I just wanted to write a quick follow-up on my post about leaving the ad industry. I wrote the post quickly last Thursday evening, and on Friday I left for a long weekend out of town with limited internet access. When I came back on Monday afternoon - all I can say is wow. Apparently the subject matter really resonated with people, because this is by far the most interaction I’ve ever had with a post I’ve written.
Some quick stats (as of 6/19 4:51pm EST):
- The post received 1,829 unique page views, with the average viewer spending 5:22 on the page
- On Tumblr, 28 people liked the post, 8 reblogged it, and 14 commented (of these, 3 were negative)
- 125 people tweeted about the post (interestingly, all the Twitter feedback was positive)
- There was also lots of discussion on Facebook, with 21 total comments on my original post as well as that of a few people who reposted the article
As you can see from above, the vast majority of the feedback I’ve received was positive. However, a few of the negative comments raised some valid points I wanted to acknowledge.
On creative departments - A lot of people speculated that my criticism was based on bad experiences working with creative individuals, which isn’t the case. I’ve been fortunate to have a great working relationship with many AD/CWs, at Grey and elsewhere. My criticism was not of individuals or personalities, but of a structure - a structure that, I believe, makes good work harder for non-“Creatives” and “Creatives” alike.
Digital creativity comes from many roles: user experience, design, marketing, strategy, community management, technology, and, yes - art direction and copywriting. Taking two of those functions and slapping the label “Creative” on them while taking that label off everyone else just makes no sense. Creativity is bigger than images and words, and it should be everyone’s job.
- On making things - One person mentioned that at the end of the day, creatives are the ones making the work, which is why they should have more say than anyone else. In my opinion, this doesn’t hold water. A community manager is the one “making the work” for day-to-day social interactions. A developer is the one “making the work” for websites. And, while we’re at it, a director is the one “making the work” for TV commercials. Hands-on means a lot, but collaboration means more.
- On giving up - Someone mentioned that I was in a position to make a change and that I gave up. That’s actually fair. Work isn’t everything - we have to think about our personal sanity as well, which is why leaving advertising is the right decision for me.
If I were to take one thing away from this whole experience, it’s that a lot of people are feeling discomfort with the way the advertising industry currently works, and that the issue deserves further discussion.
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.
There’s a strange undertone at many of the advertising-related SXSW panels this year. The past few years have involved discussions of Twitter, platforms, transmedia, etc. This year there’s still a lot of that, but it feels like a fundamental misunderstanding of the real issues.
Communication has changed, media has changed, and yet advertisers are still living in the agency-client model that has been consistent for the past 50 years. I don’t think that hiring a social media expert, or creating a new department, or using a few new shiny tools is going to get us far enough.
I don’t have a solution. But the situation for advertisers in 2011 is starting to remind me a lot of the music industry in 2001. There’s a sea change coming, and I worry that all the little changes we’re making are blinding us to exactly how huge it is.
Over the past few months, if you’ve hung out with me (especially if I’ve had a few glasses of wine), you may have heard me begin to wax idiotic about something called 4chan. Rather than continuing to bore my drinking companions, I thought I’d record what it is I’ve been raving about in a more coherent manner.
For those of you who are unaware, 4chan (very, very NSFW) is an online image board with two unusual features: first, it is almost entirely anonymous, and second, posts are not archived, meaning that there is no permanent record of the behavior on the site. Its extremely fast-paced, foul, and transient nature have made it a hotbed of creativity - if you don’t mind scrolling through pages of racist, homophobic, sexist, idiotic humor. In fact, 4chan is single-handedly responsible for almost every major internet meme that has become popular in the past 7 years. If you’ve ever laughed a lolcat, you have 4chan to thank.
4chan is ground zero of a new generation of hackers – those who are bent on hacking the attention economy… these attention hackers are highlighting how manipulatable information flows are. They are showing that Top 100 lists can be gamed and that entertaining content can reach mass popularity without having any commercial intentions (regardless of whether or not someone decided to commercialize it on the other side). Their antics force people to think about status and power and they encourage folks to laugh at anything that takes itself too seriously.
In many ways, the accelerated, anything goes atmosphere of 4chan is an amplified version of modern online media. Advertisers often complain that it is getting more and more difficult to attract attention in a world in which consumers are constantly inundated with information, and even when something does manage to break through the clutter, its effects are temporary at best.
Users of 4chan - otherwise known as /b/tards - deal with the challenge of limited attention and unlimited information in a few ways:
- Repetition - check out 4chan a handful of times, and you’ll begin to see the same jokes, stories, and pictures repeated ad nauseum. This repetition establishes the shared culture that is 4chan by ensuring that as many people as possible experience the same messages.
- Insider jokes - A side effect of all the repetition is the creation of insider humor, in which users impress one another by referencing older or obscure messages in creative ways. Again, this is part of establishing a shared culture and common language.
- Extremes - This is where the offensive stuff comes in. Pornography, gore, racism, etc. are used so extensively to gain attention on 4chan that they’ve almost ceased to have an effect on regular visitors.
- Humor - A good joke always gains attention. Repeating the joke doesn’t diminish it, until the 100th repetition or so.
Interestingly enough, these tactics are very similar to those commonly employed by marketers. To me, 4chan is all about watching a disorganized community struggle to gain a voice in the face of unlimited chatter. Advertisers will have to continue to keep up with these skills if they want to have an impact in today’s media environment.