Then We Really Came To The End:
On Andrew Essex's
"The End of Advertising"
MARCO KAYE / WNW MEMBER
What is advertising when there’s no more advertising to be found? Now that ad blocking software zaps banner ads. Now that cord cutting has killed the 30-second spot. What are traditional concepts, anyway, in the face of DJ Khaled posting a story on Instagram about Weight Watchers? Who can generate more memes, a VCU-graduate or or a brand manager at an in-house studio? What’s left now that the whole house of cards has been blown down?
All our traditional tools are broken, undoubtedly for the best. If the ad industry had been in a state of panic some years ago, we are now in a state of post-panic. The medium has completely changed, that isn’t news. What remains uncertain is how to function in the aftermath. How will creatives do what we love to do? And how will agencies make money doing it?
Andrew Essex, former CEO of Droga5, has some ideas in his book The End of Advertising: Why It Had to Die, And the Creative Resurrection to Come. Some, but not enough. And the ideas are, as we’ll see, problematic.
I haven’t heard many creatives talk about this book, and they should. Not because of the writing, which gets repetitive, but because it’s the only work I’ve seen that begins to address the end of our industry. While it’s a short tract, seemingly tailored for a “global marketer” on a drowsy cross-country flight, the book could be much shorter. The first section concerns the rise of ad blocking software. (Essex rants so much about ad blocking, you kind of want to, well…) He warns of changing viewing habits, about the last bastion of broadcast commercials, the NFL and other live sports. Though we’ve heard some of this before, Essex does a cogent job of collecting the industry’s downfall into one tidy package. It’s “over,” Essex writes. “I come not to praise [advertising]…but to bury it.”
Which is about when he gets around to the creative resurrection of the subtitle. “Smart marketers are increasingly embracing the idea that they can no longer just say, they must do.” According to Essex, doing looks like Citi Bike, The Lego Movie, and American Doll Stores. “What if Pfizer took a chunk of the money it spends on unpleasant direct-to-consumer advertising…and fixed the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway instead? The opportunities are limitless.”
I read these words during New Jersey Transit’s “Summer of Hell,” and became entranced by the author’s call to fix our aging infrastructure, rather than punch up already bruised jokes in yet another 30-second spot.
But then I became concerned. First from a purely practical standpoint. To use an easy example, what about the Verizon Montclair-Boonton line? The fastest of the fleet, with WiFi even in tunnels. What’s an agency’s role in this? Let alone the creative department? Don’t get me wrong, I want non-traditional advertising; I champion it at work, and have won awards for it. But in Essex’s crystal ball, I’m not sure where writers and art directors fit into the picture. Commenting on Citi Bike, Essex concedes that it “couldn’t have been easy to push such a program up what was surely a Sisyphean mountain of bureaucracy and orthodoxy.” In order to sell the steak, not the sizzle—a reversal of advertising’s traditional role—an agency needs to be able to breed better meat. This goes beyond altering briefs and media plans. We need stronger congressional contacts. I’m worried many in our industry simply don’t have the patience to push Sisyphean boulders up bureaucratic hills, myself included.
Second, I remembered that Oscar-winning short film, Logorama, which drops viewers into an all-branded universe (and doesn’t even look all that different from our own). Would we even want a branded BQE?
My feelings were validated when I read Troy Patterson’s post-Super Bowl commercial roundup on The New Yorker’s “On Television” blog. “I worry that these ads are harbingers of a global corporate state where all emergency services and public works will be underwritten by Bud Light Lime-a-Rita.” Patterson was writing about altruistic spots for Stella Artois and a clean water initiative, but he could have easily been talking about, as Essex proposes, a “Pfizer branded ferry.”
One of Essex’s more approachable examples of advertising’s future is The Lego Movie, “…a good movie, about a brand, brought to you by that brand.” Agreed. Sounds like a lot of fun. But again, I’m left wondering if feature-length film development is in an agency’s playbook. Aren’t movie studios struggling to do exactly that? Drafting a compelling story can take years—study the man hours Pixar puts behind its work. Is an agency ready for this kind of investment? When a creative director recently asked me what his agency could do to create compelling stories, I said that the one thing we need is time. And dedicated time to truly spend on craft is in short supply. Sure, speed can work for the “bite-sized content” that passes for most entertainment nowadays. But The Lego Movie is certainly not that, and agencies—along with the copywriters who’ve skimmed Robert McKee’s Story—would need to draw upon greater empathetic resources than I’ve frequently seen.
Too often, an ad agency opening a content studio amounts to little more than a press release. I call upon our creative leaders to be more thoughtful, and way less antsy, when it comes to long-form storytelling. In this business, short attention spans seem a feature, not a bug. “Recognize that great ideas are rarely produced by committee and almost never flourish under fluorescent light,” Essex writes in the book’s coda: “Ten Principles for Better Advertising.” As yet another agency committee gathers under fluorescent light to reevaluate the super urgent rebrand to solve the latest category crisis, I see a whole raft of billable hours combust into nothing. We weren’t solving the right problem to begin with. The medium has changed, but agencies haven’t changed enough.
Illustration by WNW Member Scott Balmer