Ad Exec: Is adland really cutthroat, or simply misunderstood?
by Tom Fels (@thomasfels) I was just out of university when, at a New Year’s dinner, I was asked what I was planning to do with my degree. “I’m thinking of going into advertising” was my cheerful response, met immediately with a solemn and puzzled expression, a prelude to a stereotypical retort: “Advertising? That’s a cutthroat game; I’d steer clear of it if I were you.”
Despite the advice, I launched my career in the industry shortly thereafter, where I continue to walk my path today. Throughout my journey, I’ve never seen the cutthroat-side of the industry he’d so worryingly predicted, prompting me to pause and think: Is the bad rap justified or are we simply misunderstood?
‘A-type’ pioneering personalities
As a platform for its people, the advertising landscape is undeniably a high-pressure industry fraught with opportunities for failure and success, always set on pushing the boundaries and seeking out undiscovered creative territories. It is a passion for those who choose it and, typically, on the business front, that means that executives are keenly competitive A-type achievers.
Throwing these personality traits into a frenetic, cluttered workspace where the unexpected is inevitably expected; sudden client moves, resignation of accounts, clashing egos and the all-too-easily rejected work means that emotions may run high and fleetingly reveal one’s dark side.
Cyclical nature of brands
Migrating preferences and consumption habits loop brands into growth over time and also make them vulnerable to decline, prompting ‘itchy’ brand owners to look around and be pushed by new thinking every few years. This dynamic inextricably links the fate of agencies to brand movement and, in many cases, decisive client moves that shake the foundations of what was thought to be solid ground.
A change of guard at senior levels on the marketing side may often threaten entrenched agency rosters, giving rise to the old saying ‘a new broom sweeps clean’. Times of transition are therefore big red flags and potential disruptors to continuity, and may fuel the feeling, or indeed the perception, that agencies have been done wrong when these shifts occur.
All told, the creative game is no easy one and, perhaps on the outside looking in, it would be easy to label it as cutthroat; the lifecycles are short, the commitment required is significant, and the rewards are often not that great. But, from within, there is a social fabric to the industry that may be without equal in the business landscape. Brought together at award shows, judging panels, via thought leadership seminars and client conferences, it is easy to spot ‘agency people’ chatting over coffee and exchanging notes. In fact, they seek each other out — hardly the stuff of mortal enemies.
My take is that, at the heart of it, as ad people we are generally one and the same — united in our desire to succeed, in our passion for our work, and in the obstacles we face in a hectic and complex workplace to get there.
Perhaps, then, the only cutthroat thinking we really care about is to kill the prospect of failure.
With a decade of local and international experience in leading brand consulting, design, shopper marketing and integrated advertising roles, Tom Fels (@thomasfels) has gained a deeply relevant understanding of the dynamics of agencies. His skills are put to work daily as group managing director of Publicis Machine. He contributes the monthly “Ad Exec” column to MarkLives.