What’s wrong with Ad Industry?

Posted by Opinion desk on 21 Jun, 2012 / Features

by Jono Shubitz, Founder of OFYT

Looking back at my years in advertising, the business I started out in in 1980 was a lot different to the industry I see today. In the beginning it was about the work. Now it seems to   much more about the money, especially in the big multi-nationals. Yet it really has to be about the work doesn’t it, or what’s the point?   

The problem isn’t difficult to pin down. The ad industry is a reflection of everything else that’s gone wrong in the world.  Monopolization, central control, and greed. The buck, above all else.  I generalise, of course. But it’s undeniable that there’s a massive squeeze being put on agency bottom lines today and it’s not really coming from clients.  It’s the owners. 

The multinationals now control about 70% of the world ad industry. They’ve swallowed up agencies, design companies, strategy shops and research co’s and they’re bullying the life out of them.  

To do great advertising you have to invest in people and time. To make more profit you have to squeeze people and cut time. Young people in the business are working 12 hour days and weekends.  It’s become a sweatshop industry, and that’s problematic.  Our business has gone from being “the most fun you can have with your pants on” (thanks Jerry Della Femina), to being about some fun you thought you might have, or maybe will have some day, but hey, don’t bother me now, I’m too busy.   

No-one is happy!  That’s a lie. The bean counters are, and, of course, the bosses are as they pocket their multi-million pound bonuses, because that’s where SA profits end up. Our industry is run by accountants and owned by accumulators.  This inventive, magical business is owned and managed by the same mindset that gave us Wall Street.    

As the cash leaves, there’s little reinvestment in the local industry or in local people.  It’s the independents and smaller shops who can, and do, make a difference in developing talent. 

The internationalisation of brands is another problem. With brand planning sitting somewhere ‘at the centre’, almost exactly the same work runs in vastly different markets.  Just change the model and VO.  But is Joburg Chicago?  What makes for great advertising are insights that come from right here, and resonate with our very unique audiences.  

The third multinational blight is a colonization of local creatives’ thinking.  Where’s the great indigenous work?  Much of the supposedly great work we see today is completely Eurocentric, designed primarily to win awards in London and Cannes.  Many good creatives have left SA on the basis of this kind of work.  It’s a ticket up the network ladder. About today’s award circus, I can’t help but agree with the head of a new agency who wrote to me recently: “Advertising has always been about the power of the relevant big idea. This has been largely forgotten over the past decade as the dogged pursuit of tinsel has superseded any real focus on how the work works for the client.”  He shall remain unnamed. 

We need to get back to doing great South African advertising.  They do it in Sweden and Brazil, but here, not so much. We need to decolonise our thinking. We need to stop doing work for our mates to enjoy. We need to stop thinking about an award first, and the real job, building a great brand, second.  That’s never going to produce truly great advertising.  

Will the greed decade end soon and be well and truly over?  And will agencies stop chasing the buck and be fully focused again on doing great work that works hard for clients?  Maybe a couple of Wall Street bankers need to be strung up first.  To all of the above, here’s hoping.

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