I’ve had a complicated relationship with the advertising business for years. I’ve also been very fortunate and continue to enjoy my career, so hopefully this won’t be taken the wrong way. Still, it hasn’t been without internal conflict.
Early on, I found myself working for James Patterson at JWT in New York. When I told him I was leaving to march downtown to Chiat\Day, he asked me what I really wanted to do. He wasn’t referring to the new job; there was a larger wisdom/guidance conversation brewing. He pointed to the Edgar Award for his first book and told me that writing was his true passion. Then he asked me what mine was. Thinking that collecting comic art probably wasn’t a very good answer, I told him that I wanted to do the type of work they were doing down at 79 Fifth Avenue. He shook my hand and wished me good luck.
Writing novels was Jim’s passion. What was mine? To build brands? To convince people to buy things they didn’t necessarily want or need? I told him the former, but a part of me felt the latter. I was a monthly subscriber to Adbusters magazine, after all, and had learned about politics and the human condition largely from "Mad" and "National Lampoon." A number of my friends in the industry dabbled in other things as well, because they viewed advertising as a stepping-stone to something better. Writers commonly worked on that book or screenplay; art directors were secretly pining away to become directors. I wanted to make advertising. It combined everything I loved: writing, design, film and photography. And I can now add technology to that list.
Then came the ’90s, and with it, unabashed greed. Anyone remember Drexel Burnham Lambert and junk bonds? Capitalism, it seemed, was in the crosshairs (rightfully so), and I was the poster child for it among my friends, who were writers and artists of real things like comics, books and movies. As a young team, Mike Shine and I tried to write things that mattered. We created a series of posters railing against the ivory trade and the Exxon Valdez disaster. We created "Citizens who give a damn" as our sign-off. And we produced them ourselves and hired what can best be described as a mobster to paste them up throughout the city of New York in the wee hours. In fact, we wound up winning a One Show pencil for the work based on judges’ scores, but then got a call saying we would have to forfeit it because we were the client. Today, I wonder if anyone would object, because now there are instant social distribution channels for work like that.
But the moral dilemmas kept on coming. Years later, after I had become president of The One Club, we secured Al Franken as our master of ceremonies. He came onto the stage with a monologue that included something close to this: "I’m really honored to be here, representing the seventh most respected creative industry in the world." There were only sporadic laughs throughout the audience, mostly because everyone was counting out on their fingers and, like me, getting stumped after number four. We were number seven?
Today, the industry is in a state of flux. Some might even say it’s in crisis mode, questioning everything. We hear opinions about hiring hybrids, changing our processes, how the age of the holding company is coming to an end, how agencies are becoming middlemen, and how AORs are being renegotiated as project work. All true to varying degrees, although many of us see this as an exciting and innovative time filled with opportunity.
Another thing we’ve heard consistently for years is that this is a business for the young. In fact, when we started BSSP, a reporter asked why we decided to make the leap. We all had different answers, but mine was: "Because there are no 40-year-old art directors." Of course, I promptly heard from a dozen or more 40-year-old art directors (and this was in the snail-mail world of cards and letters). Today, I’d take a social media drubbing for that comment. It was definitely hyperbole, and it’s probably one more thing I can chalk up to "sounding like a pretty good idea at the time." I think the pundits will continue to speak at conferences about reinventing the industry. It’s mostly a healthy exercise, but the answer, I believe, is right before our eyes. And it’s not just with the young, those who some call "millennials" with a sigh, as though it were a veiled snub.
Recently I was asked to judge an award show. It was painless; I didn’t have to sit in a dark room for a week. I just had to log in and judge online. Easy. I was given the film category, which consisted of 50 to 100 entries, some long form, some short. Many brands were represented, but by far, the largest body of work had some socially responsible message behind it. The environment, spousal abuse, Native American recognition, restaurants donating leftovers to feed the homeless, free Wi-Fi for the slums of Brazil, gun control, unity, pro-vaccination, missing kids—it was endless.
This wasn’t a class assignment from one professor. These came from all over the world, from many different universities. It dawned on me that pretty much every kid coming out of school today is an activist. Not all of them will wind up in advertising; many will just become consumers. But it’s something that our industry finally seems open to championing. Hell, I do. And I chipped in quite a few of these executions, and felt a sort of pride. There is something in the air, and it’s been brewing for years. I had it in me as well. I just never had the media channels or the affirmation from my superiors to continue doing it.
Our ECD, Keith Cartwright, has it in him. Keith has spearheaded, along with other prominent African-American creative leaders, a coalition called Saturday Morning, which aims to promote peace and societal changes around racial inequality. Where does he primarily take this message? To universities. Keith has a presentation he gives in which he projects a slide that simply says, "Do No Harm."
They say the true measure of a person is what he or she does when no one is looking. This works for companies too. Whenever BSSP donates to charitable things—like funding a school in Haiti, or benefiting the victims’ families of the Oakland Ghost Ship fire, or encouraging employees to take paid time to volunteer—the emails I get from staff saying, "It’s things like this that make me feel good about working at this place," make me feel pretty good about it as well. But these are values that every person at our company, millennial and baby boomer alike, shares.
It’s this younger generation, however, with its optimism and altruism that keeps me engaged. These folks may not be interested in writing that novel or screenplay, or feeling bad about themselves because they are selling goods or services they don’t fully believe in. They’ll figure out how to make brands and businesses accountable by convincing CMOs they need to do more than simply sell products. And if they can’t do it directly within the briefs they create for clients, they’ll do it indirectly through the activism they’ve been doing since they were old enough to point a cursor and click a mouse. Who knows, together we all might just be able to save the industry and the world at the same time. And the world sure needs some help.
—John Butler is the chief creative officer of Butler, Shine, Stern & Partners.