OPINION: PERSPECTIVE - Why we should still be ducking the flying yukkas

Returning to the editor's chair at Campaign from maternity leave recently, I experienced a curious sensation. The gist of a number of well-intentioned and kindly e-mails and notes from the industry's big-agency VIPs was the same: "Dear Caroline, don't you find the business heartily irrelevant having spent those months away?"; "Dear Caroline, bet you wish you'd never come back to this." And so on. Ignoring the fact that the downturn in the business has, almost exactly, matched my, ahem, editorship of the industry's organ, it made quite an impression.

It was amazing, because one would never imagine, say, an editor of a "normal" business newspaper getting the same treatment. "Dear A, aren't you sick of that Safeway saga yet?" Or a film magazine editor: "Dear B, bet you can't face reviewing that new Tarantino movie." The notes from the smaller agencies, basking in their well-deserved period of limelight and success were very different. Theirs were inspirational, brimming with attitude and enthusiasm.

As the weeks have passed, the sense of many of the people at the top of the big agencies these days lacking any sort of spark or glamour has been compounded. Pale and jaded from years in the business, struggling through successive rounds of redundancies and cost-cutting, burdened with the task of justifying every last detail of the advertising process, terrified rather than inspired by the new world of digital communications, they are contributing to the biggest problem the industry faces: a continuing and seemingly unstoppable shortage of talent. Who wants to get to the top of a business when those already there are nervous wrecks?

This fundamental change in the nature and confidence of those at the top of the business was also thrown into sharp relief at Tim Mellors' retirement dinner last week.

Around the table was a number of adland's luminaries. Big characters who in their time were responsible for brilliant start-ups, iconoclastic commercials, silly behaviour, yukka-throwing, storming out mid-term with an entire creative department in tow, and causing a rumpus in various colourful ways. Each and every one of them had stuck their neck out in different ways, each and every one had served long periods at big agencies.

It offered a stark contrast with the equivalents of those individuals in today's big agencies.

Of course, I can see good reasons for the scarcity of fierce, outspoken, commanding proponents of advertising populating the upper reaches of the big agencies. In today's tough world, where the loss of one global account means the loss of millions of income, the stakes are far too high to allow risk - in the ads, or in the people who produce and sell them.

A thought, then, for the new generation of admired start-ups - for CHI, Mother, CDD, VCCP, Soul, Fallon Naked and the latest and least appropriately named ever start-up of all, Isobel.

By all means shout about your agency's merits, bring in new skills, new techniques, new attitudes, new methods, but remember that unless the responsibility of promoting and revving up the industry is viewed as a collective duty, advertising will only get taken less seriously by clients and attract fewer talented young people to its ranks. PRing the business collectively should be as essential to the new generation of agencies as spin is to big government.

Ironically, the relative health of these new agencies suggests that there is room in the market for even more start-ups. Can we have one composed entirely of yukka-throwing misfits next time please?

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Digital marketing executives oversee the online marketing strategy for their organisation. They plan and execute digital (including email) marketing campaigns and design, maintain and supply content for the organisation's website(s).