I spent last week in the capital of global advertising interviewing
more Kings of Madison Avenue for our ongoing feature series. I
discovered a few things. First, the American corporate adman’s uniform
of stripy coloured shirt topped with whiter-than-white collar and cuffs
has been replaced this season by the monogrammed shirt. Second, one of
my interviewees hasn’t ever told his wife the percentage, let alone the
value, of his personal stake in the holding company, so he wasn’t about
to share it with me. Third, another gets up at 4.30am every day to read
the Wall Street Journal before a (presumably solitary) 6am breakfast.
Fourth, an extraordinarily large percentage of US commercials are now
for embarrassing medical conditions requiring the use of cure-all patent
medicines. But the fifth thing I discovered was a new creative impetus
within the New York advertising scene.
In the past, it would have been easy to trot out a glib answer to the
question ’Whatsamatta with New York advertising?’. This is because the
city that redefined the business in the 60s also managed to define
what’s wrong with it in the 90s.
In the 60s, New York was about Doyle Dane Bernbach churning out
infectious work for VW and Avis that was less about selling and more
about building a relationship with consumers in a simple, smart and
disarmingly honest way. By the 90s, the Big Apple equalled Big
Advertising Business. Fortune 500 companies went there to find big,
serious agencies. From a creative point of view, New York fell victim to
a deadly lack of single minded-thought, a deadly emphasis on big-budget
execution over the big idea and an even deadlier assumption that the
majority of consumers are brain dead. Meanwhile, Goodby & Silverstein,
Wieden & Kennedy, Chiat Day and Fallon McElligott - founded by
risk-takers with entrepreneurial clients sharing a similar stomach for
risk - showed up the Eastern establishment by setting up shop out West
and doing original work for Anheuser-Busch, Nike, Apple and BMW.
It has been the arrival of shops like Kirshenbaum Bond & Partners,
Fallon McElligott and, more recently, Bartle Bogle Hegarty that has
started a ripple of renewed enthusiasm in the creative community in New
York. These agencies want to do good work that crosses borders. Old
rules like ’humour doesn’t travel ’ do not apply. This state of mind,
coupled with the fact that the major US groups have price/earnings
ratios that WPP can only dream of achieving (Omnicom at 48, new kid on
the block Snyder Communications at 70) means there is an advertising
buzz in the Big Apple that London, for all its creative aura, seems to
lack at present. Perhaps we’re all too busy wondering who’s going to be
bought next by those men in the monogrammed shirts?