Angela Natividad's Live & Uncensored!

02 December 2011

Of all the things to dedicate your life to...

...why advertising?

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.


FunyonJunior said...

Hi Angela --

Awesome post. I'd be interested to know what sparked the conversation between Wnek and Booches. I could spend some time extrapolating why Wnek is wrongish and Booches is righter.

First thing I'll say is advertising is full of corruption and injustice, there just aren't many reporters covering it anymore.

Second point I'd mention is it's a bit naive to harp on ad writers when you yourself create advertising. If you took a poll about who American's have more respect for as humans -- ad reporters or ad creators -- I'd put my money on reporters getting the RESPEK.

Last, and maybe the most important, without ad writers, many campaigns would never see the light of day. You are a great example of the lack of reporters covering the field. 20 posts a day is too many.

It takes a special knack to understand the mechanics, politics, and many other factors that play into this business. Many people see and ad and think "wow that's so bad" without ever understanding what lead up to the creation of that piece. Reporters provide context, and inject humanity into advertising by telling the stories of the people who made it.

Not to mention that almost every piece of content on TV, in the movies, in magazines and on the web is supported by advertising. Advertising underwrites the world's addiction to stories. Stories are how we connect and relate. And so in that way, to cover advertising is to tell the story behind the story. I think it was Booches who a few years back was always saying "we're storytellers". For reporters, that statement couldn't be truer. said...

Great post. Yet, here I am, a copywriter, and I think it's more useful to write about ads and how they affect people than to write the ads themselves. When you write about ads, you might draw some conclusions that will -- and should -- stand the the of time. Ads, however, are ephemeral, here and gone, sent into the world to die, sometimes deservedly so, sometimes not. That's what I struggle with, the short life-span of the work, work that I can pour so much heart and soul into. It's one reason I've started writing songs on the side. I want to try to create something timeless, and ads just aren't -- nor should they be, really.

Howie G said...

First of all what a stupid question asked of Edward. That is like telling a Biology Professor 'Why do you write about Biology' or a Fashion Designer 'Why do you write about fashion'. Seriously the dumbest question ever asked of anyone since the question of mustard or ketchup was asked when the hotdog was invented (Ketchup of course! Duh!).

As to your really thought out post here Angela. I know most of the stuff we buy is not due to advertising. But forget everything you wrote here. I want to address the basis of advertising. Why it exists in the first place. The products for the most part can not be sold by direct ales force. They can't. The profit per item is too small to hire someone to sell directly to the people. So advertising is the format that arose that allows brands to reach many people for pennies or less per point of contact and it takes the form of everything from traditional advertising (including Social Media) to simple things like Packaging and In Store Placement/Displays. And almost always these products need a middle person to inventory and sell them.

I mean seriously is Kraft going to pay some person $100k to stock a gazillion boxes of Mac and Cheese and send him door to door to get you to buy your two boxes a month that you eat?

So it really is a sales channel and a very flexible one that allows all the things you stated. When I did direct B2B sales because an account can spend $10k to $1mil a year with my company I can be paid great but really I had no flexibility in selling. I couldn't 'Seriously buy this valve for your oil refinery because the designer colors make a statement out you'

AndreeaHirica said...

Howie, love the point, thank you for putting the finger on. If we look back to the out of fashion but damn smart marketing books, advertising is just one of the four channels (with media just one of the several advertising channels).

Every good (advertising) professional is asking him/herself ‘why this industry/role’ once in a while. The answer is usually different at each stage, which naturally brings evolution (a complete shift or major changes sometimes, or just professional maturity most of the times).

Like any other industry, advertising also needs smart, sharp eyes to watch over it, (somehow) from outside. The value of such industry benchmark keepers becomes highly relevant for those professionals that manage to bring not that much of media news, but deep, complex, relevant analysis. It’s the reason for which I'd rather call them ‘advertising analysts’, than 'advertising journalists'. And especially for those managing to differentiate analysis from criticism (with criticism as part of the story, but not the whole).
As in other journalism, research and analysis areas, if vital in relevance for the subject, corruption and justice will be taken into account. Otherwise, as Angela reminds us from the conversation, "There are plenty of people writing about corruption and justice, too."

Last but not least, while acknowledging the value of objectivity and of an outside eye, a good advertising analyst is or has at some point also been a good practitioner. The more value someone brought as an advertising practitioner, the higher chances for that person to be a brilliant industry analyst, also. (well, unless he/she’s a Bob Garfield to be ☺

Angela Natividad said...

Thanks for the comments, everybody! And I apologise for having taken so long to get to them (I was in the country finishing off a root canal. It was a party in my mouth).

@Funyonjunior You're right that it takes a special knack to understand the many different forces that go into the business of advertising, which is easiest to see in the most banal examples: local car salesman ads tend to be my favourites because they reflect so much about that particular culture. But in any society, the ads they conceive give us quick shortcuts to the fears, values and desires most pressing to the local people. (Consider how ice cream ads in the States play so much with ideas about "sin" and "indulgence".)

I love how you say that advertising "underwrites the world's addiction to stories." I tried to find a way to pin that down but was having trouble getting there. That was perfect.

@JeffShattuck We all have to wrestle with the fact that we ourselves are ephemeral, which is part of what makes the work of advertising both frustrating and satisfying. Even in writing about advertising I feel this: the work is so significant for that time and place, and then it vanishes and you have to start all over again tomorrow. I guess in a way it keeps us young, but it's often hard to build on work that gets old so fast. I suppose that's why when a piece of work is timeless, or it delivers a message that doesn't necessarily age, we hold tightly to those examples even after the rest of the world's forgotten them.

@Howie Ogilvy tried reminding us of that all the time: we're in sales, fuck the rest of it. He is right but he also lived that out with great finesse. It's like the difference between that great salesman who can sell you anything in a moment's casual conversation, and the slew of mediocre ones who exhaust you with their hard-sells. We have to keep this difference in mind.

@Andreea I like how you said the answer to the "why" varies based on the stage you're in. I guess we just have to deal with the fact that we ourselves are going to be asking this question many times before death. ;)