Internet Commenters Got You Down? Get Over It, Already
McGarryBowen was named Burger King's new lead creative agency in June, on the heels of winning a closely-watched pitch for Sears and following two years of explosive growth fueled by expanding relationships with clients from Kraft to Pfizer. The agency's track record has racked up plaudits from clients -- "they're on a roll," Verizon CEO Ivan Seidenberg told Ad Age earlier this year -- but when it comes to peers, there's more vitriolic commentary than high-fiving.
On the Mediabistro-owned ad blog AgencySpy, the news last month that McGarryBowen replaced CP&B on Burger King was met with scorn. The shop, and in some cases its execs, were assailed with juvenile name calling -- a "consortium of hacks" who get "dumb clients to buy their bullshit." Those who came to the agency's defense were chastised. Towards the end of a string of 77 comments -- all anonymous except one -- was this, the one truly astute observation: "We have officially entered the Dark Ages of Advertising."
There is a collective feeling in adland that the business is simply not as fun as it used to be, and not just because of deflated expense accounts and increased pressure, but because a post-recession black cloud of negativity has descended over Madison Avenue.
While the agency community has never been a Kumbaya sort of place ("Mad Men" does a fine job of illustrating this), executives around the industry think the atmosphere is growing noticeably uglier. In many cases, they blame technology.
Online media is enabling hate to surface faster and travel farther. The widespread internet-bullying is a growing concern for the heads of agencies, who fear their talent will either join in the bashing -- or, worse -- that their creative juices will evaporate as their work is tried in the courtroom of nameless web critics. After all, advertising is an art, and artists tend to take their work personally. "The internet has allowed sensationalism to permeate advertising," said Tom Carroll, the CEO of TBWA/Chiat/Day. "The world has become far more competitive and headline-driven, and our business is no different."
"Going to the bar and bitching and moaning has always gone on in the industry," said Firstborn CEO Michael Ferdman. But the megaphone of the web makes it feel harsher, he said. "You win a piece of business, you get attacked. You hire someone, you get attacked. And it's human nature to feel hurt…nobody wants to read bad things about themselves, their company or the work they've done." Of course, the phenomenon is hardly isolated to advertising. Peruse the comments on financial blog Dealbreaker, and the types of insults and name-calling make ad blogs look like child's play. Even the Pope has addressed negativity breeding on the web. Six months ago he urged followers to be responsible and positive users of social media, and use the internet not for spreading hate, but for building relationships.
Adland doesn't quite have the same problems as the Vatican, though. With a recession that slashed thousands of ad jobs, and a revolving door spinning faster as new hires have less time to prove their mettle, it's not easy being an adperson.
McGarryBowen's chief John McGarry didn't read the post on AgencySpy last month. "I don't read the blogs, I don't care about the comments," he said. "People who are spewing out negativity are mad, unhappy or jealous and I'm none of the above."
He doesn't appreciate the dig at his clients, though. "You cannot look at our lineup and say that our clients are dumb. You're going to tell me that [JP MorganChase CEO] Jamie Dimon is dumb? You're going to tell me that [Verizon CEO] Ivan Seidenberg and [Verizon COO] John Stratton are dumb? [Disney CEO] Bob Iger is dumb? I find them demanding, realistic and obsessive about their companies and brands, and all they simply want to do is win."
In addition to longstanding industry publications, there's a growing list of blogs and other outlets devoted to the ad business today, and it's not only agency folk reading them. Clients are reading posts, and the comments too.
Trudy Hardy, manager of BMW marketing communications and consumer events at BMW of North America -- which happens to be in the throes of a closely-watched agency review -- told Ad Age she makes a point to scroll through comments sections on stories about the ad business. How long she stays there varies. "If there is worthwhile commentary about the piece or topic [I stay engaged] but if there is idle chatter on the page, then it is less appealing," she said.
Most agencies simply cross their fingers and hope that clients aren't reading negative comments; perhaps what they should do instead is open a dialogue with marketers about what's being said on the web.
Said Rob Reilly, worldwide chief creative officer at CP&B: "[Agencies] train clients to say, if the work is being talked about in social media, then it's important. We use it to say, 'Look at all the positive comments'….but then we don't want the negative. I think it would help, if clients are reading it, to say, 'Look at the context of where it's coming from.'" "I would love to think it could be [a more positive industry]…but it doesn't help that it's a competitive business. I would hope we would celebrate … when Wieden does work for P&G that is so amazing, it is awesome for everybody, because it shows what a brave and visionary client P&G is , but it also shows what a tenacious and smart agency Wieden is ."
CP&B has banned agency staff from engaging in dialogue on sites -- whether it's positive or negative. "We tell everyone do not comment on another agency's work," Mr. Reilly said. "I don't want anyone from our agency to contribute to hurting other agencies… we have enough to worry about on our end that we don't need to worry about other people's work."
Goodby Silverstein & Partners' Co-Chairman Jeff Goodby thinks that sort of policy wouldn't take hold at his shop. "I can't control them," he said, of his staffers. "They have to have some judgment on their own. It's not a police state and I wouldn't want it that way."
Mr. Goodby -- who is friends with foul-mouthed ad blogger George Parker -- admits that whenever he reads a story on an industry website or blog, he reads the comments too. But he also admits it's usually a waste of time. "It's rude and rarely constructive."
Nancy Hill, head of the trade group 4A's -- who has publically expressed frustration with "the incessantly negative adverbloggers" but also invited Mr. Parker to speak at a conference last year -- says agencies are constantly complaining to her about mean comments. "You can't make it go away," said Ms. Hill. "Everybody complains about it, but everybody realizes that there's nothing you can do about it in this day and age."
Or do they?
True story: I had a conversation (OK, argument) in Cannes last month during which a chief creative officer of a prominent agency requested that Ad Age shut off its comments system. Yes, ditch the comments. I explained that in 2011 it seemed unthinkable to not engage our readers, that our site requires names and affiliation, and we reserve the right to remove personal attacks, as we did when a whip-smart female agency executive was attacked not long ago for an alleged penchant for "mom jeans."
Perhaps instead it's time agencies talked to their staff about growing thicker skin.
"I think a lot of people in advertising read this stuff and take it very personally, and you just can't," said Mr. Goodby. His biggest fear is that if people do let it get under their skin "the overall effect of it will be to make people not take chances in their work, make people not be brave to do things and if it does have that effect, it would be sad."
Some agency leaders have other suggestions. TBWA/Chiat/Day's Mr. Carroll thinks "the only way to deal with it is to ignore it." Mr. Ferdman would like to see a hazing of sorts. "Anonymity is the problem, and I think that anonymous comments should be pushed into a separate feed that says 'these are the cowards.' We should put them in their own detention of sorts, like in school, and they can all fight with each other and we can ignore it." He continued: "The people who are willing to really contribute and put down their names -- and if they are going to say their opinion and stand behind it -- we should read it and it could be valuable."
So go ahead, comment. And use your real name -- we dare you.