Mike Fromowitz
May 26, 2012

Invasion of the bean counters-why the fun is disappearing

When I started out in the ad agency business, ad agencies were never run by “businesspeople”  or "bean counters" but by admen who just did it because they were creative, and because they were able ...

Invasion of the bean counters-why the fun is disappearing

When I started out in the ad agency business, ad agencies were never run by “businesspeople”  or "bean counters" but by admen who just did it because they were creative, and because they were able to.  Most would tell you they couldn't read a Balance Sheet. But they sure knew how to advertise.

What happened to advertising since?  From where I sit, it looks like the bean counters have taken over again, much like they did in the early 1980‘s and after the tech crises in 2000, and they are acquiring as many digital and local start-ups agencies as they can to boost their profit line.

The business formerly run by admen, is now run by groups whose concern is share price rather than output. Nobody makes stock market gains if you do good ads. But if you make some great number you do.

The major big agency groups see growth coming by acquisition, rather than organically. In other words, they buy the business, and buy the clients. Their road to success is no longer built on good advertising, but rather clever financial leveraging.

“A cynic”, said Oscar Wilde, “is someone who knows the price of everything and the value of nothing.” If Oscar is right, then there’s a whole bunch of cynics who are taken over our advertising profession.  One look around at all the commodity-like advertising agency output, and it’s easy to conclude that price has trumped value, and that, dare I say it,  quantity now counts for more than quality.

Agencies appear to be in the cycle of budget-driven dumbing down.  Every client, no matter how solid their agency relationship might be, is looking to improve their return on marketing investment.  When agencies turn to making budgets stretch as far as possible,  creativity is always the unavoidable victim.

Perhaps that is why so many ex-colleagues of mine are writing to me about wanting to leave their present ad agency, and some want to get out of the business altogether. Most tell me they are unhappy with the agency’s management, and that they are too bottom-line oriented and less interested in producing great work. Hearing from so many disenchanted people is enough to depress anyone.

Looks like the “fun” has gone out of advertising.

During the 1960’s, DDB and others which followed the “creative” path in advertising were often criticised for “excess” and “frivolity”. But the era gave rise to some of the greatest ad campaigns of all time. It also gave rise to the widespread introduction of self-expression in advertising.

Ads were not intrusions like they are today, but welcomed diversions. Many commercials on TV were more entertaining than the regular programming. Advertising looked every bit like a new art form.

Back then, the business drew all sorts of people to it: actors, comedians, starving artists and novelists. The agencies were not only creative then they made a lot of money too. Perhaps they had found the secret to creativity—simply that an agency that makes money can be happier than one that doesn’t. A happy agency produces better work.

Then came the 1970‘sand ads began to lose their personality and their flare. The humanity of advertising was being replaced by market reports and research statistics. Advertising became predictable, dull and simply boring. Creativity went into exile.

By the 1980’s profitability of ad agencies was not keeping pace with other industries. They had a hard time keeping up with rising costs. The 15% commission that agencies charged their clients was not enough to compensate for these rising costs—client budgets were stagnant.

To survive, the agencies had to grow bigger—merge, buy, provide more services, get that critical-mass. Everyone’s greed of the ‘80s turned into the disaster of the ‘90s. The bottom line became more important than the work.

Worst of all, advertising was no longer spawning visionaries. No more Bernbachs. No more Burnetts. No more Ogilvys.  Advertising’s new mega-weights were now at the mercy of the shareholders and the banks. At best, their passion for advertising was second rate passion because they became to busy building their own fortunes.

I’ll agree that there are some exceptions to the rule today, but for the most part advertising agencies have forgotten why the Bill Bernbachs, Leo Burnetts and David Ogilvys founded their agencies, namely to provide ideas; new, fresh, innovative, titillating, involving ideas that got people thinking. They treated people with respect and acknowledged that people were intelligent.

Today, everyone is afraid to fail. There has never been an era so replete with commodity-like advertising from commodity-driven clients. Fear. That’s what it is. Agency management and shaky client marketing executives all feel more comfortable when the boat’s not rocked, especially in these queasy economic times.

Advertising just isn’t fun anymore because advertising has allowed numbers experts and bottom-line practitioners to run roughshod over creative people. And uncreative minds are now trying to make creative decisions. There are too few creative leaders left at the top to inspire respect and a striving for excellence. And much of the work looks like it is being handled by unmotivated people looking for easy solutions and secure incomes.

Number crunching will always have a place in every profession, even advertising.  But in the world of advertising,  financial management has to be a discipline that records rather than defines what we do.  At the moment, things are going in the opposite direction.

Andy Lish,  an old and dear friend of mine (and an exceptional creative talent too) once said:  “The lunatics had left the agency and the accountants have taken over the asylum.” Agencies with great long track records have dissolved into being run by the financial guys. And unless ad agencies shift bottom-line thinking and get back to practicing what they preach on a daily basis, and bring back some senior creative people into highly-regarded positions, our industry will continue to produce more  boring and commoditized work.  We will continue to lose our best creative minds because the good ones can’t cope with bureaucracy and with bean-counters who have to answer to shareholders.

In a speech made on December 1, 1967, Leo Burnett told his staff when he would demand that his name be taken off the door:

“That will be the day when you spend more time trying to make money and less time making advertising; when you begin to compromise your integrity, which has always been the heart’s blood, the very guts of the agency; when your main interest becomes a matter of size just to be big, rather than good, hard, wonderful work; when you start giving lip-service to this being a ‘creative agency’ and stop really being one.”

When advertising giants like Bernbach, Burnett and Ogilvy visited their clients, the clients took out the fine bone china, served freshly baked scones and biscuits and listened. They believed theses famous admen had the magic dust in their pocket, which they could sprinkle on their product, and it would sell.

Back then, there was “respect” for the ad agency.

And now...

Mike Fromowitz



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