Advertising needs more characters, fewer emoticons

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Best of Campaign 2014: The new generation of industry leaders must rise above the "sea of sameness"

The torch is being passed, and the next generation of leaders is taking the helm in some of the world’s largest and most reputable agencies. Two semi-recent appointments immediately come to mind: Yannick Bolloré, chairman and CEO of Havas, and Carter Murray, worldwide CEO of FCB.

This new leadership group is young, smart, ambitious and determined to win, which is to be expected. That said, we are also very different from our predecessors — we grew up with technology in hand, and many of us actually started our careers in advertising riding the digital wave that took place between the late 1990s and early 2000s. As a result, we think differently.

The battle for the client boardroom has remained the same, but the range of weaponry we will use to win pitches is innovative, imaginative and without rules or boundaries.

Sounds pretty great! But something is missing …

Where have all the characters gone?  

Are we relying too much on viralocity, animated Keynote decks and the next new thing in place of personality? When I started my career in Toronto in the early 2000s, characters defined this industry. Paul Lavoie (founder of Taxi), with his larger-than-life presence and shaved head. Rick Padulo (founder of Padulo), who looked as though he was straight out of "Goodfellas." And Geoffrey Roche (founder of Lowe Roche), with his pocket scarves and three-inch collars. They stood out as much for their intellect as they did for their public personae. And one thing’s for certain: They never held back from offering an opinion.

As many know, I spent a few years working alongside Tony Chapman (founder of Capital C), another character in his own right.  Unfiltered and unbridled like his iconic hairstyle, socks and sense of fashion, Tony was the master of the metaphor. "Shifting sands"; "sea of sameness"; "head, heart and hands" were all terms many of us heard again and again in the boardroom.  

His greatest advice to me was, "Put your opinions out there. People will agree or disagree with you, call you courageous or a fool, but you are the one who had the guts to know that over time you will be proven either very right or very wrong. Be provocative and in doing so you will attract the clients that want to be part of inventing the future versus playing in the present."

I still hold myself accountable to Tony’s advice today.

Our industry needs to reincarnate the characters, the trailblazers and the opinionated. The Leo Burnetts and the David Ogilvys. These individuals harnessed the best minds of the day and added their own vision, style and intellectual firepower to the entire advertising and marketing industry.  

Our need for characters has never rung more true than in this era of commoditization and procurement. We need to showcase value beyond the cheapest rate card. We can’t accept the "sea of sameness" as the industry's character today. Burnett and Ogilvy had distinctive points of view, clear missions and principles that they lived and died by and that clients respected. But ultimately the distinctiveness of these greats manifested itself in the work.

So, a challenge to all my peers (and myself): Let’s do some amazing work while having fun and adding flavor back to this business. Let’s trailblaze again, be opinionated, and infuse flare and energy back into the industry.  

I’m going sock shopping as I type …

See you in the boardroom.

Nick Dean is president of KBS Toronto.

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