O Burtch Drake, president and chief executive of the American Association of Advertising Agencies, told the opening session of its annual Management Conference that 2001-02 was “a crummy year, a year a lot of us would like to forget.”

“And so say all of us,” came an unvoiced chorus of response from the three hundred delegates.

Retiring 4A chairman (and chief executive of FCB) Brendan Ryan agreed: “It is a tough time, no question about it.” But his concern also extended the deterioration of agency-client relationships.

“Candidly, I worry that respect for and in our industry is not very high these days,” said Ryan. Citing the trend toward shrinking compensation for agency services, he opined: “Clients are respecting what we provide them less and less and are certainly valuing it less and less.”

He also voiced his disquiet at the industry’s public image: “In a recent survey of the general public in Advertising Age, advertising professionals were rated well below lawyers, auto mechanics and, most appallingly, members of Congress. That's not good.”

He also touched on the relentless pressures from the money manipulation mafia [not Mr Ryan’s words], referring to “pressure for short-term earnings, pressure from being part of publicly traded companies … and the pressure clients are under from Wall Street to deliver instant results”.

But agencies themselves were responsible for the most serious loss of respect: “Our industry is shifting from friendly competition and mutual respect to reckless disregard for rivals,” he charged. “I'm not saying we stop competing with each other, to get business, keep business, get the best-talented people … [but] we need to be a bit more careful,” Ryan opined, in business and personal behavior.

He also focussed on the ethics of the pitching process, citing instances of account reviews where contestants are willing to sign agreements that “all rights to any ideas, any thinking, any anything become the property of the prospective client” in exchange for a nominal fee for such speculative creative work.

Ryan lightened the moment with a flash of humor: “To me, the ultimate insult is to be given a ‘tip’ of $5,000 to cover my expenses” - then promptly brought the house down by revealing the region of his anatomy to which he consigned that gratuity.

“I ask you, does McKinsey do this?” he rhetoricized. “Please. Davis & Gilbert? PricewaterhouseCoopers? I don't think so. I do all that because I need new business, but it's fundamentally flawed,” he continued. "Maybe if we had people getting together more, we could figure out a better way.”

His views were shared by most delegates, whose tenor was reflected by Briton John Farrell, president and chief executive at D'Arcy Masius Benton & Bowles in New York.

“This market is more aggressive and more competitive than any market in the world. There's an opportunity for us to make that competition the right kind of competition,” Farrell said before arriving at Catch 22. “It’s a challenge because the question is … who changes first?”

Data sourced from: New York Times; additional content by WARC staff