(Screenshot: 'Mad Men' / AMC)
Imagine you've put yourself through the ringer to score a competitive job at an industry-leading advertising agency. This is your dream, it's what you've always wanted: a creative job, sure, but in the right circumstances a chance to change the world, and to wear jeans with a blazer a lot, and to be a couple of promotions away from a six-figure salary. Creative, but without the poverty. Here's how you got here: you went through three rounds of applications, passed multiple interviews, tests and presentations. And now, you've landed a role boasting the full buffet of benefits and big name clients. But not just this: you've been told the company is friendly, encourages proactivity and is ranked as one of the best in the UK for employee happiness.
Sadly, everyone is a dickhead and behaves like a dickhead and it's a dickhead industry built on a strong foundation of dickheadery.
So you see the problem. That was me, one year ago: bright-eyed and bushy tailed and marvelling at the fact there was a fridge full of free Diet Cokes (free!) in the office with me. Instead, I was plunged into a world beyond parody: airhead creatives, drugs, idea theft bordering on fraud and not an ounce of common sense to police it all. Sure, I expected the industry to have some bullshitty quirks – the industry is essentially monetised bullshit – but, you know, not quite this much bullshit.
Anyway, here's what I learned:
IF IT SOUNDS GOOD, THEN IT MUST BE GOOD
Ideas are the bedrock of the advertising industry, an industry that understand ideas are ethereal, hard to force, sort of shapeless, in need of free-thinking and the right space and time, need careful tending to, like orchids. Sadly, the industry is also absolutely bereft of them, so that doesn't matter at all.
It began with small things. I witnessed one of the most senior strategists take notes in a meeting on a napkin, despite having brought a notebook with him. We got company-wide emails featuring inspirational quotes from the famous boxer "Mohamed Alli". We had presentations that compared a brand's "viral content" to viral diseases, with people being "infected" by the "spreading epidemic" of their content (without so much as a hat tip to It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia).
I started to attend open brainstorms – which are, of course, heavy on bullshit by design – and my hopes weren't high, given what had come before. I was expecting maybe two or three good ideas per hour. Maybe four, on a good day.
There were no ideas. Zero. Instead, in their place came… well, whatever these are:
"The Underground, by its nature, is very hidden."
"When your ad isn't authentic, it feels fake."
"Through synergetic promotion, we can increase awareness."
This would all be fine if some of these inverse riddles didn't later become the basis for some pretty expensive actual ad campaigns.
KEEP YOUR COMPLEX THOUGHTS TO YOURSELF
In my first week I ran head on into one of the values the agency had identified and stuck to across the board: complex strategies were to be expressed only in the form of slides. The more pictures the better, and
So when I made the mistake of writing up a detailed competitor analysis into a Word document, I was told by my manager to "visualise" my research. I was told that the company liked to use only sophisticated tools, such as – and this is a direct quote – "PowerPoint".
IF YOU CHANGE THE BRAND NAME, IT'S NOT PLAGIARISM
As another regular feature of brainstorming sessions, senior staff would encourage us to gain inspiration from ideas from other brands. We would get "inspired" by watching an ad created by another agency, taking the key themes from that advertisement and parsing it down word by word to change it into something relevant to the brand we were working on. This happened at almost every brainstorm I attended.
For example, we were working on a popular biscuit brand that was trying to rebrand one of its most well-known, but often despised (think Marmite, but a biscuit) (actually: that idea is amazing?) products. In order to come up with a likeable campaign, lead agency creatives gathered us in a room to watch a single ad from Oreo, over and over again, and over, and again, then one more time, then over and over again, until the final product looked like we'd essentially put the ad through thesaurus.com.
Another time we were working on a pitch for a major car company and got our "inspiration" completely from Mercedes-Benz's 2014 campaign "Build Your Own Car On Instagram". We spent an entire meeting going down all of the possible routes you could take to get every combination of car, and directly applied it to the brand whose business we were competing for. The agency won that business, by the way.
