Ad Agency as Dinosaur

Posted 01/11/2016

I love the advertising business. Correction: I loved the advertising business. And I was damn good at it, too, as a writer and as a creative director but always better as a writer.

           Copywriter. A word that conjures up legal rights and stuffiness, but in reality, it’s sexy and powerful and gave me quite a long ride from the “Man Men” 60s through the WTF-happened 2010s.

           It gave me summer homes ....

... and it took me on (boondoggley and) brilliant world travel. London. South Africa. Rome and a beach-ey suburb.

 Sydney and a beach-ey outpost.  Los Angeles a zillion times.  And, once, Paris. There just to cast women before we moved on to shoot in Malaga and Madrid. (The client, a Procter & Gamble brand, liked for us to shoot out of the United States. That way, you can buy off the models and not have to pay exhorbitant residuals.)

           This whole wide world of ads sprang from my brain. Ideas. Scripts. (Collaborations, of course, and client involvement, too, in the end, truth be told.)

           Clients. They weren’t always such nervous Nellies and so involved with involvement and making changes And redoing. And redoing. And rewriting. (The only re- I have to deal with now is retirement.)

           So now, I write what I want to write. And no one changes a word. Of course, I don’t make the multiple millions I made in the 44 years I spent writing advertising. But what’s money in the face of art? Or, actually, what’s money in the face of doing and writing exactly what you’d like to write?

           (Money is always money. This here is never money.)

           And this is why and what ultimately sealed the deal, what kicked the career to the curb.

           It all had to do with the last agency I spent my career at, Saatchi & Saatchi, a revered name, a name known the world over, a name that stood for many things over their too-many-years-in-existence. When I was a kid, coming up along the ranks of the best of the best creative places—Doyle Dane Bernbach, Scali McCabe Slovers, DKG, Ally & Gargano, Della Femina, and even, but way past its prime, Wells Rich Greene. Saatchi, I always thought of, was as stuffy as a Shabby Chic couch.

Dull. Uninspiring. A plethora of packaged goods accounts, dull as dishwater.

           All I know is, as I was winning awards and being fired and freelancing, and learning the business, and lured back in and fired and I quit! And I hate the business; I want to be a lyricist like Fred Ebb!

(never happened)—while Saatchi represented blah. Focus groups and uncreative types.

           The Saatchi brothers themselves, Brits, breathed some creative life into the dump for a bit—British Airways, an account of theirs that did exemplary work, but they barely stayed long enough. And they wound up scooping up the worst agencies (creative-wise) of the time—Compton?! Dancer Fitzgerald Sample!? William Esty? And god knows what other agency I would always sniff my nose at.

           (Clearly, an advertising snob, me.) (For as long as I could be.) (For as long as I was young.)

           And for as long as the creative agencies were still interested in me.

           Nothing lasts forever, least of all. Renee Zellweger’s career ...

... Paris Hilton as a tabloid perennial, Brenda Frazier, too—no one lasts forever.

           As my advertising career headed downward, as opportunities with creative agencies—whatever they may be as the new millennium arrived, agencies without names on the door anymore:  Mother?  72 and Sunny? Nitro? (I would call my agency “Back Off!” ), I accepted a job at Saatchi, fairly desperate and, some would say, overdone, or past his prime—as a headhunter told me that one exalted art-director/agency partner said about me years earlier when I was in my mid-40s. The exact phrase hurled towards me: “Perhaps his flame has burnt out.”

           At 50, I started at Saatchi. And, as it happened, and as surprisingly shocking as it was to me, the Saatchi job turned out OK! I worked under an uninspiring creative director—a woman who responded to work more like a client—cautious, seeing things from a more limited point of view. But when it was good, it was very, very good. I was instrumental in elevating a dowdy, tired brand named Oil of Olay ...

... into a bit of a player. Revitalized and renewed Olay and with its better-designed packaging ...

... and my flair for ideas in commercials versus just pretty pictures, I was proud (and far from humble) of what I had achieved. The brand soared through the bathroom roof. Clients sent me flowers.

           But, nothing lasts forever—did I mention that? (Can’t say it enough times, apparently.) For one reason or another, mostly the reason of the 2008- 2009 Great Recession the brand, puffed up enough to keep introducing products at higher and higher prices, (P& G had their own mishigas, too) slumped. Really tanked. Clients, once so very appreciative, changed. New ones turned hostile and frightened and tied to unrealistic sales projections.

           Olay—once exalted, almost appearing as prestigious as Estee Lauder ...

... turned into the brand it was always meant to be: drugstore, coupon-driven. Overpriced. Undervalued. Cheap. But not as cheap as the adjacent CVS look-alike brand.

           So. I get fired from Saatchi—cruelly, unforgivingly, in a day. “Sorry, but you need to clear out by this afternoon,” said that monolithic HR. HR. Don’t you just love HR departments. “Out in a day”, this after 14 years of devotion.

           Now, it’s three and a half years later. I am over it. Wouldn’t you agree? But I am still interested in writing this story as a form of sweet revenge, as writing, well -- writing well,  has been often said to be the BEST revenge.

           Saatchi, like other dinosaur agencies, Ogilvy & Mather, McCann Ericson, Grey, J Walter Thompson, others ... 

... are scrambling and sweating to figure out how to be thought of as modern (ha!) and the new darlings of  digital (HA!!). A tough challenge—they all “excelled” at what they did—print and TV, but mostly, making money—and now, they hang in there, firing people, hiring kids wearing baseball caps backward, with no history of the giants in the industry that I had the great fortune to work closely with while I was loving the business.

           I have a fantasy. I would really like to be the person to open the “Museum of Advertising” with work from the bygone era—Volkswagen, Avis, Sony, Hathaway Shirts, Alka Seltzer, Benson & Hedges 100s, Braniff, American Motors, Perdue Chicken ...

... Horn & Hardart, and Volvo. TWA and Federal Express and American Motors and so many pieces of works of art, ads and commercials (OK, British Airways, too). To show every new copywriter and art director that have absolutely no concept of what concepts were or are. Ideas that drove the work, not visual tricks, quick cuts, or, worst of all, the lack of an idea.

           And maybe I will open that museum…why not?

           But it may take awhile.

           And while that is in the works, Saatchi & Saatchi, once a cool ten or more floors in a hot new building built in the late 1980s with their name on the front of it, is now reduced to one floor. Real estate—subletting the nine other floors, where all the people who worked there, now fired—seems to be their main source of income.

           And soon, diminished to a cubicle? a space just small enough to hold their “ideas”,  before disappearing altogether. Merged into another relic—Publicis. Forgotten. The Saatchi name now only respected for a totally different form of art—the Saatchi gallery in London.

           So now, let me backtrack a bit (everything changes).

           Scali, McCabe, Sloves, Ally & Gargano, DKG, Wells, Rich, Greene, the hot, hot agencies that boosted me up and then fired me, are all of of business. Forgotten.

           Long forgotten.

           Saatchi, next? Looks like it’s headed that way.