Maybe this is just a harmless quirk of the business, kind of like Jerry Della Femina. But it seems to me that the tendency to view advertising as a pit stop on the road to Hollywood is more prevalent than ever these days. And I think it may be damaging our industry in a number of ways. It would be one thing if our own industry were producing an abundance of great creative work-that would mean we had enough talent and energy to spare for pursuing Hollywood dreams. But the reality is that we're producing a very small amount of good work in our own business today. There's a shortage of talent. And perhaps a shortage of commitment, as well.
The fact is, to make brilliant advertising requires tremendous application and effort. It's not a 9 to 5 job. Great advertising happens when a person-or, ideally, an entire creative department-cares about nothing other than doing good work. That must be the ultimate goal, the mission. But is the creation of great advertising truly the mission of a would-be screenwriter? On the contrary, an aspiring screenwriter's goal is to get out of the ad business, not to improve it. The mission, ultimately, is Hollywood; anything else is secondary. In such cases it's logical to assume that the ad work is going to suffer. Some of these people may be talented enough to still produce competent work in spite of their "day job" attitude and their tendency to fly out the door at 5 sharp. But they probably won't be willing to go the extra mile necessary to produce great work.
Ithink the problem also extends beyond the actual work that is produced, and begins to affect the whole karma of the ad business. The tendency to view our own profession as a second-rate occupation-one that is somehow less worthwhile than moviemaking-can tarnish the image of our industry in the eyes of clients, and can hurt the morale of aspiring creatives. Simply, we should be seen as first-rate professionals, doing something that is just as valid and demanding as making a film. So why does that sense of pride in craft seem to be missing among so many in advertising? The problem is bound up in perceptions of the ad business within this country. As someone who came over here from England, I can tell you that it's a uniquely American problem. Certainly you'll find the occasional person at a British ad agency who might be writing a novel on the side, but they tend to consider themselves first and foremost advertising professionals. They take pride in that.
But here, the ad business is more often perceived as one with low integrity, where agencies are puppets to clients-so why bother trying to do something special? That kind of negative thinking about the business has become even more pervasive in the past few years as the business climate has gotten tougher. It's become perhaps harder than ever to do great work and sell it to worried clients, and the reality is that good ads do get blanded down, and great ideas get diluted. And as a result, I think ad people increasingly get frustrated and say, "Well, screw advertising-this is not my main goal anyway. I'm a screenwriter."
I think this attitude was initially more common among film directors than writers; for years, many directors have viewed commercials as a way to make money on the side. (The idea that commercials are declasse still persists among directors in spite of the accomplishments of people like Joe Pytka-who has clearly demonstrated that shooting commercials can be an art form as dramatic as a Scorsese film.)
Somewhere along the line, that kind of thinking spread to copywriters-some of whom now see their advertising job as something akin t being a waiter while they write their screenplays. And the screenplays aren't hidden in the bottom drawer anymore-people talk openly about them. In fact, there's a growing sense within some agency creative departments that if you're not working on a screenplay, you're a nobody.
And this is the point at which the whole thing becomes harmful to the morale of an agency. Because when some people within an agency are not totally committed to the work, it sends the wrong signal to others within that agency. That's why, on more than one occasion, I've confronted people at my agency and asked them to make a choice. If you're serious about your screenplay, I tell them, go get a job in a lousy agency where they don't care about the ads they make; you'll get paid well, and have time and energy left over to write films. Or go wait tables and be a starving artist. Either way, get out.
That may seem a bit harsh, but as an industry we've been too tolerant of talented people with Hollywood ambitions. We say to these people, "Stick around, we'll keep paying you while you peddle your screenplay." We rationalize it by saying to ourselves, "Hey, they've got talent-and besides, what they do in their own time is their business." But all of that leads to mediocrity.
I don't hold it against people who leave advertising and try to make it in films. On the contrary, I admire those people, because they had the guts to make the choice. I find it interesting, though, that those people sometimes end up coming back to advertising pretty quickly. I think they discover that it's tough to be creative anywhere. They find out that movies are products, too-and that most of them are researched to death, with endings rewritten to please test audiences.
And maybe, by the time they return, they also begin to see that advertising, if done well, can be a satisfying reward unto itself. In its own way, it can become a kind of folk art that shows how we're talking to each other in the current culture. And it can even do some good, if we apply our skills and our craft to various nonprofit causes. Considering all of that, there's really no need to feel that the path to fulfillment leads to Hollywood. But if you do feel that way, then I say, Go and pursue your passion. And leave the rest of us here to pursue ours.u
This piece originally appeared in One-to-One, the newsletter of The One Club.