NO MATTER YOUR BACKGROUND, AGE OR SKILL-SET, YOU TOO CAN BE AN ADVERTISER
Even with some maybe less-than-rigorous creative methods, the agency could have easily had some really sharp analytic minds in the form of client directors, those tasked with managing not just accounts and creative, but also budgets and data. My run-ins with client directors were, however, not hopeful. I once had an extended conversation – and I'm pretty sure this wasn't ever resolved – explaining to one that a -1 percent increase in sales year-on-year was an improvement on a -3 percent increase from the previous year. These same directors would regularly take contributions from brainstorms and stick them, unedited and undiscussed, into a multi-million pound ad campaign. The lesson is: with enough cockiness, a big enough mouth and enough entitlement, anyone can make it in the ad industry. The intellectual barrier to entry is exceptionally low.
IF NO ONE CAN PROVE YOU WRONG, IT'S NOT A LIE: OR, 'THE TAO OF BULLSHIT'
My time at the agency also featured regular inductions to each department, where the heads of each department would say what their department would contribute to a pitch. Although each section offered up their own skills and strengths, the one thing that was mentioned by every department without fail was:
"No, no, we don't just massage the numbers of our success rates – we make them up."
One department was particularly proud of a tool they'd developed, based on an algorithm created by the agency, which could enhance targeting in television advertising. The one small snag with this tool? It didn't exist. However, senior staff informed me that clients loved seeing the Photoshopped interface of the tool and the unbelievable results the agency had achieved with it, and that it really helped seal the deal with winning an account, so… was… there… really… any... need… to make it real?
YOU WILL GET ON GREAT IF YOU PRETEND IT'S THE 1960s
When hired for the position, one of the things I was most excited about was the company culture. The agency won awards every year for its employee happiness rates and was known for having some of the best benefits in the UK, not just in advertising. And I wanted some of those benefits.
Sadly, the day-to-day reality wasn't quite worth the company breakfast bar. What was discussed at work could be largely categorised into three topics: what happened at the last office piss-up (shagging; cocaine), which media owner they'd most recently done coke with at a lunch (cocaine; shagging), and graphic reruns of recent sexual escapades (a perfect Venn diagram of cocaine and shagging). Several company presentations added "banter" in the form of pictures of senior staff posing with strippers at clubs. My fellow colleagues often spent company time screeching at tweets their colleagues had sent asking female celebrities to "sit on my dick". And, when they got bored with that, they'd begin a heated debate about which nationalities were "best" when it came to hiring nannies and cleaners. I don't remember Don Draper ever yelling, "Fuck off! Italians SHIT on Poles!" But there you go.
AS LONG AS YOU CAN GET AWAY WITH IT, DO IT
Advertising – as you've probably guessed from the number of public outrage-causing campaigns in recent years, from Protein World to the Superbowl – is a land operating far outside the confines of PC. And no more was that so than around mid-November, when my department's Christmas party invitation came through.
The theme "Benefits Britain" was promoted by a flyer covered in tasteful images of Vicky Pollard encouraging the staff to participate, with the instruction: "DON'T JUST THINK CHAV – THIS IS AN OPPORTUNITY TO THINK OUTSIDE THE BOX!!"
When I quietly suggested this was perhaps unwise – even if only from a business perspective, given some of our clients were non-profits on government contracts – I was met with hysterical derision. A discussion that started with "how would this even get out?" naturally morphed into the "it's PC-gone-mad" echo chamber, and was finally brought to a close with an open-ended question: "Is blacking up even that bad?" Yes, blacking up is bad. As is going to your Christmas party in ironic Burberry and smashing a champagne bottle open with sovereign ring.
So would I recommend the advertising industry to anyone? Yes and no. On one hand: no. On the other hand: no; it's still no. When you dive into it headfirst and deal with the people there every day, and bang your head repeatedly up against a creatively bereft wall, and make the same advert (diverse set of children slowly open their eyes in close-up to the camera; haunting single note version of a formerly popular song; bourbon-and-smoke voiced narrator; Honda Civic driving off gleaming into the sunset) over and over again, you realise: that's why there's so much cocaine and shagging in this industry. It's the only way to cope. Anyway, I work in Communications now. It's much nicer.