work, the work. This is what the business is all about. This is the fun, the glory, the pleasure. It's the only true measure of an agency. In the absence of great work, nothing else matters.

In hindsight, many of us should have seen the dot.com train coming down the tracks. We ignored it too long, pretended it would go away. But it's here -- big-time -- and many of us are still trying to catch that train.

And we have to somehow make the dot.com world every bit as creatively alluring as traditional advertising. As Internet technology begins to personalize the relationship between the brand and the consumer, the premium on creativity will become even greater. Who knows? We may be on the verge of another creative revolution -- much like we were back in the early days of Doyle Dane Bernbach.

If this past century were a rerun, I know we could raise our young a whole lot better. We need to do a better job of hanging on tight to all of our young creatives. We fire too fast in this business and hire too slow.

And the hard truth is that real teaching -- the older teaching the younger -- hasn't been in our job specs for years.

Maybe we need to rethink the minor league system. Grow our own crops. Plant 'em in the bullpen or a training program, or as an apprentice in the creative department itself. And as much as they'll learn from us, we'll learn even more from them.

If we could turn back the clock, I think we'd be well-advised to make more room for the crazies: the wild, the wacky, the creatively insane. We need these people. But craziness is curbed more than encouraged in some shops today. For some reason, we are an ever more disciplined business at a time when raw, joyous, uninhibited creativity should be sprouting up all around us. It's one thing to knuckle under in tough times, when the economy is going south. That's tragic enough. But not now. These are fabulous upbeat times!

Just imagine how horrible things would be, creatively, if the turn of the century were happening not in 1999 but in 1929. The Wall Street Crash. The Great Depression. People selling apples on street corners. Imagine trying to be creative in that environment. But this is 1999, and how fortunate we are. This country, this business is on an unprecedented high. Creativity should be flush and fragrant and exploding with spectacular ideas. What a great time to be in the business of making ads for a living!

If there is a final lesson to be learned from our yesterdays, it's what I mentioned earlier: playing it safe -- becoming centered on keeping clients content and not on producing enticing communications. That kind of playing it safe is the greatest risk of all. It may make a client happy for the moment, but as we all know, the bitter taste of bad work lingers for a long, long time.

My fervent hope as we head into 2000 is that more and more clients will be far less contented with playing it safe; far less contented with unenticing, unnoticed, unspecial, unspectacular advertising.

Consumers know precisely what's wrong with advertising. They know that advertising is never creative enough; never as witty, inspiring, sophisticated, entertaining and downright likable as they would like it to be. I believe that part of the comfort level of most consumer purchases is not only an acquaintance with the advertising but a genuine affection for it. Put another way, the more likable our stuff, the better off we are.

Maybe some of us are a bit too old and set in our ways to wipe the slate clean. Maybe you don't talk new beginnings to creatives who've been there, done that, who feel the aches and pains and fatigue that go with personal achievement. But there's still an exciting journey ahead. The thrill of creating great ideas is still new. Always was, always will be.

And it's all right out there for the taking.

Phil Dusenberry is chairman of BBDO in New York. This article has been adapted from a speech he gave last month at the Four A's Creative Conference in South Beach, Fla.

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