Profit Over Principle

The not-so-secret dark secret of advertising is that there is gold in bullshit. Ad types can make a lot of money being so terrible that they won’t even share their work with their mothers. But they have no compunction about inflicting it on the rest of us. Our industry is awash in people all too happy to embrace mediocrity if the pay is decent. And it is. In difficult economic times, the demand for lapdogs grows exponentially. Fear makes the best people cautious and the worst people reckless, and the big-budget bobbing for dollars that passes for creativity is not only disastrous for individual agencies, it taints the entire ad community.

Greed is the antichrist of greatness. The client who lusts after his year-end bonus rarely ventures far from the middle of the road. The agency executive who worships at the altar of billable hours won’t mind spending the weekend dreaming up white-bread ways to execute stupor-inducing strategies. There are entire agencies out there with healthy billings and no professional integrity. Yet their equally clueless clients love them and pay them handsomely for their derivative drivel. People are getting rich making the public hate what we do, and that isn’t good for anyone.

The money mongers won’t voluntarily return to their street corners, so we have to do a better job of weeding them out. Fortunately, the Ken Lays and Martha Stewarts among us are easy to expose, because they all rely on the same buzz words to nip risky thoughts in the bud. Thus, I recommend immediate termination for anyone caught using any of the following phrases:

1. “… or we’ll lose the business.” If your client is so uncommitted to you that any single action could get you fired, then the relationship is already doomed no matter how big you make the logo. Unpredictable clients inspire terror in those who like predictable bonuses. In their efforts to appease the unappeasable, the greed heads sell their soul and yours. Before you know it, the client is gone, and so is your reputation.

2. “Give them this one, and we’ll win the next one.” No, you won’t. Once the merchants of mediocrity discover you don’t have any standards, they will use you again and again. Once you have accepted money to water down your talents, it only gets easier. Stupid work is a gateway drug for more stupid work. Anyone who tells you otherwise is getting a percentage of something.

3. “It is like this everywhere.” Bounty-hunting ad types love this all-purpose excuse for absolutely everything. In five words they abdicate responsibility for improving anything. Those who want you to believe it is bad everywhere just want you to stay put so they can continue to pimp you out for bigger billings.

4. “This is a great project with a million-dollar budget.” Beware of anyone who tries to gin up excitement for a project by disclosing the budget in the first sentence. It usually means they don’t want you to look too closely at the brief. The best measure of any assignment is whether you would do it for free. A campaign to save India’s tigers? Sure. A campaign to sell disability insurance? Uh … what’s the budget? Even if the client has enough money to train a duck to quack on cue, you’ll still feel like a tramp at the wrap party.

5. “We want really great work.” Don’t get your hopes up. People who experience the world as a series of zeros and commas think great work is whatever the client likes enough to approve the media budget. As every Super Bowl shows us, great advertising is subject to wide interpretation. Sometimes it means great in a dull sort of way. Sometimes it means great in a wasteful sort of way. But it seldom means great in your kind of way. The people who want genuinely great work never ask for it. They inspire it.

We have little chance of regaining our place at the conference table until we rid our ranks of gold fever. Consumers will continue to resent us as long as we earn a good living inundating them with boneheaded promises. Clients will never trust us until they see some correlation between compensation and contribution. And young creatives and account executives will never respect us until our CEOs stop talking about their beemers and start focusing on the work on the wall.

Inspiration is the currency of healthy agencies, growing companies and respected industries. When everyone is encouraged to explore the outer limits of their capabilities, the possibilities are endless. Let ideas rule the day, and the money will take care of itself. Not only will the best and brightest be attracted to your door, your billings will grow as the light of your vision glows brighter. But don’t take my word for it. Just ask Donny Deutsch or Lee Clow or Tracy Wong or Jeff Goodby or Pat Fallon or Roy Spence or Andy Berlin or Stan Richards or Mike Hughes or …