The funeral was on Monday. There was a casket and gospel singers; the eulogists were dressed in black. Their task was to give the cold corpse of advertising a respectful final send-off. Even the legendary Bill Bernbach, David Ogilvy, J Walter Thompson and Leo Burnett turned up (on film).
Except that when Bernbach appeared on a giant screen to insist that advertising was far from dead, the casket laid at the altar was thrown open and found to be empty. Phew. Cue much rejoicing from the ad agency congregation and the choir bursting into song: "Oh happy day."
As a stunt, trying to bury advertising was an interesting way to kick off New York’s Advertising Week. The memorial service was staged by JWT and designed to underline advertising’s continued robustness. It certainly seems to have focused people’s minds on how carelessly the industry propounds speculation of its own demise; even those who rely upon the ad business to pay their mortgages relish picking over stories of its decline in the rush to be seen to be progressive. The real message was that advertising isn’t dead, but it is reshaping; the centuries-old narrative, interruptive model still endures, now alongside personal, interactive, invited, useful communications. And that sounds pretty healthy.
But the memorial service ("In Loving Memory of Advertising") also served as a warning, a stark illustration of what could happen if the industry doesn’t keep changing and adapting to social and technology shifts.
Charlotte Beers, the former chief executive of Ogilvy & Mather, fingered the would-be murderers of great advertising. "Clients, CEOs, research… they all tried to kill advertising," she said. Certainly, the hierarchical, bureaucratic, pre-test-obsessed and still way too patriarchal ("maybe the problem is that CEOs are just too male," Beers said) agency/marketer model hasn’t changed as much as it needs to. It hampers flair and flexibility and is in danger of stifling the "business genius" I think Tony Kaye is calling for on page 24 this week and the creative magic and healthy disrespect that Flo Heiss dreams about on page 25.
The wonderfully provocative Cindy Gallop (did you see her in The Sunday Times making the case for a new approach to pornography?) took to the Advertising Week pulpit to insist that the old top-down approach to advertising and marketing is over. Brilliant creativity springs from diverse and disruptive points of view, she said: "The top-down form is broken – the future is about bottom-up and calling on diverse people power." The consumer needs to be involved right at the core.
It’s certainly true that there’s not much about the way advertising agencies are structured that would be unfamiliar to the resurrected Bernbach, Burnett, Ogilvy and Thompson present at Monday’s memorial. And in the end, that may be where the industry’s real canker lies.
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