A few weeks ago, the leader of the Watford Advertising Course, Tony Cullingham, gave a stirring commencement speech to his graduating students. These speeches have become something of a thing – inspiration that culture latches onto for direction. Cullingham certainly didn't hold back addressing these graduates: "Advertising is rubbish. It's broken. Busted. Kaput. There are no standout agencies. No standout campaigns. No hot shops. No creative boutiques. There's no creative jealousy. The words 'I wish I'd done that' are words rarely uttered by writers and art directors these days."
Indeed, this has become part of the established narrative of advertising, in the wake of the defection of the global CCO of Grey to Apple. We hear that the talent isn't happy, and is being stolen away by technology and other cool types of companies.
But isn't the grass always greener? Aren't huge corporations even slower and more political environments than the battleships of advertising? Aren't engineers revered at the tech companies and lowly ad people just there to make things pretty and sell things back to their old colleagues? I thought I should find out in semi-proper journalistic manner.
So I asked someone, an agency lifer who had just taken the leap across the aisle, to a technology company. In the manner of anonymous corporate confessions since time immemorial, I simply asked my friend, "How is it, compared to agencies and that?" He furnished me with this brilliant analysis:
"I've found it astonishing how much more they value talent compared to the agency world – I felt quite appreciated at my agency, but that was a function of history at the company, I think. Here, even though I am a newcomer who hasn't made a huge impact yet, I feel incredibly valued by the organisation, in terms of compensation, perks, general transparency and sharing of information, etc., etc. Basically, I feel as valued as a newb as I did as an agency lifer. That's bonkers. I think this experience is probably not uncommon for people who move from agencies to the tech world where competition for employees can be really cut-throat.
"What's especially interesting, though, is that – despite the differences in actual results – the rhetoric agencies deploy about people is the same as many of the things tech companies say. Everyone loves to quote Leo Burnett – saying that the assets of the agency go down the elevator every night, but agencies don't really seem to act as though that's true: people are treated as replaceable, even when they're expected to output a creative product that's fundamentally not a mass-production process.
"Add that to the recent craze towards building proprietary processes, tools, networks, etc., and it seems as though the agency business is trying its hardest to minimise the impact of individual people and build their non-human assets.
"If I were to consider going back to the agency world, I would take a hard look at the rhetoric that prospective employer deployed about its approach to people. If you're a cynic, you might say that marketing involves a great deal of lying, but in my experience in the field, we marketers lie to ourselves the most. We are able to tell ourselves that things are successful when the evidence says they are not. We tell ourselves that things are breakthrough and game-changing when they are the same shit but this time in VR. We tell ourselves that we are saving the world when we are selling sugar water.
"I think we lie to ourselves about how much we value people in the ad agency world. Just look at the bumper crop of articles that accuse Millennials in advertising of being a bunch of shiftless ingrates. Does that sound like an industry that loves its people? Look at the Glassdoor reviews for the Adage A-List – not a single one of those companies cracks four stars. The army has four stars, and it occasionally sends people to their deaths! In-N-Out Burger has 4.3 stars, for jobs that are literally flipping burgers. Come on."
Is working at In-N-Out Burger better than working at any A-List advertising agency? According to a recent survey, 70% of agency people graded their shops as no better than satisfactory, with half reporting low or very low morale. Do you feel loved, or anxious for your job should the client leave the agency? Do you feel valued or is everything geared exclusively towards shareholder value? Perhaps agency leaders have not just forgotten Burnett's maxim, but also Ogilvy's: "Where people aren't having any fun, they seldom produce good work."