It’s fine to ridicule the ‘the old-guy syndrome’ – but advertising is in serious trouble

Creative people today are just as talented as ever and yet it is widely believed that advertising itself isn't as creative as it once was – Bob Hoffman looks into the causes of this nadir, as he sees it

The Golden State Warriors have been the best team in basketball, in the United States, for the past three years.

Two years ago they won the NBA championship. Last year they had the best won-loss record in the history of the league but lost the championship in the final game (their best player, Steph Curry, had three injuries; their centre, Andrew Bogut, was hurt and not able to play; and their heartbeat, Draymond Green, was suspended for a critical game.) This year they had the best record in the league and last night they won the championship again.

As a result, there are people who are proclaiming them one of the best basketball teams of all time.

But there are also a bunch of old players from years back – some of them great, some of them mediocre – who are mouthing-off saying their teams could have beaten the Warriors. They claim the Warriors are not really that good because the league is weaker or the players aren’t as talented, or the game isn’t as competitive as it was in the old days.

This is a familiar refrain among old athletes. They always think that players or teams were better ‘back in the day’ and that today’s players don’t match up. Of course, it’s all nonsense. But it doesn’t stop the old guys from blowing hot air.

Recently the coach of the Warriors, Steve Kerr, who was on six championship teams himself when he was a player, was asked to comment on the assertions of the old guy critics. His sardonic take down was brilliant.

“They’re all right. They would all kill us. The game gets worse as time goes on. Players are less talented than they used to be. The guys in the ’50s would’ve destroyed everybody. It’s weird how human evolution goes reverse in sports. Players get weaker, smaller, less skilled. I don’t know. I can’t explain it.”

Mr. Kerr’s ridicule of the ‘old-guy syndrome’ is easily supported empirically. Take a look at the results of Olympic Games over the years – where the performances are quantified – and it’s clear that athletes have better training, better nutrition, and better technique as time goes on. The result is that with regularity old records are broken and new records are set. It’s obvious that each Olympics contains some athletes who are the best ever at their sport.

Here’s where advertising comes in. Unlike sports, it’s hard to make a quantifiable case that creativity increases with time. You’d have to be a remarkably good debater to convince sensible people that Warhol was a better artist than da Vinci. Or that Taylor Swift is more musically gifted than Gershwin.

In creative matters, it’s usually more judicious to assume an evolution in tastes than an arrow of progress.

In the ad business we have our own ‘old-guy syndrome’. Many believe that ‘back in the day’ (when they were in the ad business) it was a ‘golden age’. As an old guy myself, I don’t have much patience for ‘golden age’ baloney. I believe that creative people today are just as talented as ever.

And yet, it is widely believed that advertising itself isn’t as creative as it once was. I do a lot of traveling around the world and I hear this all the time.

It doesn’t seem to be just the whining of old advertising guys (by the way, I’m not being sexist here. It’s almost always the guys who do the whining and for a long time the ad business was overwhelmingly a boys’ club.) It seems to be a widely held belief by non-advertising people, too. So what’s going on?

I have a few theories about this. First let’s start with the positive stuff.

For one thing, the technology of creativity today is stunning. Special effects we take for granted in spots today would have been astounding 15 years ago

Next, delivery systems are amazing. ‘TV everywhere’ delivered mainly through connected digital devices has made the web way more interesting and has given web-delivered materials far more avenues for creativity.

The same is true of ‘printed materials’. Digital technology has made out-of-home media a lot more noticeable and impactful.

But while the technological aspects of advertising today can be stunning, is technology really what we’re talking about when we talk about advertising creativity or is it ideas? I think there’s little doubt that it’s the latter.

So why should it be that with so many new media types, so much technological brilliance and so many talented creative people, we’re producing advertising that is widely believed to be inferior to past eras?

I have a few hypotheses. First is the ubiquity of online display advertising. It is not just the most annoying type of advertising we see, it is also the most inescapable. It leaves the false impression that advertising as a whole is relentlessly unimaginative.

Next is the nature of contemporary ad agencies. I guess there is no inexorable relationship between the size of agencies and the absence of quality. On the other hand, we have Jay Chiat who famously said: “We want to see how big we can get before we get bad.”

Holding company culture, as it currently exists, might prove Jay right. I think there are a lot of creative people who are not comfortable sitting at what Rich Siegel calls “the long table of mediocrity”. As a result, they are taking their talents to other industries.

Next is short-termism. Dashboards that show us instantaneous results are very addictive. But the kind of advertising that produces instantaneous results – the direct response type – has never been the kind of advertising people think of as creative. In fact, it has traditionally been thought of as among the least creative varieties.

Sir Martin Sorrell is reported to have said the medium is more important than the message

The stature of highly talented creative people has been diminished. Sir Martin Sorrell is reported to have said the medium is more important than the message.

Lastly, we have created a litany of false advertising goals with horrifyingly clichéd and fuzzy definitions like engagement, conversations, journeys, and storytelling. Highly creative people are skeptical of dreadful parameters like these and are resistant to working within them. While agency leaders can easily find plenty of compliant creatives to buy into this nonsense, it is probable that many of our most talented are not happy with this oppressively vapid terrain.

This could go two ways. First, and most likely, the big guys win. The focus on the false goals will continue and over time many of our best creatives will slowly ride off into the sunset.

The other possibility is that good creative people will take to the streets and try to explain to the brand masters that the true leverage in the advertising business resides in the power of exceptional ideas. It remains to be seen which way the agency business goes.

The problem is, while it would be comforting and convenient to attribute widespread dissatisfaction about the state of advertising to ‘old-guy syndrome’, it may be a little more serious than that.

Bob Hoffman has been the CEO of two independent agencies and is the author of the Ad Contrarian blog


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