Why I Left Advertising

Recently, I made the decision to leave advertising behind, at least temporarily. Yesterday was my last day at Grey.

I come from a digital product design background. Three years ago, I decided to move into the ad world. I really liked being surrounded by creative people and working across different industries, and I thought that there was an opportunity to do great digital work from within the big agency structure. I figured that big agencies had the client relationships, money, and desire to make good work happen.

For me, this just didn’t happen. There are many talented, lovely people in the agency world, and I’m sure many of them have had different experiences. But for me the grand advertising experiment didn’t work.

I’ve thought a lot about the reasons why it didn’t work, and I’ve come down to the following key issues:

  • Artificial distinctions between “creative” and “strategy” - It is impossible to do any work that’s not push messaging in the capital-C creative culture of agencies today. There is a lot of expertise in creative departments, but the art director/copywriter model just isn’t suited to think through four-dimensional ideas. Everyone does lip service to the idea of collaboration, but ultimately creative wins on anything remotely related to ideas. Advertising is the only industry that has a role called “Creative” - in the digital world, everyone is expected to be creative, just as they’re expected to be strategic. Naturally, different areas of expertise emerge, but in my experiment a department called “creative” shuts down collaboration at the start. 
  • Antiquated business models - Because of the way that client budgets are structured, ad agencies are slaves to old models of payment that were created to support TV/print production. It’s impossible to create a robust owned platform when you’re paid on media commission. Most of the money in the industry still follows media, not owned/earned - and media remains incredibly disconnected from idea generation.
  • Fear - People who work in advertising are scared. Digital is no longer something that you can shrug off - especially now that technological ideas have started winning Cannes Lions. But that fear creates a culture of land grabbing rather than collaboration. When everyone’s attention is on digital, doing simple tasks can become highly political. Simply put, people who are afraid for their job security aren’t nice. 

If this post sounds bitter, that’s not the intention. Every business has problems, and most industries are evolving in the digital revolution. However, for the time being, I’ve found that advertising isn’t conducive to my personal career goals, which are: make good shit, change how people engage with technology, and work with awesome people. 

UPDATE 6/19: I responded to some of the feedback I received on this post here