Defend Truth


The ad dysfunction

Mandy de Waal is a writer who reports on technology, corruption, science, the media and whatever else she finds interesting. She loves small stories and human narratives, and dislikes persistent evangelists, bad poetry and the insane logic that currently passes for political rhetoric. Back in journalism after spending time in the corridors of corporate greed, de Waal has written for Mail & Guardian, Noseweek, City Press, Rapport, MoneyWeb, Brandchannel (New York) and a number of other good titles. She now writes for The Daily Maverick because it’s the smart thing to do.

Are award shows breeding ego disorders or advertising effectiveness?

It is the morning after the night of the Loeries in an arbitrary hotel restaurant in inner city Cape Town. At a breakfast table, an alpha male advertising executive and a sycophantic client service stereotype sit opposite a wan and pale creative person who’s alternatively wringing his hands or clenching his arms firmly across his chest.

The last thing this journalist wants to witness is a public rebuking of this wretched creative talent, but the restaurant is small, the hour is early, the tables are wedged closely together and the alpha male is speaking in that loud “I don’t give a shit who hears me” manner people use when their narcissism is more pronounced than their intelligence.

Mr Alpha: “So what are you going to do about the type fonts for that tech print ad?”

Pathetic Creative Guy: “Um. Err. I was thinking of floating it near the top.”

Mr Alpha: “Jesus! You did that the last time and look where that got us. What now? Can’t you ever come up with anything new?”

Pathetic Creative Guy: “I was only saying… I will come up with something fresh.”

Mr Alpha: “That’s what you said the last time.”

Sycophantic Client Service Girl: “And you call yourself creeeehative!”

Mr Alpha looks at the TV screen airing news of the Loerie Awards: “Ja hey. What did you think of the BP campaign? It won quite a few awards.”

Pathetic Creative Guy: “I thought it was quite creative.”

Mr Alpha: “You would say that, I thought it was nothing more than a polished turd. But let’s talk about the *XXXXX campaign because they’re never going to get us legally on that one.”

And so the conversation continues between Mr Alpha (the Cape based creeeehative chairman of a global advertising agency), Pathetic Creative Guy (some poor sod who looks more like a simpering abused wife, battle-worn from emotional punches) and Sycophantic Client Service Girl who has her head so far up Mr Alpha’s ass that she can’t see that what they’re both doing is cruel and useless punishment.

The cruel part is obvious, but the useless bit speaks to the fact that Big Global Agency, the ad shop Mr Alpha hails from, is one of those staffed by well-fed white dinosaurs. You know the kind whose head honchos call themselves “corporate leaders” and stare out from carefully constructed black and white photographs on their “corporate” website with sneering smiles atop of titles that read “chief” this and “global” that.

Big Global Agency’s top dogs are all testosterone and uniformly white (save for a smattering of Tuscan tan), a theme that’s predominantly echoed throughout the company’s top global management structures. This appalling lack of diversity, together with the agency’s Humiliating Public Tactics For Incentivising & Motivating Creative Staff™ is partly why they’re likely go the same route as those terrestrial vertebrates who dominated the earth around the Triassic period.

The other big reason this agency should be looking out for asteroids that would obliterate them is because it has Trademarked Advertising Methodologies & Models for ROI™ illustrated with graphics. These Trademarked Advertising Methodologies & Models for ROI™ show how the agency  integrates customer intelligence, strategic planning, account management, media and creative around that one big idea that’s supposed to reach out, grab consumers and get them to Engage With The Brand™.

Well here’s a really massive idea for you Mr Alpha and the rest of Big Global Agency. It’s called The Internet™, Mobile™ & Social Networks™. These are really, really big ideas and are the reason why the golden statues your agency didn’t get many of at this year’s Loeries don’t matter all that much anymore.

MarkLives’ Herman Manson is right when he writes that ad award shows are waning in terms of influence. As Manson puts it, social networks have “put consumers firmly back on the agenda of brand managers, who wants agencies to forget about awards and stay focused instead on the strategic importance of the conversation that gets people engaged with a brand – and keeps them engaged”.

“The realisation that organisations need more honest, and thanks to the rise of social media, intimate, relationships with consumers, translated into the realisation that marketers needed more intimate relationships with their agencies. This back to ‘people basics’ continues to have a knock-on effect, as agencies are coming to realise the need for a more intimate relationship (as opposed to relations, stop sniggering) with their own people,” Manson writes.

