A few days ago Jeff Kwiatek sent me this screenshot of a conversation that took place on Twitter between Mark Wnek and Edward Boches. It's interesting because it poses, aloud, a question people must ask in their heads all the time:
Why write about advertising? Even if we all agree that advertising can serve noble purposes, or at the very least has a great responsibility in its ability to influence, why write about it?
A few years ago, holed up in Ithaca and pushing out 16, sometimes 20 articles a day for two ad and marketing publications, I shot up out of bed and had a horrible realisation: I've given my life to a banality, something that really doesn't matter to anybody -- something most people claim to hate.
I spent a few days freaked out and feeling demotivated. Then I realised something important: your time isn't wasted when it's put in the service of something you care about.
So why care about ads? Because they're with us all the time. They are so present in nearly every moment of our lives that we forget their impact, often convincing ourselves that, because many are ineffective, invasive, and poorly produced, the entire metier is invasive, ineffective and poverty-ridden.
This isn't true. We wed ourselves to brands, see ourselves in the things we purchase because they become personal objects that we invest time and care in. We give them as gifts, wear them on our bodies, use them to facilitate our lives. It makes sense to want them to reflect some quality we have, or aspire to have, from the get-go.
Advertising helps us make quick decisions -- and when I say "advertising" I'm not just talking about ads. I'm talking about packaging, the treatment of customers, referrals from friends, YouTube how-tos and product reviews. We can't give a significant portion of our lives to due diligence on the chemical contents or product development of a deodorant or shampoo. We need semantic shortcuts, but we also need to feel like we're making choices for the right reasons (be they status, environmental goodwill, a kickback to a charity). A brand we trust, a brand we feel we know and that respects us, helps make otherwise-paralysing choices easier.
Being that brand -- one who conveys a message properly, consistently and with verve! on an ever-diversifying landscape of media channels -- is getting harder. Being the agency helping it along is also hard, because agencies are facing their own crises: the coming freefall of TV ad prices (the bread and butter of so many!), and the need for ambidextrous minds who can be creative, socially strategic and highly technical, to name just three.
So communications is undergoing an evolution -- a huge renegotiation of space that is anthropologically fascinating to watch and to try to help along. But as Wnek observed, if you're going to write, why not "expose corruption and injustice"?
"There are plenty of people writing about corruption and justice, too," Boches replied.
Simply put: we have the joy and luxury of being able to choose what to give our lives to. I think we all martyr ourselves this way, even while extracting great pleasure from our work, so it's important to choose wisely. You can make the argument that certain ways of serving people are more noble than others, but in the end we are at our most productive when we choose a service that impassions us, obsesses us, makes us feel alive and awake.
(Also, feeling this way about your work makes you more likely to do awesome and inventive shit.)
I have a lot of admiration for journalists that expose corruption and wrongdoing, or unearth beauty and innovation hidden in unexpected places. They maintain a yardstick of accountability whose limitations are constantly being pushed. But there's plenty of that to be done in communications, too. That cause also needs its devotees, unearthers of innovation, and scribes: the bench markers, best practice-sharers, pundits, critics, whistleblowers, sociologists -- the people setting down a painstaking history of what has happened, is happening and will happen soon.
This matters because as the world grows smaller and people become more dynamic, we'll need our semantic shortcuts more than ever. So the work and scrutiny behind all those shortcuts -- those brands who compose our quotidian constellations -- must be rigorous and dedicated.
I'm proud to be part of this, even if the big fights consist of constant small battles and will take years to iron out ... and even if I spend most of the day writing about car commercials. Sometimes you come across stuff like this ... and lo, all is well.