For Younger Creatives, Advertising’s Culture of Hero Worship Is Shifting

'They are no longer looking for gurus'

a larger rubber duck with four small rubber ducks looking up to it
Advertising's legacy of hero worship created enduring icons, but also homogeneity. Andy Roberts/Getty Images
Headshot of David Griner

Key insights

For decades, advertising worshipped a consistent pantheon of dapper demigods. They founded scrappy agencies that became global juggernauts, several wrote books with their own names in the titles and most left behind legacies of inspirational leadership speckled with quotable witticisms.

But do names like Bill Bernbach, Leo Burnett, Jay Chiat and David Ogilvy—or the many (still overwhelmingly white and male) creative leaders who’ve come along since—still pack as much motivational punch with today’s rising agency creatives?

The changing nature of hero worship in advertising can be attributed to a combination of factors, including the industry-rattling disruption of the digital age, the changing landscape of leadership that has created client-side superstars and the #MeToo era’s ringing reminders to be careful whom you idolize. The result is a workforce that often seems leery of marketing messiahs. But as talent has shifted its gaze from the leaders of the past to the pioneers of the present, it has also ushered in a new era of inspiration that can be far more personal than old-fashioned idolizing.

Retiring the rock stars

“The ad industry used to elevate people to godlike status,” said Laura Visco, deputy ecd at 72andSunny Amsterdam and industry advocate for diversity. “But at the end of the day, if those people go to the supermarket, nobody will really know who they are. There’s something about that disconnect with the real world that is and was wrong.”

Visco believes the agency world lived too long in its own bubble, artificially elevating the influence of its most loudly opinionated leaders.

headshots of Leo Burnett, Bill Bernbach, Jay Chiat and david ogilvy
Ogilvy: Pictorial Parade/Archive Photos/Getty Images; Burnett: Leo Burnett; Bernbach: Bettmann/Getty Images; Chiat: Catrina Genovese/Getty Images

“In that sense, the new generations are more down-to-earth,” she said. “They are no longer looking for gurus, and they are certainly not looking for rock stars. Advertising is leaving its microworld and becoming more a part of everyday culture.”

Social media has also closed the distance between leaders and young talent.

“We used to find their wisdom in books, so every word felt etched in stone. They were on a kind of pedestal,” said Alejandro Juli, a rising creative leader recently named vp and creative director of DDB Chicago. “Now you follow your heroes on Twitter, you add them on LinkedIn, you hear them on podcasts, and you might even stalk them on Instagram.”

Early in his career, Juli looked up to a range of creative leaders as icons worth imitating and learning from, and as he worked up the nerve to reach out to some of them in hopes of building a connection, he found it wasn’t so intimidating.

“You can get in touch with anyone through social media, and if you write the right message, you might even get a reply from one of your heroes,” he said. “I know I’ve done it, and I’ve learned that some of mine are simply nice people who were kind enough to give me feedback.”

Seeing yourself reflected

Obviously, it’s not just the access to role models and potential mentors that has changed. The industry has also (albeit slowly) grown more diverse and representative of the young people trying to join it.

Bozoma Saint John
Credit: Maya A Darasaw,
MAD Works Photography

When Bozoma Saint John was beginning her career as an agency account executive in the early 2000s, there were painfully few black women active at the levels of leadership she aspired to reach.

“Early on in my career, I was drawn to Ann Fudge, who was the CEO of Y&R,” Saint John said. “She was one of the only women of color in a C-suite position in the advertising industry, let alone in corporate America. I was in complete awe of the journey she took to that role and how she sat proudly within it.”

Since then, Saint John has become exactly such a role model for today’s young talent. After making a name for herself at Apple, PepsiCo and Uber, she was named CMO of Endeavor. Along the way, Saint John found herself in a position few could even dream of. Two years ago, she appeared on stage for a Harvard event moderated by her hero, Fudge.

“It meant so much to me to be able to share the impact she’d made on my life with her in front of everyone there,” Saint John said. “It’s amazing how people like her, who are an unknowing beacon, can make such a lasting impact on those coming after them.”

"As a woman working in advertising, you feel more in the spotlight. You are conscious that people are looking up to you."
—Laura Visco, deputy ecd, 72andSunny Amsterdam

This story first appeared in the Dec. 9, 2019, issue of Adweek magazine. Click here to subscribe.

@griner David Griner is creative and innovation editor at Adweek and host of Adweek's podcast, "Yeah, That's Probably an Ad."