Has advertising gone the way of Cosa Nostra?

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I was told this story by a friend who was there to witness it. Given the subject, you'll understand I can't reveal his identity.

Several years ago, at a secret location in Little Italy, the heads of the five big Mafia families got together for what they call a "sit down." After business was concluded and the espresso was served, John Gotti, head of the Gambino family, clinked a glass to get everyone's attention.

With the room silent and unsure what to expect, Gotti announced that his son, John Jr., had just become a "made man," a Mafia man for life. He was enormously proud of his son's accomplishment, and wanted his rivals to know that his family would be in good hands for the foreseeable future.

The four other family heads didn't congratulate him with hugs and kisses, as you might have expected. Instead, they stared in complete silence. "Johnny," one finally said, "you're letting your boy go into the business? You gotta be nuts."

I was reminded of the story when my daughter, a sophomore in college, recently asked what I thought of her going into advertising. Is it a business I'd like her to go into, or has it gone the way of the Mafia? Has it become too hard, too unfulfilling, too dangerous for a truly creative person?

I have to admit, sometimes I'm not sure. Recently I heard a creative director question where all the bright, crazy people have gone, the people who were hard to pigeonhole. "There used to be a lot of really smart, wacky people," he said. "Now, it's a C-student business."

OK, he was a little depressed. But agency execs sure seem a lot safer and saner than they used to. Clients have become so conservative, testing so ubiquitous, and talent so scarce that one sometimes wonders if the business is creative at all. And then there's the reported death of the 30-second spot, long the staple creative product.

Yet deep down I still know I wouldn't trade my job in for anything, so I started thinking about what I should say to my daughter.

First, I realized, I want to tell her not to be discouraged by bad advertising. It is tempting to ask why the quality of our product is important anymore, when test scores and media-owner research often seem to suggest bad creative works. If it doesn't matter about laughs or goosebumps perhaps advertising is a commodity business that doesn't need truly creative people, right?

Wrong. Creative minds only appear not to matter because much of the time we measure our work with the wrong ruler. We work too often in single digits. We have been lulled into the security of incremental growth. Being "on plan," putting up "predictable results" and "managing decline" pass for success. We're satisfied throwing a pebble in the pond and with the tiny ripples it produces.

But that shouldn't discourage the best, because the best make something remarkable happen. They create an idea so big it explodes with originality, touches a nerve or stirs a powerful emotion. An idea so big that the world grabs on to it and won't let go. These transformational ideas are stones that make waves. They produce not incremental, inch-wise results but exponential leaps that are measured in miles and billions. Whole businesses, brands, products and careers are transformed overnight. And suddenly, business as usual and results as usual seem like failures by comparison.


Mary Wells, legendary founder of Wells, Rich, Greene, probably threw more stones than anyone. In her recent book, "A Big Life," she says, "I wanted a heroic agency. I dared everybody to be bold, to be thrilling, and I dared our clients to be bold and thrilling. Our goal was to have big breakthrough ideas, not just to do good advertising. I wanted to create miracles."

And she was miraculous. For Benson & Hedges she created "a silly, millimeter longer;" for Sure Deodorant "raise your hand if you're sure"; for Alka-Seltzer "plop, plop, fizz, fizz, oh what a relief it is." She created "I love NY" and perhaps most outrageous of all, for Braniff, she was the first person ever to paint a plane. The sheer popularity and talk-value of these ideas expanded the value of media spent on them geometrically.

My agency's "Priceless" MasterCard campaign created waves. In the six years it has been running, total dollars charged on MasterCards have doubled to $1.2 trillion. Market share has almost doubled to 44%. And Citibank, the world's largest bank, only issues MasterCards. "Priceless" has transformed our Agency. It now runs in 96 countries. It is one of our largest clients. And a day doesn't go by that some client or prospect doesn't ask us for "their Mastercard."

Truly famous work-work that creates exponential results-is harder than ever. But, in a world of cynicism, media fragmentation and indistinguishable products, it is more valuable than ever and success in that world is more rewarding than ever.

But knowing my daughter, a typical advertising and marketing-suspicious 20-year-old who hates being tricked or over-sold, she'd roll her eyes and tell me that commercials are "so over." To that I say to her: Forget TV.

There are more ways than ever to put your creativity to use. Think about the Internet: 24% of Internet users have decreased TV viewing; 58% of broadband users spend more time online than watching TV. No wonder some of the best and most original creative work is on the Web. It's where the people are.

Today, there's practically no excuse for not trying new things. After all, there are few rules. Films can be any length. Networks can't censor what you say. Consumers can interact or even create your message. Video games promote real-world products; sponsorship is taking the Broadway stage by storm; experiential marketing is taking flight; product placement has been reborn in hundreds of exciting ways. Even the old "cause marketing" looks incredibly sexy-witness Red, the organization formed by Bono to raise money from the private sector to fight AIDS in Africa.

new ways to change minds

Wow. I mean, what creative person wouldn't love that business? It's no longer just about getting creative with one or two media, it's about using every medium out there, every thing out there. About thinking up whole new methods to change minds.

But what of our unpopularity with consumers, and their efforts to avoid our efforts? After all, a recent U.S. survey of regular TV viewers found that 64% seek out ways to skip commercials. Well, that's an exciting challenge, too. It tells us we have not done enough to make our product enjoyable to make it bigger and better. As Bill Bernbach said: "All of us who professionally use the mass media are the shapers of society. We can vulgarize that society. We can brutalize it. Or we can help lift it onto a higher level."

Not that my daughter should confuse this business with movie-making or story-writing. In our business we sell stuff. "If it doesn't sell," said one of the great salesmen of all time, David Ogilvy, "it's not creative." And the day of reckoning has come. Today advertising has to be enjoyable enough that the consumer doesn't zap it-and still smart enough to sell.

I would tell my daughter Olivia, and any other bright, ambitious young person, that our business needs them more than ever. We need their brains, their sparkle, their talent. And in return they'll get a stage, a blank piece of paper and a chance to make a difference. No tie required.

So, it turns out the Mafia dons were right about their business. It is kind of over. John Gotti is dead. And his son, John Jr., is in jail for life. But all is not lost for the family. It seems his daughter, Victoria, chose a different line of work. She's using her talents to create a TV show, a perfume, a magazine, a Web site and, yes, a brand. I'm sure her father never dreamed she'd go into that business.

Jonathan Cranin ...is worldwide creative director of McCann Worldgroup. This piece is an adaptation of a speech he made recently at the

19 Semana Internacional da Criacao Publicitária in Brazil.

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