But, Mr Alpha and Big Global Agency, if you’re planning on shooting the messenger, you’re going to need quite a few bullets because Manson isn’t the only one. That glass-half-empty writer from Ads Of The World questions what’s wrong with ad award shows.  He assigns fault to four main issues namely advertising effectiveness, the ego effect (which has nothing to do with a famous campaign for deodorants), and the high cost of entry. The other point he makes is about shamvertising, which as you know is about creating “creeeehative” adverts not for clients or consumers, but especially for awards shows.

Save the last bullet for Maria Popova who writes for Wired Magazine and The Atlantic. You’d probably think she’s glass all empty because she reckons award shows should be culled altogether.  Brace yourself Mr Alpha because the truth hurts, but once the dull throbbing dissipates it may deliver an epiphany that could save the likes of you from extinction.

“Ego is the single greatest obstacle to innovation, collaboration and progress,” Popova writes. “Because central to innovation is the admission that “the old way” no longer works, and central to progress is the idea that we don’t yet know all there is to know, that we are incompetent in important ways that create room for failure, change and learning. Unfortunately, much of the creative industry — design and advertising in particular, but also photography, literature, the art world — has become an industry of ego.”

Ouch! But let’s get back to the breakfast table, shall we? There are only two plausible reasons why you were kicking your creative man in the gonads this morning. The first is that you are a bit of a psychopath. Not quite the murderous type Hollywood’s so fond of who hunts people, chops them up and stores their livers in the freezer until there are some fava beans and a nice vintage of Chianti in the house. Here we’re talking socialised psychopaths that bizarrely do well in business.

Apparently there are quite a few of them out there and New York psychologist Paul Babiak reckons the number could be as high as 25% of business leaders. If we take Babiak’s research to be true, this could mean that one or more of the five Top Global Chief Leaders™ of Big Global Agency may be marginally psychopathic too.

But let’s give you the benefit of the doubt. Let’s say your clients have got your goodies in a vice, you’re passing the pain along and don’t get any pleasure out of repeatedly smacking your creative minion in the metaphorical sense. Problem is, Mr Alpha, regardless of the reason, what you’re doing is useless. No matter how many times or how cruelly you emotionally abuse your creative staffer, he’s not going to produce the goods.

Anyone who understands the basic vagaries of how the mind works will know that fear produces a fight-or-flight response which inhibits higher brain function. So when you repeatedly humiliate this man in public, all you’re likely to get is base brain stem function and none of that lovely higher minded creative stuff.

Lastly no matter how badly he wants to please you, because he’s probably got a bond to pay or kids to support and that’s why he’s taking the punch-drunk love, he can’t please you. Smart type fonts, original placements thereof, and even award winning ideas aren’t bringing home the ROI bacon anymore.

Popova put it like this: “Awards are awful. Awards breed ego, create false meritocracies and ultimately stymie innovation at every step of the award-granting process… The output of this flawed and incomplete system of evaluation becomes the currency designers flash at prospective clients and use to bargain their billing rates. It makes clients lazy and designers complacent. Lazy because it creates a cheat sheet for judging the merit of a designer or studio, making the client uninterested in actual inquiry into the process, work and product of smaller studios and emerging designers who may actually have a better, fresher solution to the client’s problem than the award-encrusted top-biller. Complacent because it’s easy to buy into your own brilliance when you spend your days sitting across a shelf full of awards in your posh office. And between laziness and complacency, the whole marketplace for design becomes a self-contained universe isolated from the bigger cultural context in which it lives and from the human lives it touches.”

I’m going to put that in much shorter and simpler language Mr Alpha, so it is easier for you to understand. If you cannot even treat the people closest to you like human beings, what chance in hell do you have of reaching sceptical consumers who are hyper-connected, tired of advertising and want to engage in caring, meaningful and authentic conversations? DM

*Editor’s note – The brand for this campaign has been omitted to spare “Pathetic Creative Guy” any further undue emotional pain or humiliation.

Read more:

  • The Waning Influence of Ad Award Shows by Herman Manson at MarkLives;
  • Death to Design Awards by Maria Popova at Design Observer;
  • One in 25 business leaders may be a psychopath, study finds.

Please peer review 3 community comments before your comment can be posted

MavericKids vol 3

How can a child learn to read if they don't have a book?

81% of South African children aged 10 can't read for meaning. You can help by pre-ordering a copy of MavericKids.

For every copy sold we will donate a copy to Gift of The Givers for children in need of reading support.